294 – Combatting Exploitative Child Labor in the U.S., with Matthew Soerens


Sandie is joined by Matthew Soerens from World Relief to discuss a recent New York Times investigation that revealed unaccompanied children arriving at U.S. borders are being exploited for labor. They discuss the findings of the report, the U.S. process to place children, and the Department of Labor’s response.

Matthew Soerens

Matthew Soerens is the US Director of Church Mobilization for World Relief, where he helps evangelical churches to understand the realities of refugees and immigration and to respond in ways guided by biblical values. He also serves as the National Coordinator for the Evangelical Immigration Table, a coalition that advocates for immigration reforms consistent with biblical values. Matthew previously served as a Department of Justice-accredited legal counselor at World Relief’s local office in Wheaton, Illinois and, before that, with World Relief’s partner organization in Managua, Nicaragua. He’s also the co-author of Seeking Refuge: On the Shores of the Global Refugee Crisis.

Key Points

  • Immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers are vulnerable to human trafficking, especially labor trafficking, because they are in a foreign country and often come with vulnerabilities.
  • The Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act provides basic protections for unaccompanied minors at the U.S. border who are identified is especially vulnerable to human trafficking.
  • Children are being exploited for labor in the U.S. through online enticement of vulnerable youth from other countries.
  • As consumers, we all have a responsibility to hold companies accountable and demand enforcement from the federal government.


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Sandra Morgan  00:00

This is episode 294, Combating Exploitative Child Labor in the U.S., with Matthew Soerens.

Production Credits  00:10

Produced by Innovate Learning, maximizing human potential.

Sandra Morgan  00:30

Welcome to the Ending Human Trafficking podcast here at Vanguard University’s Global Center for Women and Justice in Orange County, California. This is the show where we empower you to study the issues, be a voice, and make a difference in ending human trafficking. And today, I’m really happy that my friend Matthew Soerens is with us. He is the US Director of Church Mobilization and Advocacy at World Relief. He’s also part of the evangelical immigration table, and so many other things. He adjunct teaches at Wheaton, and he completed an MS in international public service at DePaul University. He is also co-author of Welcoming the Stranger, and more recently, Inalienable. And one of the things that was really important to me as I put this bio together, keeping it brief, of course, is my students here at Vanguard and when I’m at other universities, often ask me, ‘How did you become an advocate?’ And I love mentioning our guest’s paths as great examples of many options. Some people start in law enforcement, other people in psychology, sociology, but you studied international public service. And that is, I want to go back and get that degree. It sounds fascinating. What do you study?

Matthew Soerens  02:14

Yeah, I mean, I kind of joke sometimes. It was so interdisciplinary that I have a master’s degree in it and I’m not quite sure what it was. But it was a mix of nonprofit management. So I actually was already working at World Relief when I did that master’s program, along with international affairs, international relations, and some of the governmental side of public policy dynamics, and then a dynamic of cross cultural communication, as well. So bringing all those things together. And I use less of those things in my work at World Relief because we primarily serve refugees and other immigrants in our U.S. programs. And there’s lots of cross cultural dynamics there.

Sandra Morgan  02:48

Okay. So that’s where we’re gonna go now is what you’re doing here in the U.S. And there was a big report recently about children in exploitative labor. So let’s kind of back up a little bit and talk about the intersection of that exploitation and immigration generally.

Matthew Soerens  03:11

Yeah, I think sometimes people hear the term human trafficking and they think that’s sort of synonymous with human smuggling. And they sometimes think of all human trafficking victims as foreigners to the United States, which of course, is not the case. There’s many U.S. citizens who become victims of human trafficking, which legally is defined as, as when people are made to work under force, fraud, or coercion or into sex work as well. That is under force, fraud, or coercion or as minors. So smuggling and trafficking are not exactly the same thing. But you don’t have to be transported into the United States to be trafficked. And yet, they’re not unrelated either, because the people who are vulnerable enough to, first of all, to flee their countries in the first place, whether they’re fleeing threats of persecution that might qualify them for asylum under U.S. law, or just extreme poverty, which also, of course, is a huge vulnerability, they’re going to be vulnerable along that journey, they’re going to be vulnerable, even once they get into the United States. And that is why we do see that immigrants are disproportionately likely to be victims of human trafficking in the United States relative to citizens. And that’s especially true in this area of labor trafficking. So when people are made to work under situations of force, fraud, or coercion, sometimes that includes people who have to work to pay off a debt to some sort of a smuggler who was able to get them unlawfully into the United States.

