The costs of exploitative labor on unaccompanied migrant children’s lives, what we can do about it

ByStephanie L. Canizales, Assistant Professor of Sociology, University of California at Merced

On Saturday, February 25, 2023, The New York Times published Hannah Dreier’s important and chilling exposé “Alone and Exploited, Migrant Children Work Brutal Jobs Across the U.S.” which tells the story of, as she puts it, “migrant children, who have been coming into the United States without their parents in record numbers” and “are ending up in some of the most punishing jobs in the country.”

As a sociologist and Los Angeles-born and -raised daughter of Salvadoran immigrants who grew up as unaccompanied teens, I have been researching the lives of immigrant youth workers in Downtown Los Angeles and surrounding neighborhoods since 2012 and have written extensively about the topic. Between 2012 and 2018, I conducted six-years of community-based, qualitative research with hundreds of unaccompanied Central American and Mexican teens who were growing up as undocumented low-wage laborers in industries like garment manufacturing, restaurant and hospitality work, construction, landscaping, and domestic work. I also interviewed 75 unaccompanied, undocumented youth workers, including those who are often excluded from conversations about immigrant teens in the U.S. like Indigenous Central Americans and young women.

In my forthcoming book, Sin Padres, Ni Papeles (Without Parents or Papers), I tell the story of a young Salvadoran man, Danilo, who arrived in Northeast Los Angeles at the age of 15 with the goal of sending money home to his mom so that he could protect his siblings from the gang violence and poverty that motivated his migration. He explained that ten years after his initial settlement, and after a series of jobs in a bakery, grocery story, party rental and catering company, he continues to work low-wage jobs to keep his siblings in school and to “keep them busy” by buying “Playstations, computers, so I could keep them home, not outside,” where they would be exposed to gang violence. This is common for undocumented low-wage workers who arrived in the U.S. as unaccompanied minors.

Despite not attending school, starting families, or owning homes in the U.S., and despite years of exploitation and abuse, these young people have grown up working so that their families can keep siblings in school, marry and raise children, build homes, and start businesses that would change their fates at home and prevent future generations of children from migrating. I write in my work about how youth’s meanings of success are not bound by educational degrees or wealth attainment, but by the ability to end the “sufrimiento” (suffering) of those they’ve left behind, regardless of how much they might face themselves.

Beyond exposing the motivations for unaccompanied youth’s labor migration and the existence of exploitative and violent labor practices that child migrants in the U.S. endure, my research with unaccompanied youth workers in Los Angeles explains how youth’s work lives, and the violence they experience at work, spills over into their non-work lives to affect their long-term well-being and mobility prospects through a process that I refer to as “work primacy.”


Work Primacy in Unaccompanied Youth Workers’ Everyday Lives

Work primacy is the idea that work conditions in the low-wage labor market and urgent financial obligations among poor and working-class individuals coalesce to make work and the workplace the central organizing institution of people’s lives. For unaccompanied, undocumented minors in the U.S., work primacy conditions youth’s educational opportunities, community participation and social ties, and family relationships, which constrains youth’s prospects for social participation and well-being as they come of age. Ultimately, the conditions youth face at work do not just matter there, but spill over into their non-work lives and, sometimes, with detrimental effects.

This was the case for Tomas and Martina. Tomas, a 20-year-old Indigenous Guatemalan man, and Martina, a 27-year-old Indigenous Guatemalan woman, each arrived as unaccompanied minors at the age of 14 and grew up as garment workers in Downtown Los Angeles.

Migrant children’s work lives impinge on their ability to attend school. When I met Tomas, he had six years of experience as a garment worker in Downtown Los Angeles. He talked with me about his regret that he was never able to attend English language school. He wanted to immediately upon arrival in Los Angeles, but it was impossible for him because “no one helped me. I had to pay rent, I had to pay [for] food. Okay, so, either I go to school, and I didn’t have the money for rent or my food, or I don’t go to school and I have money for rent and to eat.” As an unaccompanied youth worker, Tomas was responsible for his own survival. Attending school would threaten his ability to meet his everyday needs.

Martina was eventually able to enroll in English-language adult school, which she attended after her 12-hour workdays. Her enrollment was, however, short lived. She explained that, as a garment worker, “sometimes I’m so tired, I get sleepy at school. It’s true. It’s not that the teacher or what they are teaching is boring. No, I don’t see it like that. I always want to learn but because I am so tired, I get sleepy. I feel so tired. You also feel mentally exhausted. It’s 12 hours of the same sound in your mind. Then you get to class, and you still hear the same sound. You spend 12 hours [at work] then another two hours sitting [in class] aside from the 12 hours at work. If you count what time people start [work] at 6, 7, 8, 9 [AM], [and then you spend] another three hours at school. You spend 12, 13, 14, 16 hours [just] sitting.”

Becoming disconnected from school, as in Martina’s case, or never enrolling, as in Tomas’ case, affects youth’s ability to secure better work conditions or get better jobs because, as one study participant put it, “the bosses like when you speak English.”

