Migrant Child Labor Debate in Congress Becomes Mired in Immigration Fight

Weeks after revelations that migrant children are being regularly exploited for cheap labor in the United States prompted bipartisan outrage and calls to action on Capitol Hill, Congress has moved no closer to addressing the issue, which has become mired in a long-running partisan war over immigration policy.

Legislation to crack down on companies’ use of child labor has gone nowhere and currently has little Republican backing, while Democrats’ efforts to increase funding for federal agencies to provide more support services to migrant children who cross the border by themselves face long odds in the House, where the G.O.P. has pledged to slash agency budgets.

At the time, Republican proposals to institute tougher vetting of adults in households sponsoring migrant children and expedite the removal of unaccompanied minors stand little chance of gaining ground in the Democratic-led Senate.

Instead, as Congress prepares to wade into a bitter debate over immigration policy in the coming days, Republicans and Democrats have retreated to their opposite corners, abandoning whatever initial hope there may have been for tackling the issue of child labor in a bipartisan way.

Republicans have pointed to exploitative conditions at companies employing migrant children, documented in an investigation by The New York Times, to justify a hard-line immigration package. The Times reported in February that as the number of children crossing the southern border alone has soared to record levels, many have taken on dangerous jobs that violate longstanding labor laws, including in factories, slaughterhouses and at construction sites.

The G.O.P.’s legislation, headed for a House vote this week, would restore a series of stringent policies championed under the Trump administration, including measures to hold migrant children in detention centers and expedite their deportation.

Democrats, desperate to avoid any appearance of aiding Republicans in their fight against Mr. Biden’s immigration policies, have quieted their criticism of the government’s handling of the situation, instead directing their anger at the companies that employ migrant children.

The result is that the political space is vanishing for any consensus in Congress on a policy solution to help protect these children from exploitation.

“I know it’s complicated, but this really needs to be about protecting kids, and not about the bigger politics of the border,” Janet Murguía, president of the Latino civil rights advocacy organization UnidosUS, said in an interview, accusing Republicans of “playing politics” and Democrats of being “skittish” in confronting the problem. “It’s a no-brainer. It should be easy to find bipartisan support on this.”

The Biden administration has taken steps to change some of its policies and practices since The Times revealed the explosion in child migrant labor. The Health and Human Services Department, which is responsible for placing unaccompanied migrant children in the care of trustworthy adults, has designated a team to support children after they leave government shelters, and is providing more children with case management and legal services. The department’s inspector general is also conducting an evaluation of the vetting system used to place migrant children in homes.

The Labor Department has begun several initiatives to enhance its enforcement of child labor laws, and Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro N. Mayorkas said last month that his department was adding a new mission to address crimes of exploitation, including a focus on migrant child labor victims.

Still, there is little sign of meaningful momentum to enact legislation that could stop the exploitation of child migrants as workers. In the opening throes of lawmakers’ outrage, Republicans and Democrats alike spoke out angrily about the issue, taking the Biden administration to task. Leading members of both parties sent rounds of letters to Cabinet secretaries demanding to know how unaccompanied minors ended up filling dangerous jobs on grueling factory shifts. Rank-and-file lawmakers drafted bipartisan legislation to raise fines against companies violating child labor laws.

But by the time Congress held its first oversight hearings on the issue last month, the subject had been subsumed into a looming fight in the House over a border security bill, and a ramped-up Republican campaign to impeach Mr. Mayorkas over the state of the southern border.

Even in a series of hearings organized expressly to address the trend of migrant child labor, Republicans have used the topic to condemn the Biden administration’s overall immigration policies.

“This is a crisis made worse by President Biden’s open-border agenda,” Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers, a Washington Republican and the chairwoman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, said last month during an oversight hearing with the inspector general of the Health and Human Services Department.

At a Senate Judiciary Committee oversight hearing, Senator Josh Hawley, Republican of Missouri, berated Mr. Mayorkas on the issue, suggesting it should cost him his job.

