Over the last four years, more than 200,000 unaccompanied minors have come to the United States. Most of them came from Central America, fleeing poverty and violence.
Some of these unaccompanied teens have ended up in small towns across the Midwest. A Senate investigation in 2016 found that many of these minors were vulnerable to labor trafficking, sometimes forced into unsafe working conditions in order to pay off debts from their smugglers.
In an interview for the Frontline documentary Trafficked in America, one immigrant teen described his work at an Iowa plant. “The first day that I arrived, I didn’t want to return because it was so horrible,” he said. “It was very cold. And the carts that we would take out of the cooler were heavy. The machines are very sharp and if you’re not paying attention, you put your hand in and it will cut everything.”
The Fair Labor Standards Act, a federal law passed in 1938, is meant to prevent children from working in hazardous conditions or for too many hours — regardless of their citizenship status. But labor experts say it’s difficult to know the scope of unlawful child labor in America, and even more difficult to enforce the law, because federal regulators don’t have enough resources.
To better understand the issue, we spoke with Michael Hancock, an attorney with the firm Cohen Milstein who spent 20 years at the Department of Labor. During the Obama administration, he was assistant administrator for policy at the Wage and Hour Division — the main federal office responsible for enforcing child labor laws.
“Child labor is one of those invisible problems,” Hancock said. “It’s not something that’s really obvious to the public at large. But it’s a real issue for the victims of child labor. It deprives them of an education. It puts them in harm’s way.”
See the Frontline Q&A.