Sandra Morgan  04:31

I really want to jump in here because that aspect where it feels like smuggling, because they were lured with an offer of a job, but they had to pay to be transported. So they feel complicit. They don’t say, Oh, I’m a victim. And so they don’t self identify, and the moment that it becomes human trafficking is kind of a sliding scale, it’s a little bit gray. But when they no longer have control over their own space, their decisions, they’re under control of the trafficker. It’s no longer smuggling and that debt, that was really a false fraudulent exercise to gain control over them, is why we no longer call it smuggling, we call it human trafficking. So okay, let’s jump into that report. More than 100 children illegally employed in hazardous jobs. Tell me what happened, and what’s going to happen, and what we should be watching for?

Matthew Soerens  05:51

Yeah, so this New York Times report, which is worth reading, for those who haven’t read, is basically looking at unaccompanied children. Meaning kids who were identified at the U.S. border, in this case, under the law, they were from non contiguous countries, meaning they’re not Mexicans, or Canadians. But they’re minors under the age of 18 who were processed into the United States under the terms of the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act. That’s a bill that you’re very familiar with Sandie. Goes back to 2008 and it’s in that form. And it really governs, and I should say, we think this is an important law that’s worth defending. It governs how our government treats an unaccompanied child who shows up, who’s obviously uniquely vulnerable. It says we don’t treat them the same as an adult because they’re uniquely vulnerable, because they’re children. They’re  vulnerable to traffickers on the other side of the border, or back in their country of origin, because again, the other side of the border is Mexico but these are non Mexicans, so they could be Central Americans or South Americans. And because they’re children, the U.S. government has basically said we want to take special care to ensure that while we go through the process to determine what their situation is, whether they qualify under U.S. law to stay permanently in the United States or they don’t qualify, and they will eventually be returned to their country of origin, in the interim, we want to make sure that they’re protected. That’s the intention of the law, and they very good intention. What the law says should happen is those children who are taken into custody by the department of Homeland Security, which is like the Border Patrol, are supposed to be transferred over to the custody of the Department of Health and Human Services, a different part of the federal government, within 72 hours. The Department of Health and Human Services generally works with childcare providers, mostly nonprofits. So sometimes we’ve seen for profit entities get into this government contract, as well. But mostly it’s nonprofits, and often Christian nonprofits, who their job is to care for these kids provide, them support, and then to help them find a sponsor. The sponsor often is a parent. And that’s, of course, the ideal situation. I think it gets missed that, not quite the majority of cases, but a significant minority of these unaccompanied children, the reason they wanted to go to the United States is at least one of their parents is already here. Sometimes without legal status, or sometimes with a temporary legal status like Temporary Protected Status. That means they don’t have the right to petition to have their child come and live with them through a normal immigration processes. But other times that sponsor could be a more distant relative, an uncle or aunt, a cousin, and sometimes even just a friend. And what came up in this newspaper report, which is really troubling, sometimes it’s some random person they met on the internet and who has agreed to be a sponsor. But when the child gets into that circumstance, it turns out that actually that sponsor’s primary interest is making them work in full time hours, even for kids as young as 13 or 14 years old, often in labor conditions that are jobs that our federal government appropriately requires you to be 18 to do, because they’re dangerous jobs, whether that’s meat processing or other agricultural jobs.

