Close Close Comment Creative Commons Donate Email Add Email Facebook Instagram Mastodon Facebook Messenger Mobile Nav Menu Podcast Print RSS Search Secure Twitter WhatsApp YouTube
A black-and-white illustration of a factory scene. A teenage worker stands at a conveyor belt, surrounded by adult workers.
Christie Tirado for ProPublica

Inside the Lives of Immigrant Teens Working Dangerous Night Shifts in Suburban Factories

During the day, immigrant teenagers attend high school. At night, they work in factories to pay debts to smugglers and send money to family. The authorities aren’t surprised by child labor. They’re also not doing much about it.

ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up for The Weekly Dispatch, a newsletter that spotlights wrongdoing around the country.

This story was co-published with Mother Jones and El País.

It’s a little before 6 a.m. and still dark when Garcia gets home from work this October morning. The apartment where he lives with his aunt and uncle is silent. They’ve already left for their own jobs.

After nine hours hosing down machinery at a food processing plant, Garcia is tired and hungry. But he has less than an hour to get ready for high school, where he is a junior. He quickly showers, gets dressed and reheats some leftover chicken soup for a meal he refers to as his dinner. Then he gulps down some coffee, brushes his teeth and walks outside to catch the school bus waiting near the edge of the sprawling apartment complex.

Here in the Chicago suburb of Bensenville, and in places like it throughout the country, Guatemalan teenagers like Garcia spend their days in class learning English and algebra and chemistry. At night, while their classmates sleep, they work to pay debts to smugglers and sponsors, to contribute to rent and bills, to buy groceries and sneakers, and to send money home to the parents and siblings they left behind.

They are among the tens of thousands of young people who have come to this country over the past few years, some as unaccompanied minors, others alongside a parent, amid a spike in the number of Central American migrants seeking asylum in the U.S.

Around Urbana-Champaign, the home of the University of Illinois, school district officials say children and adolescents lay shingles, wash dishes and paint off-campus university apartments. In New Bedford, Massachusetts, an indigenous Guatemalan labor leader has heard complaints from adult workers in the fish-packing industry who say they’re losing their jobs to 14-year-olds. In Ohio, teenagers work in dangerous chicken plants.

ProPublica interviewed 15 teenagers and young adults in Bensenville alone who said they work or have worked as minors inside more than two dozen factories, warehouses and food processing facilities in the Chicago suburbs, usually through temporary staffing agencies, and nearly all in situations where federal and state child labor laws would explicitly prohibit their employment.

Though most of the teens interviewed for this story are now 18, they agreed to speak on the condition that they not be fully identified and that their employers not be named because they feared losing their jobs, harming their immigration cases or facing criminal penalties.

Some began to work when they were just 13 or 14, packing the candy you find by the supermarket register, cutting the slabs of raw meat that end up in your freezer and baking, in industrial ovens, the pastries you eat with your coffee. Garcia, who is 18 now, was 15 when he got his first job at an automotive parts factory.

Like many adult workers, they often don’t even know the names of the factories where they work. They refer to them, in Spanish, by the product they make or pack or sort: “los dulces” (the candies), “los metales” (the metals) and “las mangueras” (the hoses).

The teenagers use fake IDs to get the jobs through temporary staffing agencies that recruit immigrants and, knowingly or not, accept the papers they are handed. Working overnight allows the teens to attend school during the day. But it’s a brutal trade-off. They nod off in class; many ultimately drop out. And some, like Garcia, get hurt. Their bodies bear the scars from cuts and other on-the-job injuries.

Labor advocates say they’ve long heard whispers about child labor, but whenever they try to dig deeper, nobody wants to talk. Adult factory workers at some facilities say they routinely encounter children on their shifts. And teachers say they have had students who have gotten injured at work and were too afraid of getting in trouble to seek help.

Meanwhile, the government agencies charged with enforcing child labor laws don’t look for violations, though some officials say they aren’t surprised to hear it’s happening. Instead, those agencies wait for complaints to come to them, and they almost never do.

