Are Unaccompanied Alien Children Being Forced to Work in Slaughterhouses?

A lot of missing info in Labor Department complaint and press reports

By Andrew R. Arthur on November 18, 2022

On November 9—the day after the midterm elections—the Department of Labor (DoL) filed a complaint in Walsh v. Packers Sanitation Services Inc., LTD (PSSI). The accompanying press release explains that complaint was prompted by an investigation that determined “PSSI had employed at least 31 children – from 13 to 17 years of age – in hazardous occupations”. PSSI denies the allegations, and a lot of facts are missing from both the press release and the complaint – most notably the immigration statuses of those 31 children, raising the question whether unaccompanied alien children (UACs) are being released by HHS and forced to work in slaughterhouses.

Marty Walsh. The Walsh in question is Martin J. “Marty” Walsh, secretary of DoL and erstwhile mayor of Boston.  If the name sounds familiar, it may be because I referenced him in an October 27 post on the nearly 105,000 migrants released by DHS in September, when I asked:

Why would the Biden administration flout federal law to allow hundreds of thousands of aliens in?

Well, according to CNBC on October 25, U.S. Labor Secretary Marty Walsh looked at our nation’s already horrendous economic situation and concluded that “we’re going to have a bigger catastrophe if we don’t get more workers into our society and we do that by immigration.”

The Labor secretary’s portfolio may include ensuring American businesses have enough workers, but the department’s mission statement omits that duty, declaring instead that DoL’s mission is: “To foster, promote, and develop the welfare of the wage earners, job seekers, and retirees of the United States; improve working conditions; advance opportunities for profitable employment; and assure work-related benefits and rights” (emphasis added).

That earlier post continued:

Note that Walsh also complained that the federal minimum wage sits at “$7-plus”. . . .

Thanks to the law of supply and demand, flooding the U.S. labor market with cheap and largely unskilled foreign workers will depress wages, undermine opportunities for lawful job seekers, degrade working conditions, and make it impossible to “assure work-related benefits and rights”.

You don’t have to trust me — section 212(a)(5) of the INA states as much and makes the Labor secretary responsible for ensuring that none of those things comes to pass.

Cabinet officials, however, don’t make simple off-hand comments about major policy decisions. It’s hard not to view Walsh’s comments through the prism of an administration that has facilitated the illegal entry of hundreds of thousands of alien workers into the United States and assume it’s not trying to slug more cheap labor into an already teetering economy. [Emphasis added.]

Walsh v. PSSI. The complaint was filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Nebraska, the locus of at least part of the investigation and of the violations alleged therein.

I come from a family of butchers, and can assure you it is a tough business. If you are not familiar with the U.S. meat processing industry, that 61-page document will give you a primer, but I’m warning you, it’s not for the faint of heart or stomach.

The investigation began in late August and was performed by DoL’s Wage and Hour Division (WHD), which is supposed to work closely with labor investigators in DHS. As the press release explains, those WHD investigators determined that:

PSSI had employed at least 31 children – from 13 to 17 years of age – in hazardous occupations. The jobs performed by children included cleaning dangerous powered equipment during overnight shifts to fulfill sanitation contracts at JBS USA plants in Grand Island, Nebraska and Worthington, Minnesota, and at Turkey Valley Farms in Marshall, Minnesota.

Investigators also learned that several minors employed by PSSI ­– including one 13-years-old – suffered caustic chemical burns and other injuries.

Were the Workers UACs? To be clear: Nothing in the complaint or press release, and nothing in the reporting on this matter that I can find indicates that any of these child workers were unaccompanied alien children or were, in fact, aliens at all.

Here’s the thing, however.  Page 11 of the brief in Walsh v. PSSI explains: “WHD Investigators interviewed minor children before, during, and after the execution of the warrants on October 13, 2022. WHD Investigators conducted all interviews in Spanish, with Spanish-speaking investigators, as the minor children spoke Spanish.”

The ages of many of those children were verified by cross-reference to school records — including middle school documents. It’s possible there’s a large population of U.S. citizen and lawful permanent resident minors living in Nebraska and Minnesota and attending school in those states who are not at least conversant in English, but in my nearly 31 years of experience, it’s not that likely.

