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Blaze News investigates: Illegal child labor surges amid Biden admin’s border crisis
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Blaze News investigates: Illegal child labor surges amid Biden admin’s border crisis

The United States Labor Department filed a lawsuit in late March against a California poultry processor and its affiliated entities, accusing the firms of using "oppressive child labor." The newly filed lawsuit marks the latest in a long list of recent DOL investigations that have uncovered alleged illegal child labor.

About the case

The complaint, filed against L&Y Food, Moon Poultry, JRC Culinary, and the owner of the companies, Fu Qian Chen Lu, claims that the facilities hired minors to use "sharp knives" to debone raw poultry in meat coolers. Additionally, the department accused the defendants of interfering with and obstructing the DOL's Wage and Hours Division's probe.

The Labor Department stated that it found two children working at Moon Poultry's Irwindale facility who had been employed since at least October. An investigator observed one of the children on March 20 during a search of the facility, and the other child was discovered through the company's payroll system, the DOL reported.

"The goods processed in this facility up to April 19, 2024, are tainted by child labor and are now 'hot goods' under the [Fair Labor Standards Act]," the complaint read.

According to the DOL, the companies continued to ship the products despite previously agreeing to voluntarily refrain. The FLSA's "hot goods" provision prohibits businesses from shipping goods 30 days following an observed child labor violation. The court filing stated that investigators "discovered that 794 boxes of processed chicken and seven 1,500-pound bins of chicken had been removed from the Irwindale facility."

Gregory W. Patterson, a Los Angeles attorney representing the poultry facilities, claimed that the DOL planted a 17-year-old worker at the facility. The minor "gain[ed] employment with Moon Poultry under false pretenses by presenting a fake government identification" and "directed this person to work in a hazardous area of the Moon Poultry facility in Irwindale," he told the Los Angeles Times.

According to Patterson, the department planted the minor to "strengthen its negotiating hand" in a probe concerning overtime wages that allegedly were not paid to employees. He claimed the DOL sought to "attempt to force us into an early settlement of the overtime claims."

When asked whether the two children were U.S. citizens or migrants, Patterson told Blaze News that he "cannot confirm at this time." However, he noted that "in recent discussions with the DOL the allegation is one underage worker at Moon Poultry and not two."

In a statement to Blaze News, the DOL confirmed that it "found that these defendants employed children in oppressive child labor."

Patterson could not say how the falsified government identification was obtained but stated that his client used a staffing agency to hire its workers.

The DOL said that Patterson's claims that the department planted the minor worker were "baseless."

"The defense counsel's allegations are false. The Department of Labor has notified defense counsel that these claims are baseless, but he has nevertheless chosen to pursue them," the department said.

Patterson argued that the DOL "never denied with any clarity that they did not cause this person to work at Moon Poultry."

"The DOL dodged the question," Patterson wrote in an emailed statement to Blaze News. "The presentation of fake identification was precisely timed with the DOL's initiation of its overtime investigation in late January 2024. The DOL had significant information on this person very quickly and used it in the context of overtime allegations to gain leverage. When asked whether the DOL instigated the employment and presentation of fake identification, the DOL did not deny it. Instead, the DOL avoided the question by claiming it did not direct the employee to work in the hazardous area of the facility. When pressed further by noting that they had avoided the question, the DOL refused to respond further."

Patterson said that the "DOL's conduct was illegal."

"The DOL is systematically destroying businesses that pay employees bonuses based on worker output (called 'piece compensation'), and these mechanisms are how they do it," Patterson stated.

The DOL's lawsuit requests that the judge order Patterson's client to forfeit all profits earned from child labor and pay civil penalties.

Immigration crisis drives illegal child labor

The DOL has reported an increase in child labor violations, steadily increasing over the last several years. Since December, the agency has investigated 34 child labor cases involving 103 children in California alone.

Many of the children illegally employed in the country are migrants working in dangerous conditions and enduring long hours.

Over the past decade, the number of minors employed in violation of federal law has increased by roughly 316%, according to data recorded by the DOL. In fiscal year 2013, the department recorded 1,393 minors employed in violation compared to 5,792 in 2023.

The most common violations include "working longer or later than legally allowed," "driving a motor vehicle or forklift," "using meat-processing machines and vertical dough or batter mixers," and "performing jobs that are off-limits for their age," the DOL's website states.

At the same time that child labor violations have been on the rise, the number of illegal migrant encounters at the southern border has also been increasing exponentially. In fiscal year 2013, Customs and Border Protection recorded 489,498 southwest border "apprehensions" or "inadmissibles." The department recorded 2,475,669 border "encounters" in 2023, a nearly 406% increase. CBP's recorded data does not account for known and unknown gotaways who have entered the U.S. illegally and whose movements within the interior of the country are not being tracked.

Critics of the Biden administration's relaxed border policies have argued that the migrant crisis is fueling illegal child labor across the country.