The companies benefit from the silence. It’s an open secret no one wants exposed, least of all the teenagers doing the work.

The shadows of Guatemalan teenagers as they pose for a group photo at a recent weekend soccer game. (Sebastián Hidalgo for ProPublica)

Before they disappeared into crowded assembly lines, the young Guatemalan immigrants in Bensenville arrived in the United States as part of a new wave of young Central American asylum-seekers who have captured the nation’s attention in recent years.

Many of them passed through the federal network of shelters for unaccompanied immigrant minors that came under scrutiny in 2018 during the Trump administration’s policy of separating children from their parents. As they waited weeks or months to be released to sponsors, they grew anxious about their mounting immigration debts, desperate to get out and work so their relatives back home didn’t suffer the consequences of a loan default.

“Honestly, I think almost everyone in the system knows that most of the teens are coming to work and send money back home,” said Maria Woltjen, executive director and founder of the Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights, a national organization that advocates for immigrant children in court. “They want to help their parents.”

But whether they stayed in a shelter in Florida or California or Illinois, the teens heard similar warnings from the staff: They had to enroll in school and stay out of trouble. The immigration judges who would decide their cases, they were told, didn’t want to hear that they were working.

“They would ask you: ‘Who are you going to live with? Is he going to support you financially?’” said one 19-year-old who spent nearly six months at a shelter in New York before a family friend in Bensenville agreed to take him in. “And you say yes. ‘Are they going to be responsible for you?’ And you say yes. ‘Are they going to take you to school?’ And you say yes.”

Garcia heard this, too, at the shelter in Arizona where he spent about six weeks after letting himself get caught by agents at the U.S.-Mexico border. He knew he wasn’t supposed to work, but he also knew he had no choice. “I had nobody here who could support me,” he said.

He was 15 and he had debts to pay, starting with the roughly $3,000 he owed for the “coyote” who guided him across Mexico from Guatemala. To finance the trip, his parents had taken out a bank loan, using their house as collateral. If he didn’t repay it, the family could lose its home.

Garcia made the trek north in the spring of 2018 to escape the street gangs and poverty of Huehuetenango, the capital city of the western state of the same name.

A slender, shy boy with an easy smile, Garcia didn’t like to imagine his future in Guatemala. Other boys his age had already quit school, unable to afford the fees, and worked full time. Even if Garcia finished high school, he’d likely work in construction for the rest of his life, like his father. On weekends and during breaks from school, he had a job as a bricklayer’s assistant. He could earn about 350 quetzales, or around $45 in today’s dollars, for six days of work . It wasn’t much, but usually enough to cover school fees and books. His parents couldn’t always afford to help.

“You feel guilty about it,” said his mother, Juana, a restaurant cook in Huehuetenango who irons clothes and washes laundry on the side for extra money. “How I wish I had a job that paid me enough so that I could fulfill my children’s dreams, so they can get an education and a good career. But no matter how much you do, you just never make enough money here to help them get ahead.”

For years, children and families had been fleeing Guatemala’s impoverished highlands as word spread that it was easy for minors — or adults accompanied by a child — to get into the U.S. and seek asylum. From 2012 to last year, the number of Guatemalans apprehended at the border jumped from some 34,000 to more than 264,000, according to federal reports. Of those apprehended last year, about 80% were families or children traveling alone.

The other teenagers who would eventually settle in Bensenville left for all sorts of reasons: One said his father beat him when he drank, burned his hand against a hot motorcycle engine, then threw him out of the house; another said he feared being physically attacked because he is gay; others said they came to join parents who’d immigrated years before.

For Garcia, immigrating meant the possibility of safety, a high school diploma and perhaps even attending college and studying to become an architect, all while earning dollars to send home to his family. He told his parents he wanted to come. His mother pleaded with Garcia, the youngest of three, not to leave her side. But his father, who’d spent some time in the U.S. when Garcia was much younger, said he could go.

