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Local leaders vow action after report finds child labor violations affecting Grand Rapids kids

Grand Rapids skyline, including the Blue Bridge.
Lester Graham
Michigan Radio

Community leaders in Grand Rapids vowed action Monday, after an investigation by theNew York Times revealed children in the area working long hours in local factories, in violation of child labor laws.

The children arrived in Michigan as part of a refugee resettlement program, meant to find homes for the thousands of unaccompanied minors from Central America who’ve been arriving in waves at the southern border of the U.S. But after placing them in homes in Michigan and elsewhere, the federal agency responsible for the refugee resettlement program often lost track of the children, and many ended up working in unsafe jobs, for longer hours than federal labor laws allow, the investigation found.

“It’s not that we want to be working these jobs. It’s that we have to help our families,” said Kevin Tomas, who started working at factories in Michigan at the age of 13, according to the Times.

GRPS responds

The Times reported it spoke to 100 migrant children who worked in the U.S., but much of the story focused on children living in West Michigan. That included children who attend Union High School, part of Grand Rapids Public Schools.

“The Grand Rapids Public Schools will not sit idly on concerns like this in our community.”
Leadriane Roby, superintendent of Grand Rapids Public Schools

“I was alarmed and dismayed at the allegations surrounding the mistreatment of some of our scholars mentioned in the article,” GRPS superintendent Leadriane Roby said in a statement.

“The Grand Rapids Public Schools will not sit idly on concerns like this in our community,” Roby’s statement continued. “We are also connecting with GRPS families who may find themselves susceptible to the conditions mentioned in the article to ensure they have the support they need to protect our children.”

Aaron Roussey, principal of Union High School, told Michigan Radio he couldn’t comment on the specifics of the Times’ investigation, or any of the students mentioned. But he said many newly-arrived immigrant children are educated under the school’s “Newcomers program."

“It is very unique when you get a 16-year-old who comes in from another country and the state looks at it as you have just a couple of years to finish high school. And yet you also have to acquire the language,” Roussey said.

“So our kids are put under, I think, a lot of pressure and stress to not only figure out the American culture, but at the same time focus on education.”

The pressure to work

The federal government reportsmore than 200,000 children have been processed through its unaccompanied children program since October of 2018. The children are usually turned over to the custody of the Department of Health and Human Services after crossing the border. HHS then tries to release the children to a sponsor living in the United States. Those sponsors are often relatives.

But the children also may arrive in the U.S. with substantial debts, said Ana Raquel Devereaux, managing attorney with the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center. Devereaux was a guest Monday on Michigan Radio's Stateside.

Deveraux said the children or their families may have paid for a guide to help them cross the border. Or their families simply need money.

“Once the children are released to sponsors, there really are no supports for them at all,” Devereaux said of the children.

That forces them to seek out work in the United States, even if they’re underage.

“I’d say for the children released to sponsors, it’s a pretty high percentage that at some point will work, just because there are no other supports for them.”

Calls for federal action

"I wouldn’t walk away from my own children in these factories. And I sure as hell am not going to walk away from someone else’s children."
Hillary Scholten, Democratic Congresswoman from Grand Rapids

Democratic Congresswoman Hillary Scholten, who represents Grand Rapids, and who formerly worked at the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center as an attorney, called for the White House and members of Congress to take action to stop exploitative child labor in the U.S.

“I wouldn’t walk away from my own children in these factories. And I sure as hell am not going to walk away from someone else’s children,” Scholten said in a speech on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives. “This a multi-level, multi-system failure.”

Scholten called on the Biden administration to create a new task force with representatives from multiple federal agencies to ensure migrant children would not work under unsafe and illegal conditions. The Department of Labor announced Monday it would lead such a task force.

Scholten also said members of Congress should hold hearings to hold agencies and private companies accountable for the conditions found in the New York Times investigation.

“I will not stand by as this tragedy continues,” Scholten said. “These are my constituents. These are my kids. And I will protect them with everything I have.”

The Department of Labor announced a series of actions Monday meant to crack down on child labor in the U.S., including the task force Scholten called for. The labor department said it’s seen a 69% increase in children working illegally in the U.S. since 2018. It called on Congress to increase funding for enforcement, and to create harsher penalties for companies that violate child labor laws.

“The maximum civil money penalty under current law for a child labor violation is $15,138 per child,” the department said in an announcement about its new actions. “That’s not high enough to be a deterrent for major profitable companies.”

Meanwhile, Hearthside Food Solutions, one of the companies featured most prominently in the Times' investigation, said it was “appalled” by the reports of working conditions in its factories in West Michigan. Company leaders said they would hire an outside law firm to review employment practices. And at Union High School, principal Aaron Roussey said he’d welcome anyone in the community who wants to help students.

“We have fabulous students,” Roussey said. “I would encourage anybody who can help make decisions to better protect our kids to just get involved.”

Dustin Dwyer reports enterprise and long-form stories from Michigan Public’s West Michigan bureau. He was a fellow in the class of 2018 at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard. He’s been with Michigan Public since 2004, when he started as an intern in the newsroom.
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