Sandra Morgan  08:50

So some kid meets somebody online, I mean, all of these kids seem to have a cell phone, so they have internet access. And then they just say, oh, I want to go see this guy I met in Alabama. What?

Matthew Soerens  09:05

I mean, that absolutely should not be how it works. And to be clear, I don’t think there’s evidence that that’s like the typical case, what’s the typical case is actually a parent or another close relative who has the best interest of this child at heart. But it’s not an insignificant number of cases where it’s been a more distant connection who has not had the interest of this child. And where there’s been a significant failure here is in the federal government’s responsibility to vet sponsors before they’re released to the sponsors, and there’s been very little follow up. And I think the Department of Health and Human Services would say, well, they don’t have resources to do that kind of follow up, or at least on a consistent basis. It’s maybe a phone call to the sponsor to check in. And if no one answers, that’s sometimes where that follow up stopped. And at that point, the case is turned over to the Department of Justice, which has an immigration legal hearing, so that child still has an immigration court hearing, but because you’re dealing with these different and sometimes not communicating parts of the federal government, I think that sometimes Health and Human Services is sort of seeing their job was to get this child to the sponsor. And sometimes that’s a great sponsor, but often, this reporting reveals some kids have been put in really, really harmful situations, even to those that would rise to the legal level of trafficking.

Sandra Morgan  10:19

Well, and there are so many places for this to go sideways. So you said, a 15-year-old may meet somebody online and then give that name as the sponsor. That happens. And we’ve seen that. We’ve also seen kids arrive at one of those contracted shelters and then provide a name, and then most of these shelters are not lock down facilities. We don’t lock kids up. And so they have rights. And they may go AWOL, they may run away. And so they’ve already been told, this is what’s going to happen to you and now as soon as you can run, go here, and they think they’re going to a safe place. I don’t know about you, but when my kids were 16 they didn’t have very good judgment about what was safe, and what wasn’t.

Matthew Soerens  11:16

I mean, and that’s true for your kids who presumably understood the language around them and the culture. And you add to that this dynamic of people who are in an entirely new country, who usually don’t speak English, who are, there’s so many layers of vulnerability there. And that’s where I think our government has a particular obligation to especially protect the well being of these children.

Sandra Morgan  11:40

I really did like what Secretary of Health and Human Services, Xavier Becerra said, “every child in this country, regardless of their circumstances, deserves protection and care as we would expect for our own child.” And this idea of protecting the safety and well being of unaccompanied children, there is a lot of emotion in conversations around what is happening or not happening at the border. But when it comes down to a child, somehow we have an obligation that goes beyond borders and becomes moral, and for me, a part of my faith. How do you see that?

Matthew Soerens  12:40

Yeah, absolutely. I think for me, it’s my faith in Jesus. That’s what motivates my own personal concern around this. But I think for our government as well, which may or may not be motivated by faith, but just on a basic level of humanity. These are children. And I would say that’s one reason that I think one reaction to this really troubling report from some people will be to say, well, we should undo that that framework of the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act, we shouldn’t be bringing those kids into the country in the first place, to send them back across the border to Mexico, which frankly, has happened at different points in the last few years. Or send them on a plane right back to the country they came from. Well frankly, people left because they were in really awful circumstances in other countries. And we should pause and make sure that the situation we’re sending any child to is a safe situation. So I don’t think the reaction is under the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act, I think it’s how do we have a more better checks and balances in place with that process of moving children from the care of custody of the federal government to sponsors and verifying that those are indeed safe families to live with? But to the faith question, I think, you read through the Gospels, some of Jesus’s strongest words are for those who would cause children to stumble. And he had some very strong words about putting a millstone around your neck would be better off than to cause a child to stumble. And I think that should motivate all of us as Christians. Jesus didn’t say causing a child who shares your nationality to stumble, his concerned obviously extends beyond nationalities, or legal statuses or any of those questions. I’m not dismissing, you know, we need to have immigration laws and borders are important. And we certainly can affirm all of that. But at the end of the day, you’re dealing with a child, sometimes fairly young children even. And our response to a child as a strong country with a lot of resources has to be to prioritize the well being of that child. And that doesn’t mean everybody stays in the United States long term, but it does mean we don’t so quickly send someone back to kind of take them out of our eyesight that they could be sent back to a situation in a very serious danger.