The journey can be traumatic, even violent. But Garcia made it unscathed as he rode buses and walked long stretches through Mexico. Within days of turning himself into agents at the border, he had arrived at the shelter in Phoenix where staff verified his relationship with a maternal aunt in Bensenville who had agreed to receive him. Through Garcia, his aunt declined to speak with ProPublica for this story.

Sponsors are supposed to guarantee they can care for the children, including providing financial support and appropriate living arrangements, according to the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement, which oversees the shelter program. They usually must pay for the minors’ travel from the shelters to their homes. They are not allowed to require a child to work to repay his or his family’s debt, or charge for room and board.

Shelter staff are supposed to call to check on the children 30 days after their release to ensure they are still living their sponsor, safe, in school and aware of coming court dates. The monitoring typically ends there.

But sponsors, particularly those who are not immediate family, often ask minors to repay them for the travel costs, plus a share of rent and other bills. Sometimes they charge an additional fee that can run $500 or more. For the teens, it’s a fair exchange; they can see that their relatives are scraping by, often in cramped housing and working multiple jobs.

Garcia’s aunt, who had immigrated years earlier with her family, was reluctant to take him in. “It’s too hard here,” Juana recalled her sister’s explanation. “You have to work so much here, and there are so many challenges, and he is far too young.” At Garcia’s insistence, his mother asked again. “I don’t have anybody else to turn to but you,” she implored. “Please help us so that he can be there and with his own family.”

Eventually her sister relented, but she made clear that she couldn’t afford another mouth to feed. Her own remittances were already supporting Garcia’s grandmother back home. If he came, Garcia would have to work to pay his share of the expenses. He readily agreed.

A black-and-white illustration of nuts and bolts.
Gaby Hurtado-Ramos for ProPublica

Within a week of arriving, Garcia accompanied his aunt and uncle to the factory where they worked making auto parts. He got hired on a 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. shift, cleaning newly made screws and bolts with an air blow gun. Workers wore safety goggles to protect their eyes from the shards of metal that blew in their faces. It was a dirty job. “I didn’t like it, working with so many oily parts,” he recalled. “And it was dangerous.”

Garcia was not directly employed by the factory. Instead, he got the job through an “oficina,” the word Spanish-speaking immigrants use to describe the dozens of temporary staffing agencies that employ hundreds of thousands of workers in Illinois. In some cases, the teens interviewed by ProPublica — all but one of them male — say they don’t even know the name of the staffing agency that employs them; it’s just the place where someone told them they could find work.

In recent decades, American factories have increasingly turned to temp agencies to fill their jobs. The agencies offer staffing flexibility and can help shield companies from legal issues surrounding employees’ questionable immigration status or workers’ compensation claims because they are the direct employer. ProPublica has reported extensively on injuries and exploitation tied to temp work. Some agencies actively recruit immigrants; over the past few months, at least two temp agencies dotted the Bensenville apartment complex with lawn signs advertising jobs, including one that offered a $200 bonus after four weeks of work.

By the teenagers’ accounts, age rarely seems to come up when they try to get hired.

Ramos was 14 and had just finished eighth grade when he got his first job in the summer of 2018. He didn’t feel the same pressure as some of the other teens at the apartment complex to pay off immigration debts or help with the rent. That’s because he had come with his mother and younger siblings the previous fall to join their father, who had immigrated to the U.S. years earlier.

But at night, Ramos saw his father return home from work exhausted after back-to-back shifts at two factories. “Even on the weekends he was tired. He was always sleeping,” said Ramos, a wiry teen with curly hair. “I told him I wanted to help out. He’d say: ‘No. I want you to study.’ But I kept insisting.”

One afternoon as he walked home from the bus stop after summer school, Ramos got a call from another boy who lived at the apartment complex about job openings at a candy packaging plant. “I came running home and told my mom,” he recalled. “She gave me the OK and packed me a lunch.”

Within an hour, he was learning handwashing and hairnet protocols at the plant. He began working that day, grabbing boxes of packaged sour candies as they whipped down an assembly line and stacking them onto wooden pallets.

No one asked his age, he said. “They asked if I was in school,” Ramos recalled. “I said yes. And they said that’s good.”