“You have at every stage facilitated this modern-day indentured servitude of children,” Mr. Hawley yelled. “Why should you not be impeached for this?”

At the same time, Democrats have tempered their criticism of the Biden administration for the crisis, even as some of them have continued to declare the government’s handling of the matter unacceptable. They have reserved their toughest words for Republicans, whose proposed policies they argue would worsen a humanitarian crisis.

“It is hard to take seriously the party that boasts of its concerns for exploited children while simultaneously stripping vital protections from unaccompanied children,” Representative Jerrold Nadler of New York, the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, said during the recent hearing.

He defended the administration’s handling of the matter, including its vetting of sponsors.

“Despite the fact that there have been some pretty heartbreaking stories of sponsors being traffickers or using the children to work, it’s my understanding that this past fiscal year over 85 percent of sponsors are close family members,” Mr. Nadler said during a recent Judiciary subcommittee hearing on migrant child labor.

These relatives are often uncles or cousins who the arriving children hardly know, and some of them push the minors to work hazardous jobs, The Times found in its reporting.

In the Senate, Richard J. Durbin, Democrat of Illinois and the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said last week that he was working to bring in senior officials to testify about migrant child exploitation. Mr. Durbin was one of the first Democrats to send letters to the Departments of Labor and Health and Human Services, demanding to know what steps were being taken to protect children from the conditions laid out in the Times’s reporting.

But some Democrats say that their party has been too timid in confronting the Biden administration on the crisis.

“What we see is Republicans not wanting to hold Republican administrations to account, and Democrats not wanting to hold Democratic administrations to account,” Representative Katie Porter, a California Democrat, said in an interview.

Several Democrats have sent letters to the companies named in the Times investigation, asking them what steps they have taken to ensure they do not employ minors going forward. A group of a dozen major institutional investors, including state officials from New York, Connecticut and Maine, sent their own letters, and New Mexico’s treasurer placed several of the companies on a list barring future investments. Ford said it would require staffing agencies to provide better age verification, and Ben & Jerry’s, which is facing a class-action lawsuit over the presence of young workers in its supply chain, pledged to suspend dairy farms that use child labor.

Other Democrats have held their public fire, as the companies pressure lawmakers to give them more time.

In March, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus drafted letters to send to the chief executives of companies implicated in the use of child labor, in which they said each corporation “must take necessary measures to remove child labor throughout its supply chain” and requested briefings, according to a draft shared with The New York Times. The group informed the White House that the letters were coming.

But the effort stalled as companies including PepsiCo and General Motors lobbied members of the caucus to hold off, according to two people familiar with the initiative.

The letters were never sent.

At the same time, the two parties have pursued divergent legislative paths. In late March, Representatives Hillary Scholten of Michigan, a Democrat, and Nancy Mace of South Carolina, a Republican, joined forces on a bill to increase civil penalties for individual child labor law infractions almost tenfold from their current caps of about $15,000 per routine violation. It mirrored a measure introduced several weeks earlier by Senator Brian Schatz, Democrat of Hawaii.

But since then, House Democrats have rallied around a more aggressive proposal from Representative Dan Kildee, a Michigan Democrat, that would set the maximum civil payouts even higher, and establish new criminal liabilities for companies that repeatedly flout child labor laws. No House Republicans other than Ms. Mace have signed on to the measures.

Republicans have only just begun to propose similar legislative changes. On Wednesday, Mr. Hawley introduced a measure that would impose fines of up to $100 million against violators of labor laws and $500 million against willful violators, but only for the largest corporations — those that do at least half a billion dollars in business annually.

Many other Republicans argue that going after companies is simply not a priority.

“I’m fine thinking about that, but at the end of the day, stop the magnet,” said Representative Chip Roy of Texas, a chief architect of his party’s strict border security bill, arguing that policies allowing migrant children to enter the United States were the main reason children were being put to work.

When it comes to companies exploiting children, he added, “I’m pretty sure that’s already against the law.”

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