Arizona state Senator Jake Hoffman (R) told Blaze News, "Child exploitation is disgusting under any circumstance. The fact that it is now on the rise in the U.S. due to Democrats' criminally negligent open-border policies should send shock waves through American culture."

"This increase in exploitative child labor simply cannot be viewed in isolation from the crisis we have on our southern border — the two are inextricably linked, and the fundamental truth is that Democrats aren't just passively encouraging the crisis, they are actively facilitating it," Hoffman stated.

The DOL told Blaze News that it "does not inquire about immigration status as part of its investigations."

"All children are protected by the child labor provisions of the Fair Labor Standards Act," the agency added.

Last month, the DOL imposed a nearly $2 million fine against Tuff Torq, a manufacturer in Morristown, Tennessee, for allegedly "employing children to operate dangerous machinery" and "requiring them to work more hours than the law allows."

NBC News reported that the 10 children illegally working at the facility were immigrants as young as 14 years old.

Ryan Pott, Tuff Torq's legal representative, claimed that the children were hired through a staffing company after providing falsified identification.

Several businesses that have recently been accused of illegally hiring underage employees claimed that the children provided fake identification, falsely stating they were adults.

Ira Mehlman, the media director for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, told Blaze News that the illegal migrant crisis is "probably the primary driver" for illegal child labor in the United States.

Criminal cartels are smuggling illegal migrants into the country not "out of the goodness of their hearts," he explained.

"If they have hearts at all, there's certainly no goodness in them. They expect to get paid. If these families had the money, they probably wouldn't be coming to the United States in the first place," Mehlman continued.

Once migrants enter the country, adults and children are expected to work off debt owed to their smugglers, he added.

"They're all pressed into the service of paying off the debts that they owe to the criminal cartels," Mehlman remarked. "It's not just child labor. Some of these kids have been pressed into sex trafficking trades, which is even worse. This is all being facilitated by the surge of illegal immigration that's being encouraged by the Biden administration."

"We are seeing things happen in the country that should more than offend us — it should appall us," he said.

In many cases, the migrants are being directed where to work by the cartels, Mehlman stated. When asked whether the federal government, the companies hiring children, or the staffing agencies are primarily responsible for the increase in child labor, Mehlman told Blaze News, "The simple answer is that they're all to blame. Every single one of them, starting from the policies of the government that allow this to be taking place."

Mehlman explained that unaccompanied minors crossing illegally into the United States are placed into the custody of the Department of Health and Human Services. The agency is responsible for finding and vetting sponsors for the children.

"These sponsors — they claim to be relatives or friends — very often turn out to be agents of the cartels themselves," he stated.

Mehlman referenced a report from the New York Times that claimed HHS "lost immediate contact with" 85,000 unaccompanied alien children. The Times report, which was based on testimony provided by HHS whistleblower Tara Lee Rodas, contended that the department could no longer contact the children after placing them with the sponsors.

"It's just an appalling number," Mehlman remarked. "It's just blatant negligence on the part of the government. If they're placing kids in the hands of so-called sponsors, they should know who these sponsors are and where these kids are, but they don't. They don't seem to care, either."

Last year, Rodas told the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration Integrity, Security, and Enforcement that she was assigned to "help the HHS Office of Refugee Resettlement reunite children with sponsors in the U.S."

"I thought I was going to help place children in loving homes," she continued. "Instead, I discovered that children are being trafficked through a sophisticated network that begins with being recruited in home country, smuggled to the U.S. border, and ends when ORR delivers a child to a Sponsors [sic] — some sponsors are criminals and traffickers and members of Transnational Criminal Organizations. Some sponsors view children as commodities and assets to be used for earning income — this is why we are witnessing an explosion of labor trafficking."

Rodas accused HHS of having a "culture of speed over safety."

The overwhelming influx of illegal immigration has pressured the federal government to push migrants through the system as quickly as possible, Mehlman noted.

Additionally, the HHS no longer requires sponsors of unaccompanied migrant minors to be U.S. citizens.

Nearly two dozen Republican attorneys general penned a letter in March to Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas, Federal Bureau of Investigation Director Christopher Wray, and HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra, slamming the "loosened vetting procedures" and demanding that the federal government "stop handing over children to 'probable traffickers.'"

Utah Attorney General Sean D. Reyes, one of the AGs to write the correspondence, said in a statement to Blaze News, “There is substantial evidence and numerous reports of unaccompanied minors being turned over to ‘sponsors’ who may be exploiting children in factories and agricultural jobs.”

According to Reyes, the ORR is “not properly vetting the ‘sponsors.’”

“Teachers, other factory workers, and NGOs have documented many instances of this human rights abuse and violation of state and federal labor laws,” Reyes stated. “The other issue is about children who are making multiple trips to the border with non-biological ‘parents’ who are adults presenting them as a whole family. This is a serious issue and just one of the many crises caused by the failed Biden border policies.”