Just two of the 15 young people interviewed for this story said their age had ever interfered with their attempts to get hired, and even then, they ultimately found jobs.

One teen said an older cousin took him to a temp agency office shortly after he arrived from Guatemala in 2014. He was 15, but his ID said he was 21. It did not convince agency staff. His cousin stepped in and implored: “You know why we come to this country. ... We come here to work.” The agency, the teen said, placed him in a factory job.

Another adolescent, Miguel, was also 15 when he tried to get a job using an ID that said he was 19. He said employees at the agency scoffed: “They saw how short I was and my little boy’s face and told me I can’t work.” Dejected, Miguel returned to the complex and told a friend what had happened. The boy, who was 14, said there were openings at the metal recycling facility where he worked with his mother. Within days, Miguel had a job there.

A black-and-white illustration of a factory scene. A supervisor reviews a teenage worker’s ID.
Gaby Hurtado-Ramos for ProPublica

At his age, Miguel should have been in school, though he wouldn’t enroll for several more months. Federal law limits children of this age to working a maximum of three hours on school days and eight hours on Saturdays or Sundays, and it prohibits them from working overnight. There are also strict limits on the type of work children who are 14 or 15 can perform; employment in a metal recycling facility is not permitted, for instance. And yet there he was, working 12-hour, overnight shifts, often six days a week.

Mark Denzler, president and CEO of the Illinois Manufacturers’ Association, said in a statement that staffing agencies are considered the employer of record and “are required by law to properly vet job candidates including verification for employment.” He said his group “strongly encourages all manufacturers and employers to abide by all federal and state laws especially as it applies to child labor laws. We do not condone violations of these laws.”

Dan Shomon, a lobbyist for the Staffing Services Association of Illinois, which represents some staffing agencies, declined to speak about how agencies ensure their workers aren’t underage but said the companies he works with “follow dozens and hundreds” of federal and state regulations.

“Our goal as an association is to get people to work and treat people well because that makes us good employers and we need to find people all the time,” he said. “So it doesn’t benefit us to be a shoddy employer but a good employer.”

Miguel had no complaints about the metal recycling facility; he was grateful to have the job. But it was hard work, scrubbing scraps of metal in hot cleaning chemicals. Sometimes, chemicals splashed on him and burned his forearms. He said he got used to it. “Every day, different kinds of metal would come in,” said Miguel, who is now 18 and a high school senior. “You had to scrub them hard. The boss yelled a lot if you didn’t do it right. ... Within a week, I got the hang of it.”

Until this summer, when they moved to a larger rental home, Miguel and his father lived for almost three years in a two-bedroom apartment at the Bensenville complex along with 11 other relatives and family friends, sharing expenses to save money. Miguel and his father slept on blankets on the living room floor, alongside two other men and their small children. Sometimes, he’d awaken to see cockroaches scurrying by.

“The truth is, it was rough to see the kids like that, sleeping on the floor,” said Miguel, a laid-back teen with a pierced ear, tattoos and dreams of becoming a professional soccer player. “I thought, well, I’m old now, I can get used to this. But not them.”

While his father took care of the rent and other bills, Miguel sent most of the $600 or so he made each week to his mother and three sisters in Guatemala. He thought most often of his youngest sister, just 6 now, when he sent the money.

“I want my little sister to go to school, to get a diploma one day,” he said. “I don’t want her to go through what I have.”

A black-and-white illustration of three factory scenes. Each scene shows a pair of hands at work. Left: scrubbing metal; middle: carrying a tray of candy; right: packaging meat.
Gaby Hurtado-Ramos for ProPublica

A cluster of three-story brick buildings near an industrial zone and golf course, the Bensenville apartment complex houses so many people from the same region of Guatemala that some residents call it “Little Huehue,” for Huehuetenango.

Waves of immigrants have joined friends and relatives who told them that it was a convenient place to live to find factory and warehouse work. A few blocks away sits a strip mall with a Guatemalan restaurant, stores that offer currency exchange and parcel delivery services, and a temporary staffing agency.

