Thursday, February 22, 2024

Right out of Dickens: Child migrants in punishing jobs across nation

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“I became, at ten years old, a little labouring hind in the service of Murdstone and Grinby.”

Thus relates David Copperfield in the Charles Dickens novel of the same name.

Of course, Dickens was a crusader against the exploitation of children. The edge is taken off the depictions of the heartless treatment of children in his fiction, though, by the funny and memorable portrayals of the malefactors; the upward trajectory of the lives of the likes of David Copperfield and Oliver Twist; and the knowledge the practices Dickens inveighed against are a thing of the past in the advanced world. 

It takes a heart of stone not to smile at the name of David’s cruel stepfather, Edward Murdstone (Mr. Murdstone to you), or the wine-bottling factory where David unhappily works, Murdstone and Grinby. 

The orphan Oliver Twist had a bad time of it in a workhouse in the town of Mudfog. Yet at least Oliver avoids the dangerous fate of getting apprenticed to the chimney sweep, Mr. Gamfield, and eventually an unexpected inheritance and a happy adoption await him.

This is all relevant today because, as a big New York Times report highlighted, we have a Dickensian border policy.

The Times details how so-called unaccompanied minors end up “in some of the most punishing jobs in the country.” The Times found “twelve-year-old roofers in Florida and Tennessee. Underage slaughterhouse workers in Delaware, Mississippi and North Carolina. Children sawing planks of wood on overnight shifts in South Dakota.”


The Times reported unaccompanied migrant minors were found doing hard labor.
REUTERS/Adrees Latif

Needless to say, J.Crew and Walmart aren’t as charming as Murdstone and Grinby, and favorable plot twists are unlikely to be written into the stories of many of the kids caught up in this child-labor maw. Most important, this isn’t happening more than 150 years ago in another country.

The upshot of the Times piece is that we have chosen to import a social problem — as if we didn’t have enough already.

The Times reports that the child-labor force has “exploded” since 2021, which, of course, coincides with the advent of President Joe Biden’s lax border policies. A quarter of a million children have entered the United States over the past two years.

For no good reason, we’ve made it difficult for ourselves to quickly send home minors coming on their own from noncontiguous countries, and thus we’ve enabled a market in child-smuggling and child labor. 

As the Times puts it: “These are not children who have stolen into the country undetected.” Caseworkers the paper interviewed estimate that two-thirds of all unaccompanied minors end up working full-time. 

This is bad for the kids, corrupting to the companies that exploit them and unhealthy for our society generally. 

The Department of Health and Human Services is in charge of sheltering the minors when they arrive, and then monitoring them upon release. It is not doing a good job, but the king’s cure would be to have better enforcement at the border and in the interior. That way, children wouldn’t be sent alone across the border in the first place, on an arduous journey with perhaps a dangerous factory job in the offing at their ultimate destination. But no one in charge ever seems to think of that. 

There are a few other things to be said about all this.


Asylum-seeking migrant children mostly from Venezuela play with the map of United States inside the Migrant Welcome Center managed by the city of El Paso and the Office of Emergency Management in El Paso, Texas, U.S., September 23, 2022.
NYT also reported child labor has exploded since 2021.
Go Nakamura for NY Post

One, it’s worth remembering that migrants are supposed to be asylum-seekers, fleeing persecution in their home countries; but almost every time the press reports in any detail on the stories of individual migrants, they prove to be economic migrants.

Two, it’s hard to believe that the availability of cheap, easily exploited illegal child labor doesn’t exert downward pressure on low-skilled wages.

Three, not to sound like a child-welfare nativist, but there are plenty of children already in the United States who desperately need the attention of caseworkers. 

Despite the Times story, the insanity at the border will continue, and we can be assured that it’s not going to produce any great literature.

Twitter: @RichLowry

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