U.S. Senator Bill Cassidy (R-La.) sent a separate letter to the Labor Department expressing his concerns about the "upward trend in exploitative child labor," which he blamed on the Biden administration's decisions to "relax[] sponsor vetting requirements." He argued that the loosened requirements put children at risk of becoming victims of forced labor and sex trafficking.

In a statement to Blaze News, Cassidy wrote, "There is more child exploitation because there are more children crossing the border. The guilt for this rise in child labor violations is directly related to the Biden administration's decision to not enforce immigration laws. Unfortunately, he is the executive. The executive is supposed to enforce the law. We need an executive who enforces the law if we are to stop child labor violations."

Neither the DOL nor HHS has responded to Cassidy's letter, his office noted.

Sponsor selection for unaccompanied minor migrants

Simon Hankinson, a senior research fellow with the Heritage Foundation's Border Security and Immigration Center, told Blaze News that once unaccompanied alien children enter the country, Customs and Border Protection places them in the custody of HHS' Office of Refugee Resettlement "even though they are not 'refugees' by any definition."

"Many are children whose parents are living illegally in the U.S. and pay smugglers to bring them over. But some are sent by their families to work for 'sponsors' in the U.S. (often themselves illegal) who farm them out for labor, including dangerous jobs and even sex work. Because they are sent to join parents, guardians, or (badly vetted) 'sponsors,' they go where those people are, which tend to be areas of high immigration, legal and illegal."

He noted that most unaccompanied minors are moved to Texas, California, Florida, New York, and New Jersey.

Immigration attorney Hector Quiroga, owner of Quiroga Law Office, told Blaze News, "We have seen an increase in the number of asylums. Many migrants look for their family or friends, and they go to where they are located in hopes of some help. This creates migration patterns within the U.S."

"HHS largely forgets" about the unaccompanied minors after they are placed with a sponsor, Hankinson said. "DHS was not prepared to be in loco parentis to the world's children."

A February report from the HHS inspector general revealed that the agency failed to conduct safety checks for 16% of children placed with sponsors.

Hankinson explained that many of the unaccompanied children coming into the country and gaining employment in hazardous positions are between the ages of 15 and 17. Others crossing the border are adults pretending to be children, he added.

"You'd be amazed how many are '17' when apprehended. With no verified ID, and with DHS having deliberately abandoned DNA testing and not doing bone-density or other methods, there is no way to be sure. This is a great way for transnational criminal organizations (gangs) like Tren de Aragua and MS-13 to bring in members," Hankinson told Blaze News.

Employers seeking to hire cheap labor look the other way when workers provide false identification and do not carefully verify the documentation, he explained.

"Everyone will pass the buck, and no one will take responsibility. But when the federal the system is overrun, mistakes will often be made, costing suffering at best, lives at worst," Hankinson said. "To prevent it, Biden should turn off the giant magnet for UACs created by a combination of Biden administration policies, sweeping judicial decisions like Flores, and illogical laws."

The Flores v. Reno Settlement Agreement established the regulations for how HHS must process unaccompanied minors, Quiroga told Blaze News.

He explained that the HHS' ORR has a particular order of preference for turning the children over to sponsors: parent, legal guardian, an adult relative, an adult individual or entity designated by the parent or legal guardian, or a licensed program. As a last resort, the child may also be placed with "an adult individual or entity seeking custody when it appears that there is no other likely alternative to long-term ORR care and custody," Quiroga stated.

Hankinson added, "The Flores settlement, by Judge Dolly Gee in California, meant that UACs had to be released before 21 days. She amended that in 2014 to include family groups with the putative child. If there is no confirmation of child's age, and no confirmation of relationship to the 'family,' and no chance of deportation, there is almost no downside, so economic migrants take the chance. Mostly they succeed, with occasional tragedies."

When it comes to businesses turning a blind eye to false identification, Quiroga noted that he has seen some instances where employers "provide and/or recommend where to go get the fake document needed."

"We have seen this not on the context of children, but undocumented workers," he clarified.

"There is an increase in the number of children working generally. Child labor in the U.S. fell to its lowest level in 2015, but ever since, the numbers have been rising. Many states have relaxed laws regulating child labor in the United States. Unaccompanied minor children are especially vulnerable to abuses," Quiroga told Blaze News. "Protections put into place to assist unaccompanied minors generally have broken down over the last years, overwhelmed as they are by more cases than they were designed to handle."

He added that the children who arrive in the U.S. without a guardian are "under intense pressure to earn money" to send money back to family, pay debt owed to sponsors for smuggling fees, or cover their living expenses.

According to Quiroga, the ORR has been struggling to keep up with the number of unaccompanied minors since 2021. As a result, "necessary safeguards are being dismantled in order to speed up the processing."

HHS stated that it could not respond to Blaze News' request for comment by the time of publication.

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Candace Hathaway

Candace Hathaway

Candace Hathaway is a staff writer for Blaze News.
@candace_phx →