The largely self-contained world of the apartment complex feeds into a school district in Elmhurst, a more affluent city just south of Bensenville. York Community High School can be a culture shock for the teens: Almost three-quarters of the students are white, and just 5% study English as a second language.

Miguel and the others got lost in the massive brick school building, which is unlike anything they had seen back home. And unlike the complex or factories where most everybody speaks Spanish, here they struggled to make sense of what was being said in English. They stuck together, rarely interacting with the white, non-Latino students with whom they took few classes, or even other more Americanized Latino students.

In some ways, Miguel is one of the lucky Guatemalan students at York because his father can support him financially, allowing him to take fewer or shorter shifts during the school year to focus on his studies and even play for the soccer team. This fall he stopped working to try to improve his grades. But there have been periods when he’s had to prioritize work.

He stopped attending classes for several weeks last year when he thought his mother might need expensive medical treatment in Guatemala, and again when his father wound up briefly detained in immigration custody. At those times, he worked back-to-back shifts to earn additional money, he said.

Something similar happened to Ramos. This spring, when the coronavirus pandemic shut down the factory where his father worked, Ramos became the household’s sole breadwinner for a few months, working at a plant that packages meat. When school started again this fall, he switched to a part-time shift at a book packaging facility; his 15-year-old sister recently joined him.

Their mother, Lucy, said she is grateful for the money they bring in but reminds them that she wants them to get an education. When she was a child, growing up in Guatemala, she couldn’t attend school herself because she had to work as a farmhand. Her children are now teaching her to write her name and basic math. “They are my treasures,” Lucy said. “I want them to study so they can get ahead in life.”

Garcia, on the other hand, has always had to prioritize work because he has to pay his own way. After a month at the auto parts factory, he found a new job cleaning food-processing machinery where he could work a shorter shift, typically 8 p.m. to 5:30 a.m. But once he enrolled in school, he slept just three, maybe four hours each afternoon.

He couldn’t stay awake in class. Most teachers were understanding, he said, but one teacher’s reprimands still bother him. Garcia tried to explain to the teacher, in his limited English, why he was so tired. “That’s not my problem,” he remembers her saying. “I don’t know why you’re working and not focusing on school.”

Figuring out how to respond to these students’ needs has been a challenge, said Lorenzo Rubio, who heads York’s world language department. And it’s not just because the students are exhausted; many have significant gaps in their education, meaning they are further behind their classmates in core subjects like math and science.

When Rubio started his teaching career at York nine years ago, there was just one recently arrived Guatemalan student in the school’s English learners, or EL, program, he recalled. As immigration from Central America surged, the number of Guatemalan students at York increased “to eight, then 15, then 30,” Rubio said. Last school year, 79 Guatemalan-born students were registered at York, according to state records.

Lorenzo Rubio, the head of York Community High School’s world language department. (Sebastián Hidalgo for ProPublica)

In response to the influx, York expanded its EL program and hired more teachers, including some who now help teach popular electives like auto mechanics. That makes it easier for the Guatemalan students to take a greater variety of classes and meet students outside the program.

Still, only 57% of students learning English at York graduate within four years, according to state records from the 2018-2019 school year. Where York struggles most is addressing the needs of the students who work overnight, Rubio said.

Educators in several nearby districts say that they, too, are adapting to an influx of recent Central American arrivals who work overnight shifts in factories, restaurants and hotels. At Fenton High School, just a few miles from York, most of the 80 or so students learning English are from Guatemala and perhaps half work in factories, said Michelle Rodriguez, who coordinates the English as a second language program.

Now that her school has shifted to remote learning in response to the coronavirus pandemic, Rodriguez sometimes sees students log in from factory breakrooms. She said it’s been hard to keep them engaged online. But even before the pandemic, she knew many students were tempted to quit school to work full time. “We have, say, three years with the student,” she said. “Let’s try to make it that in these three years we give them the best education that we can.”