Sandra Morgan  14:43

And we protect them from being exploited. I’m thinking of some of the stories: a little Guatemalan girl. And for me, 14, 15-year-old is a child. And actually when you study brain science that 18 to 24 they’re brains aren’t done either. But coming here thinking they’re going to be safe and then finding themselves working in a chicken production factory with sharp instruments and just the foul odors. I don’t know if you’ve ever been raising chickens. I come from Central California for many years and I know that smell. And just so many of the stories in this. And tell me how you feel about the one and a half million dollars in penalties? I think it’s kind of, I feel like it’s like chump change.

Matthew Soerens  15:44

That I think speaks to, there’s blame to go around in a lot of areas for what’s happened here. I think, of course, the federal government has failed really horrifically in placing some children in the wrong places, or pressuring the organizations that are caring for them to move them on too quickly without appropriate care. But also, there’s a huge failure in that there are companies willing to employ 13, 14, 15-year-olds. I mean, it’s really hard to imagine that they really believed, even if they had documents saying that they’re 18, that all these companies could look at that child and think that they’re 18-years-old. I mean, I think often companies, and it’s true, we have an incredible labor shortage in the United States. And I’d be all for more robust immigration policies that would give people protections as they come to work lawfully and to meet labor needs. Think that could be mutually advantageous. But I think sometimes certain companies, and certainly not all companies, but are willing to sort of look the other way as they see what this is, of course, a violation of labor laws, because their first interest is their bottom line. And sometimes you’ll have this dynamic where it’s like a temporary employment agency that is basically serving as the middleman that allows a company to say, well, we didn’t hire them, we just contracted with this company. And that temp agency, again, not every temp agency does this, but too many have. They’re basically taking on the liability for employing people in unlawful conditions, including sometimes employing children. I think there needs to be such severe penalties for that, that no company wants to risk that. Right now, it’s such minimal potential cost that they can just work that into their business operating model that you might occasionally pay a fairly minor fine in the grand scheme of things.

Sandra Morgan  17:27

And you can go online and see names, I don’t put brands on the podcast, that’s not my job. But looking at penalties for exploiting: four minors, $60,000, six minors, 94,000, 62, 30,000. And all of this, these are brands you’ll recognize. So I do think that we as consumers can ask questions and call for accountability in this. And I’m looking at the time already. I knew this was going to be a problem, Matt, because we both have a lot to say about it. But let’s look at the recommendations from Department of Labor. How did you respond to some of these, the first one being a Department of Labor led interagency task force to combat child labor exploitation?

Matthew Soerens  18:31

I think that’s a positive step, as long as that’s not sort of a stalling technique to have something to say in response to a news article. It did happen fairly quickly after this reporting. I think we as citizens need to hold the Department of Labor and the Department of Health and Human Services–and I mean, there’s different parts of the federal government that are at play here–accountable to following through. They can’t just announce we’ll have an interagency task force and then we’ve all moved past this headline news story. And the hard reality is a lot of Americans will forget about the headline. I mean, this article is a week old, and plenty of Americans already have forgotten about it. And they have moved on to the next story.

Sandra Morgan  19:09

Yes, you’re right. That frustrates me. Oh my goodness.