There is no official national language in the United States, but English is the language of everyday commerce and culture here, and most alien children and children of aliens that I have encountered (and they have been legion) speak it, albeit with varying degrees of fluency. Kids simply pick up the language in which they are immersed more quickly than adults.

That suggests that at least some if not all of the 31 children described in the complaint are recently arrived aliens. Because there is no reference to those children’s status, however, I have no idea how long they have been here, how they got here, or whether they are here legally or illegally.

One thing I do know, however, is that hundreds of thousands of UACs have entered the United States illegally since President Biden took office. Border Patrol agents apprehended 274,225 unaccompanied children who entered the United States illegally at the Southwest border between February 1, 2021 and September 30, 2022.

Under the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008 (TVPRA), DHS must transfer UACs from “non-contiguous countries” (i.e., countries other than Mexico and Canada) to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) within 72 hours, most for placement with “sponsors” in the United States.

As I recently explained, when the TVPRA was passed in FY 2009, 82 percent of all UAC apprehensions were Mexican nationals, and 17 percent were from the “Northern Triangle” countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. By FY 2014, those proportions flipped, with 23 percent of UACs coming from Mexico and 77 percent from the Northern Triangle.

Of the 274,225 UACs apprehended at the Southwest border under the Biden administration, two were from Canada and fewer than 42,500 were Mexican nationals — much less than 16 percent of the total. The remainder — nearly 232,000 children — were from “non-contiguous” countries, meaning that the vast majority were released into the United States by HHS to sponsors.

The dirty secret is that HHS does a poor job of keeping track of those children. Congressional disclosures by Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.) from March revealed that the department had lost nearly 20,000 UACs in then-recent months after they were released, and a late September report from HHS’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) blasted the department’s performance in caring for, tracking, and releasing UACs.

Most significantly, deficiencies in the search capabilities of the online management system HHS relies on for tracking and releasing those children hindered the ability of HHS case managers to determine whether potential sponsors had already sponsored other UACs.

That’s a big problem, because UACs have been released to unscrupulous sponsors and trafficked in the recent past, including to work in Dickensian conditions. Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) led the charge that uncovered the vulnerabilities in the system that allowed that to occur, but Portman will be retiring in January to make way for Sen.-elect J.D. Vance (R).

This is not a partisan issue. Someone — Vance, Republicans and Democrats from Nebraska and Minnesota, members of the Senate and House Oversight committees, the administration itself, or even better, all of them and more — need to get to the bottom of whether unaccompanied alien children are entering the United States illegally and being released to sponsors who allow or force those children to work in dangerous conditions.

However, this case and the reporting on it reek of partisanship and that makes me sick — as a father, as a citizen, as a human. The New York Times has an entire article on Walsh v. PSSI, but you know what words never appear there?  “Alien”, “noncitizen”, “migrant”, or alternatively, “citizen”.

If U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident parents are allowing 13-year-olds to work the late shift cleaning agricultural plants with caustic chemicals, that’s a problem and a lot of people beyond just PSSI should be called upon to account for their actions.

If, however, HHS is unable to properly care for and release UACs because the Biden administration has no intention, let alone a plan, to deter alien children from entering the United States illegally — and more importantly to deter their adult family members and smugglers from enabling them to do so — it’s a scandal of the highest order, and heads should roll.

Donald Trump was excoriated for the treatment of UACs on his watch, but the biggest complaint about Trump’s HHS was that it was detaining too many children because it was vetting potential sponsors too thoroughly, and therefore wasn’t releasing those kids quickly enough. I don’t remember many DoL complaints about children working with caustic chemicals between 2017 and early 2021, however.

If the allegations in DoL’s complaint are true, it is incumbent on Congress, the administration (including the immigrant-hungry Labor secretary), the courts, and the press to get to the bottom of how 31 Spanish-speaking children were working in hazardous conditions in meat-processing plants in America’s Midwest. I have my suspicions, but only they can provide the facts, and they must do so — without faction or favor.