The teens can be reluctant to talk about work, even to the adults at school they trust. Becky Morales, an EL teacher at York, is one of those adults. When in-person classes were held before the pandemic, she would allow students to nap during lunch if they stayed awake during math or science. “If you don’t have the basics of food and sleep and if you’re not loved,” she said, “you’re not going to be able to learn anything.” (Classes have been held in person intermittently this school year because of the pandemic.)

By chance one day last winter, she noticed that Garcia’s hand was swollen, wrapped in gauze and caked in dried blood. Morales pulled him aside and he told her what happened. In the middle of his shift the night before, he said, he cut a knuckle on his left hand with the high-pressure washer he used to clean machinery. A strong burst of water dug into his hand, tearing open his rubber glove and slicing the skin. He thought he could see the bone.

He said he went to a supervisor and asked to be taken to a clinic. The supervisor asked if he had a “good Social Security number,” meaning he had a work permit. “I didn’t,” Garcia said. “So they didn’t take me.” The supervisor found some gauze and wrapped his hand, and Garcia finished his shift.

At school, Morales found a first-aid kit, cleaned him up and sent him to the nurse’s office. When the nurse asked what had happened, Garcia said he’d cut himself with a kitchen knife. The nurse, he said, told him the cut was too deep to be from a knife and asked again. “After that I pretended I didn’t understand what she was saying,” Garcia said. “That I didn’t understand English.”

A black-and-white illustration of a student writing at a classroom desk, a bandaged hand resting on his lap.
Gaby Hurtado-Ramos for ProPublica

He was afraid that if he admitted he got hurt on the job, he’d get in trouble for using a fake ID or his aunt would go to jail for allowing him to work. Garcia never sought additional medical care. Almost a year later, he said the bone still feels dislocated.

Three other teens interviewed by ProPublica said they’d been injured at work. Two were already 18 when they got hurt, though both had worked since they were 16 in jobs that, under federal law, should have been off limits because they are considered hazardous. One fractured his heel when a forklift he was pulling slid over his foot at a meatpacking plant. The other cut his thumb with a knife at a packaging facility; a supervisor took him to an urgent care facility to get stitches.

Miguel cut the palm of his left hand with a sharp piece of metal at the recycling facility during a shift earlier this year, when he was 17. The wound was deep, about 2 inches across. He was scared but told nobody. Later, when he got home, he washed and bandaged the wound. The next day he wore long sleeves to work, tucking his hurt hand inside so nobody would ask questions. “What if that caused them to shut down or ask about my age?” he said. “It’s better to not say anything.”

Unlike in cases of suspected child abuse, state labor officials said they were unaware of any mandatory reporting for child labor violations. When asked if she considered reporting the incident involving Garcia to authorities, Morales paused. It’s a question she’s thought about a lot.

“That’s really hard. Who am I supposed to tell? I don’t even know,” she said. “We know they’re doing it to support themselves and don’t want them to not be able to support themselves. If I went to a student and said, ‘You need to stop working because it’s dangerous,’ he would potentially drop out of school and keep working.

“Let’s say I would make a complaint to the state of Illinois … then all these kids could lose their jobs. Then what happens? I feel like I would put them in a worse situation.”

Becky Morales, an EL teacher at York, at one of the students’ weekend soccer games. (Sebastián Hidalgo for ProPublica)

By and large, labor departments are complaint-based systems. If nobody complains, there is rarely proactive investigation or enforcement.

Federal records show child labor sanctions against just one Illinois factory over the past five years, and none involving temp agencies. And there have been no such complaints filed with the Illinois Department of Labor over the same period.

The state Labor Department conducts random audits of employers’ payroll and other records, but child labor violations are unlikely to be uncovered because the audits are based on paperwork, and minors typically use fake IDs. Department officials say staff members routinely meet with community organizations and labor advocates who have more trusting relationships with vulnerable workers to learn whether other systemic issues are occurring but aren’t being reported. But child labor in temp agencies or factories hasn’t come up in those conversations, said Yolanda Carrillo, chief legal counsel at the state Labor Department.