Matthew Soerens  19:14

And I mean, the reality is, this is a huge problem. It didn’t start yesterday, it didn’t start 10 years ago. I mean, I was living in an apartment complex 15 years ago, and I remember encountering a probably 15 or 16 year old kid who was working full time. And he didn’t come through us. And, you know, he, I think came unlawfully successfully across the border. So he was never put in the custody of the Department of Health and Human Services, but was living with an extended family member who I think cared about him but also didn’t have the resources to care for him to add an additional child to their family adequately. And he felt this obligation to his own family back in his country of origin to work. And I remember telling him you’ve got to go to school, you’ve got to stay in school. And those are not new dynamics, and of course, his employer was complicit in that as well. And I don’t know that I would say complicit is the right word, but plenty of people were benefiting from his work as consumers. And sometimes it’s easy for us to just not want to know, because it might make us have a twinge of guilt when we’re consuming that food product or going to that restaurant or whatever the case may be. And I think it’s our obligation, especially for those of us who are Christians, to not turn our eyes away to the reality of incredible exploitation of children in particular, but to be good consumers who do our homework and let companies know that we’re not willing to use our money in that way, and at the same time, hold our government accountable to genuinely protecting children and a taskforce, interagency task force could be a good first step towards that as long as they follow through, but we need to be responsible citizens to make sure that they do,

Sandra Morgan  20:44

And their their goals are to increase efforts to thoroughly vet sponsors, investigate child labor violations, and hold companies accountable. Now that accountability piece is going to be more than just what Department of Labor doesn’t have a lot of law enforcement, enforcement ability. And so any interagency task force of this nature is going to be, it’s going to need to also collaborate with local law enforcement when they get those calls, and maybe see it through the lens of a human trafficking task force. In my understanding, for child wellness, it is really important that you focus on the family around the child, whether it’s extended family, or a foster environment. But if that family isn’t supported, the child won’t be supported. And so any focus has to include that. So when you’ve been involved with World Relief, and placing these kids with extended family, what kind of support then goes to those families?

Matthew Soerens  22:08

Yeah, well, to be clear World Relief doesn’t actually place. We don’t have programs with unaccompanied children. We have peer organizations that are Christian organizations that do. Then we may end up serving some of those families with legal services or in other ways once they’re in a community. But we’ve never been involved in actually placing children with sponsors. That said, I think there is some element of post services after that child is matched with a sponsor, but it’s very limited. It’s not something that’s extended to every child in that system. Or sometimes the extent of it might be a telephone call, or to sort of check in, which is not adequate. So I think having more caseworkers. Having legal representation, I mean, the reality is these children still have to go to immigration court. And sometimes they have legal representation, but sometimes they don’t. And they have to prove that they may qualify for asylum or for some other relief under the immigration laws to allow them to stay in the United States. Because that’s another dynamic of why people don’t report situations of trafficking. Sometimes they don’t know it’s called that. Sometimes they don’t know that this isn’t sort of what they signed up for. Sometimes it’s they know something’s off, but they’re afraid they’ll be deported back to an even worse situation if they do speak up. And so being informed of what their rights under the law, even as non citizens, but they do have some rights under the United States, under our laws, and informing them of that and providing caseworkers and lawyers, and it gets really essential.

Sandra Morgan  23:28

So the vetting process, of course, these recommendations include calls for increased funding for enforcement and increased Civil Monetary Penalties. I’m all for that. But we have four minutes left and so I want to land on the last piece. We’ve been focusing here and we just had our Ensure Justice Conference, and I’ve worked with the United Nations child rights and UNICEF, and I have the most hope from the last recommendation is new training materials for unaccompanied children to know their rights. Can you speak to what that might look like?

