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Stateside Podcast: Migrant Children Exploited for Labor in Michigan

Grand Rapids' skyline, including the Pearl St. bridge.
Lester Graham
Michigan Radio
The New York Times investigation found that factories in the Grand Rapids area, including auto parts suppliers and a food contractor, were illegally employing migrant children.

A new investigation from the New York Times offered a deeply disturbing picture of children, mostly teens, working hazardous jobs all across the U.S.

Reporter Hannah Dreier outlined how young migrants — many as young as 13 — who entered the country unaccompanied, are working long, dangerous hours in places like food packing facilities, construction sites, and poultry processing plants.

Some of the facilities now under investigation are in West Michigan.

Child labor laws, in theory, protect kids from unsafe and exploitative working conditions. But Ana Raquel Devereaux, managing attorney at Michigan Immigrant Rights Center (MIRC), told us many young migrant children slip through the cracks.

Although child migrants travel from all over the world, the majority come from Central America for a variety of reasons, sometimes escaping gang threats, high unemployment, or the effects of poverty, Devereaux said.

“They have to make a really dangerous journey through Central America, up through Mexico, to the border. ... There’s not options for them to, say, take a flight, which would be cheaper and safer, but that doesn’t exist for them. So they have these big debts they incur, and sometimes the debt is directly with that guide [who helps them cross the border], but usually it’s some local lender or maybe the sponsor,” Devereaux explained.

Sponsors — often immediate or distant family — take in unaccompanied minors who’ve reached the United States. But with debts from migrating and no other financial support, child migrants often take on full-time workloads on top of school.

“There are crushing needs that they face,” Devereaux said. “And [they’re] trying to, for the love of their families, help make provisions. And school is definitely one of those things that ends up suffering.”

The New York Times spoke to ESL teachers who said students rush off to work as soon as school has ended, often finding jobs in food packing, processing, or construction through third-party staffing agencies.

A Hearthside Food Solutions plant in Grand Rapids where products like Nature Valley granola bars, Lucky Charms, and Cheetos are processed, was one of several West Michigan employers named in the article.

“MIRC has particularly had a case against Hearthside. It was for an adult, but there were a number of safety standard violations that could cause injuries. But a similar pattern of using staffing agencies like this, like Hearthside was mentioned doing in the article ... as a way to avoid responsibility,” said Devereaux.

After the Times article was published on Monday, West Michigan Congresswoman Hillary Scholten called for the need for an interagency task force to protect children. She said state officials should raise penalties for companies that illegally employ children.

To hear more about the investigation and how young migrants are affected, listen to the full episode of Stateside.


  • Ana Raquel Devereaux, managing attorney with the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center

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Ellie Katz joined the Stateside team as an intern in September 2022.
Ronia Cabansag is a producer for Stateside. She comes to Michigan Public from Eastern Michigan University, where she earned a BS in Media Studies & Journalism and English Linguistics with a minor in Computer Science.
Rachel Ishikawa joined Michigan Public in 2020 as a podcast producer. She produced Kids These Days, a limited-run series that launched in the summer of 2020.