She and other state officials said they would take action if they knew where to look. “If you don’t know where it’s happening, who it’s happening to, anywhere to start your investigation, it’s hard to be able to tackle the issue as a whole,” Carrillo said. “And it’s not for a lack of willingness.”

Similarly, Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul, whose office has a workplace rights bureau and has brought several lawsuits against temp agencies in recent years, said in a statement that his office was willing to “act expeditiously” in partnership with other agencies to ensure the safety of children and businesses’ compliance with child labor laws. But the office has never received a complaint.

One possible reason the issue hasn’t surfaced is that the Guatemalan youths came to the U.S. recently and are disconnected from the organizations that traditionally serve Spanish-speaking immigrants, most of whom are Mexican. Guatemalans who primarily speak one of the country’s many indigenous Mayan languages are even more isolated.

Still, Carrillo — like nearly every labor advocate, researcher, consular official, immigration attorney and others interviewed for this story — was not surprised to learn about the experiences of the young Guatemalans. Before joining the Labor Department last year, she’d worked for legal organizations that serve low-wage workers, including immigrants, on labor-related issues.

“It’s not shocking to me,” Carrillo said. “The problem is people don’t share. You [as a reporter] may be able to go into a conversation and have people share information with you. … I’m not saying it’s impossible, but it’s a lot harder for an agency to go in and have people share information.”

But there have been clues in recent years that children and adolescents are working in suburban Chicago factories.

Last month, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Chicago charged a Guatemalan couple in Aurora, another western suburb, with forced labor for allegedly making a girl, who was either 16 or 17, work to pay off smuggling debts, according to the indictment. At least one of the jobs, obtained through a staffing agency, was at a factory and required her to be 18.

And in a case that generated publicity last year, authorities found a 15-year-old Guatemalan girl working through a staffing agency at a food-processing facility in Romeoville, also in the western suburbs. She was among more than two dozen people living in the home of a woman to whom they allegedly owed immigration debts, in addition to rent and other expenses. The woman has since pleaded guilty to federal forced labor and other charges and is awaiting sentencing.

In neither case did the authorities prosecute the staffing agencies that employed the minors or the factories that, knowingly or not, benefited from their labor. A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office declined to comment as the cases remain ongoing.

Those cases focused on the individuals involved and not the broader system that allows child labor to be used. It’s a similar approach when labor departments do proactive child labor investigations, said Janice Fine, a labor professor and researcher at Rutgers who recently surveyed state labor departments about how they enforce labor law. (Illinois was not part of this survey.)

A black-and-white illustration of a teenager walking from a factory job at night to school in the morning. The composition is split in half: black background on the left, white background on the right.
Gaby Hurtado-Ramos for ProPublica

The strategy commonly employed to respond to child labor — investigators doing sweeps at businesses where minors were likely to be employed, like carnivals in the summertime or restaurants — isn’t an effective long-term fix, she said.

“They’re not thinking, ‘What’s driving child labor and how do we take a systemic approach to taking it on and figure out in this industry what’s driving it, who are the key actors, who are the key employers and what kinds of employment arrangements are they taking advantage of to engage in this kind of activity?’” Fine said. “The question of how do you actually make it a long-term structural shift is what they’re not solving for.”

The problem is larger than the question of enforcement; it’s a reflection of the intractable poverty in the countries that send migrants of all ages here and the pull of an American labor market eager to hire them.

“The bottom line is if you interfere with the situation, that child is still going to work,” said Woltjen of the Young Center. “If something happens and he gets scared that he’s going to be turned over to the authorities, he’s going to run and he’s not going to come back to school and he’s still going to work.”

Over the 17 years she has worked with unaccompanied immigrant children, she and her staff have seen many minors from China to Central America who arrive in this country with a personal sense of duty to work to repay their smuggling debts and send home remittances. “They’re determined to do it,” she said.

The young people in Bensenville do not feel exploited. They are not asking to be rescued. They want to keep working to help their families in Guatemala and contribute to the households where they live.