Work primacy does not just affect school enrollment, which is where we might expect to find children of all backgrounds but affects migrant children’s health. Most evident is the effect of low-wage factory, farm, or construction work on youth’s bodies. Tomas explained that well-paid youth workers can, “go to school if you earn well [because you] work a few hours and you aren’t bien matado (translated directly as ‘really killed,’ meaning overworked). If you get sick, you can go to hospital. But if you have nothing, you earn little, and you work a lot, then no.” For Tomas, the cost of seeking medical attention is so high that he would “prefer to not even go to the hospital even if I am dying.”

Illness and injury are prevalent. So too are mental and emotional health distress associated with chronic stress exposure as youth navigate financial decisions, often related to how they will treat the illness and injury that result from the work they do. Tomas explained that when he compared his life to other youth in the U.S., unaccompanied youth workers, “feel discriminated against, like, I feel like less than them. I would look at other kids and say ‘wow, why not me?’ […] I feel like there’s no way out. I like being here, but I feel stuck. I feel less than others.” A low sense of self-esteem and hopelessness for the future can negatively impact youths’ socioemotional development and mental health across the life course.

What’s more, youth who migrate to support their left-behind families are often left with difficult decisions about prioritizing the cost of their own needs in the U.S. with the needs of their family. For Martina, the wages she earned in the garment industry were so low that she was unable to receive her younger brother when he migrated to Los Angeles some years after her migration, which caused tension within her family. She also eventually lost ties to her left-behind parents because she was unable to remit the money she promised and subsequently felt shame about having failed to keep her promise.


Restoring Children’s Humanity in Responding to Child Labor Migration

Troubling to the response to stories about migrant child workers are calls to increase securitization through harsher enforcement of laws the control movement across the U.S. southern border and those that dictate workers’ rights and workplace conditions as these calls ignore the human side of migration. While the narrative goes that desperate parents send their children, children are also active participants in decisions to migrate and efforts to care for their families and communities. That children migrate to work on behalf of adult parents, grandparents, and younger siblings as an extension of home country ideologies of collective care directly opposes the U.S. ideology of individualism and the notion that children are receptacles of adults’ care.

The aim should not be to disrupt networks and cultures of care, but to bolster them. If the U.S. is a country that cherishes childhood, we should strive to protect children by increasing opportunities for refuge from violence, poverty, and fear. That can be achieved by allowing children to migrate alongside parents. Accompanied by parents, migrant children might better approximate idealized childhoods and pathways into adulthood by entering schools rather than workplaces.

Solutions cannot be to simply crack down on immigration or labor laws. These strategies must be paired with the humane approaches that President Biden promised but failed to deliver (and recently made worse through the proposal of an asylum ban, described by Democrats as a “repackaged Trump-era” measure). Centering children’s humanity includes taking a family-centered migration policy approach that foregrounds children’s need for their parents and the buffers to exploitation, violence, and extreme hardship that parents can provide. Additionally, we might better protect child migrant laborers by expediting backlogs of work authorization requests for children seeking formal legal protections and creating avenues for immigrant youth to obtain work permits in their states.

Alongside law enforcement strategies, we might take other localized youth-centered approaches:

  • Regionally, States might invest in alternative education programs, like English-language schools, typically thought of as reserved for adults, but on which unaccompanied youth workers rely to learn English and build community. This will increase prospects of workplace advocacy and rights claims-making.
  • States might also implement social safety-net programs, like California’s Opportunities for Youth Project, that foster youth’s well-being and provide critical resources, like program navigation or mentorship in culturally responsive ways, as well as programs geared toward legal representation and counsel.
  • Locally, cities and counties might establish collaboratives, like the Los Angeles-based Unaccompanied Minors Collaborative, that bring school district officials, workers’ rights defenders, and immigrant rights advocates to the table to develop place-based models for the integration of unaccompanied minors and their families.

Unaccompanied child migration will continue and become ever more prevalent in as much as we deny families the right to migrate, the right the claim asylum and refuge in the U.S., and ignore the political, social, and economic conditions that prompt child migration to the U.S. and work primacy once there.

About the author:


Stephanie L. Canizales, PhD, is a researcher, author, and professor currently appointed to the Department of Sociology at the University of California at Merced. Stephanie’s research specializations include international migration and immigrant integration; children, youth, and families; inequality, poverty, and mobility; and race and ethnicity. She uses in-depth interviews and ethnographic research methods to understand the causes of Latin American-origin migration to the U.S. and how immigrant children, youth, and families fare once there. Born and raised in Los Angeles, California, Stephanie is the daughter of Salvadoran immigrants whose experiences growing up as unaccompanied youth in Los Angeles inform her scholarship and motivate her commitment to public sociology and scholar-advocacy.

Stephanie was formerly a Chancellor’s Postdoctoral Fellow in Sociology at the University of California at Merced (2019-2020) and an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Texas A&M University (2018-2019). She earned her PhD in Sociology from the University of Southern California (2018).


© 2023. This work is licensed under a CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 license.