Matthew Soerens  24:17

Yeah, I mean, I think that’s something that the nonprofits that are usually caring for kids in that interim period hopefully does to some extent already, but I think could do much more of, especially if they were equipped to do so. Again, you’re dealing with kids who are coming from a completely different cultural background with a language barrier. And frankly, many of them are coming from places where it’s pretty normal for kids to work. I mean, there’s a much larger global problem here in terms of children and exploitative labor. Many of these kids wouldn’t have felt the need to leave their home countries in the first place or sometimes been pushed out to encourage to leave by a relative if they weren’t in equally awful or even worse situations in their country of origin than these situations that some of them have ended up in the United States. But informing children and teenagers that they do have certain rights in the United States, that you’re not supposed to be required to work 40 hours a week when you’re 14 or 15-years-old, that there are safety protections if you feel unsafe, that there are processes to report that. And this goes beyond children. There’s adults who are in these circumstances as well that face some of the same cultural or language, or just legal barriers to accessing to having their rights respected. But a child adds a whole nother layer of vulnerability there. I mean, again, an American child who knows the language and the culture doesn’t usually know very much about labor law. But you take that, and add all these other layers and these kids are incredibly vulnerable. I mean, it’s just layer of layer of layer of vulnerability on top of each other. And I do hope that that training really happens and can speak up to a level of a child to help them understand and minimize and eventually end this awful practice.

Sandra Morgan  25:57

So all of these wonderful recommendations are, at this point, great ideas, but they’re not in practice. And my sense is that we as a community can amplify our voices and gain more support, perhaps, move our own congressional representatives. So what do we need to be doing as community members to see this progress?

Matthew Soerens  26:30

Yeah, I would encourage people reach out to your elected officials, especially your representatives, your senators, and to the White House, as well. And really insist that this situation is unacceptable in the United States of America. Even as we’re reading these awful reports of kids in situations of exploitative labor and even trafficking, there are other efforts to actually undo some of the protections that are in place in current law that are clearly not enough. But there’s efforts to go backwards in terms of what protections are there for unaccompanied children. So there’s a bill that would basically shut down the process of the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act, and it’s HR 29 right now in the House of Representatives. That’s a bill that we’ve been particularly concerned about at World Relief and we’ve joined other partners that work a lot on anti trafficking efforts to say we should be going in the other direction, we should be expanding protections for unaccompanied children to ensure that they’re not victims of human trafficking, or sent back to situations of violence or put into situations of exploitative labor conditions.

Sandra Morgan  27:31

So how would somebody find what bills are out there? What they should be writing, if they write a letter to their Congresswoman? What should they say?

Matthew Soerens  27:41

Yeah, some of those resources we have along with our partners at the Evangelical Immigration Table, which that’s a website I would encourage people to check out, it’s just evangelicalimmigrationtable.com. And there’s an advocacy tool there. World Relief has done some of those tools, as well. We just did this letter a few weeks ago that we have lots of of leaders sign on to specifically concerned with the rollback of trafficking protections for children in this particular bill, HR 29. The hard thing, of course, there’s always new things coming up. And that was new efforts. But the good news is you don’t have to be an expert in policy to call your members of Congress, they need to know that you care. To call and say, Hey, I’m concerned about children who have been victims of trafficking who are unaccompanied, and I want to ensure that we expand not minimize protections for those kids.

Sandra Morgan  28:30

And this is happening right now, right here in the U.S. Kids working without– And this is the other thing for me. One case, a 16-year-old trafficked to an egg laying farm in Ohio. And we kind of get this idea that this is happening in places where it’s just an unusual or whatever. But egg laying farms are all over in Ohio. So we need to be aware of this, whether we’re in California, or Ohio, or Alabama, Georgia, anywhere. And we will put links to that in our show notes. And we’ll continue this conversation, because we are not going to forget about these children. They’re the future. They come from places where we want to see the violence end in Venezuela, and many of these other places. So helping these children who will become the leaders tomorrow is part of the long game in building community and peace in our own situation right here. Matt, I could just talk to you forever. You have such a wonderful grasp of the issues and we appreciate you giving us your time today. Thank you.

Matthew Soerens  29:56

Thank you, Sandie. We so appreciate the ways we were able to partner with you all and the incredible work that you’re all doing as well.

Sandra Morgan  30:03

Well, friends, this is my first second solo podcast. Dave, shout out to you. I’m missing you. But for listeners, we invite you to take the next step and go over to the endinghumantrafficking.org website. Subscribe. If you appreciate the content, want to become a patreon subscriber, we would love to have you join us and check out the website for links from this interview and I’ll be back in two weeks.

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