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Immigrant family advocates, West MI congresswoman call alleged exploitation of migrant children 'unacceptable'

A New York Times investigation found companies across the nation, including Hearthside Food Solutions of Grand Rapids, were violating child labor laws.

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — A food manufacturer in Grand Rapids, accused of exploiting migrant children, is now reviewing its policies.

A New York Times investigation found companies across the nation, including Hearthside Food Solutions, a maker of snack bars, cookies, cereal and more, were violating child labor laws.

Immigration family advocates and a West Michigan House Representative called the allegations unacceptable and a clear abuse of power by the companies. 

The White House also responded Monday by announcing the creation of a task force to ensure the exploitation never happens again. 

The investigation shined light on migrant children working in some of the most dangerous sites in the country including Hearthside Food Solutions. 

A 15-year-old girl, originally from Guatemala, reported working with fast moving pulleys and gears that had allegedly torn off fingers and ripped open a woman’s scalp, according to the Times. 

The food manufacturer is also accused of knowingly employing children with false identities. 

"Something as egregious and flagrant as children being forced to work in dangerous conditions can be happening right underneath our noses in Grand Rapids," said Rep. Hillary Scholten of Michigan's 3rd District.

Tracey Brame, an Associate Dean of Experiential Learning at Cooley Law School, said this is a sad example of an important issue falling through the cracks; a combination of desperation of migrant kids needing the jobs and companies needing the workers.

"Up until now some companies have found it a cost of doing business," said Brame. "If they get fined for this, they're going to pay the fine and they keep going because the benefit to them of bringing in workers has not outweighed the consequences of following the laws." 

"Children should not have to choose between health, work or education," said said Rose Mayan an Immigrant Rights Organizer with Michigan United. "They should be in schools whether they're thinking about the basic needs that should be provided like shelter, education, health. But because they're deprived of this, they have to choose work over the education which makes it really unacceptable."

In a statement on its website, Darlene Nicosia, Hearthside Food Solutions' Chief Executive Officer wrote in part: "...We are deeply concerned about the mischaracterizations of Hearthside. Hearthside's longstanding requirement is that everyone working in our production facilities must be at least 18 years old. We go to great lengths to vet our workforce and ensure they comply with local, state, and federal laws, and the agencies we partner with do so as well..."

She added she takes the allegations in the article seriously and has implemented multiple next steps including an independent third-party review of their employment practices and safety protocols.

Following the release of the New York Times article, Scholten said she reached out to the White House which announced Monday the formation of an interagency task force that will come up with solutions.

"Whether it's closer vetting of sponsors who take these migrant children on or whether it's increasing capacity for agents who can specifically go out and target and identify children who are exploited in the workplace," said Scholten.

Scholten adds she wants to make sure agencies like the Department of Labor and Health and Human Resources have the resources they need to enforce the law which may include increasing the civil penalties for violations. 

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