“For those of us from countries where there is more poverty, there is a stronger need to work,” Garcia said. “You don’t have a choice, between just going to school or just working. So we have to do both. Back home, other kids quit school altogether.”

At least here, he said, he is getting an education.

Billy A. Muñoz Miranda, the consul general for Guatemala in Chicago, knows what’s happening with his young compatriots in Bensenville and across the country. In a previous stint as the consul in Southern California, he said, he knew of teens who worked late-night shifts at restaurants and factories, then showed up to school only to fall asleep in class.

As a consular official, he is responsible for protecting Guatemalans here, and he doesn’t believe minors should be working factory jobs, earning minimum wages, in sometimes dangerous conditions. But no one has ever complained to the consulate about the practice, he said, including the teenagers and their families. “They don’t see this as a crime,” he said. “They see this as a source of income.”

On a personal level, he admires how hard they work. “Thanks to their labor and work and efforts they are giving stability and social peace for Guatemala,” he said. “And without us knowing it they have sacrificed their childhoods for that.”

Bensenville teens play soccer on the weekends. Some come before and after factory shifts. (Sebastián Hidalgo for ProPublica)

When you talk to the young men who live at the apartment complex, they sound like adults. Responsible. Matter of fact. Stoic. But there are moments that remind you that they are still boys. They say they miss their mothers. They play video games on their cellphones. And, almost without exception, they adore soccer, the Barcelona “futbol” club and superstar Lionel Messi.

Few of them could imagine playing for the team at York; with school and work, they have no time for extracurricular activities. But on a cold, rainy Sunday morning in September, about a dozen gathered for a game at a park not far from the apartment complex. Several had clocked out of their factory jobs only a few hours earlier. Yet they seemed full of energy. They laughed, teased each other and passed a ball around as they warmed up.

Morales, the York teacher, stood on the sidelines, wet and shivering. She started organizing these games last fall to connect with her students and create an opportunity for them to have fun outside of work and school. She calls them “mis hijitos,” or “my little sons,” and takes her own children to the weekend games or on the visits she makes to the complex to deliver groceries from the local food pantry. At the games, she makes a point to call out each boy’s name at least once.

The games reflect the two worlds the boys inhabit, one by day and the other at night. Sometimes, they might play against the men they work alongside on factory floors. Other days they face a suburban high school soccer team. It’s uncertain where they will ultimately land: growing into adulthood and continuing to work in the factories, or finishing school and going to college.

Several of the Guatemalan teens say they’d like to attend college one day, but few have any clear sense of how that might happen. Their future in this country is uncertain. Most have already been waiting for years as their asylum cases play out in a massively backlogged court system. Their cases have seen additional delays with shifting federal priorities, the retirements of judges and, now, the coronavirus pandemic. They know they may be deported one day.

Garcia doesn’t like to imagine a life back in Guatemala. “Life is a little harder there,” he said. “Sometimes there’s work. Sometimes there isn’t.”

He said he would like to go to college here in the U.S. He’s been drawn to architecture since he was a boy in Guatemala, because of a cousin back home who works in that field. “I’ve always liked to draw,” he said, “and I’m good at math.” He doesn’t know how he’d pay tuition. He’s seen friends graduate from high school and say they’ll work a factory job for a year or two to save money and enroll in college. “Not a lot of them are able to do it,” he said. “They stay working in a factory.”

Garcia said he’d rather try to get scholarships, whether through joining the military or getting his grades up and qualifying for merit aid. For most of his time here, his work schedule has made learning and staying focused on class nearly impossible, and his grades have suffered. Earlier this year, he left the factory job and tried working fewer hours at a restaurant so he’d have more time to sleep. But when the pandemic struck this spring, the restaurant closed. At the same time, York shifted to remote learning and shorter school days. Garcia couldn’t take advantage of the extra time to study; he needed money.

He returned to the overnight shift.

A black-and-white illustration of a factory at night, the windows lit up against a black sky.
Gaby Hurtado-Ramos for ProPublica

Latest Stories from ProPublica

Current site Current page