Recently, Republican Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders signed legislation giving businesses the ability to hire minors without parental permission. Earlier this month, Iowa lawmakers passed a law to roll back child labor protections. Other states are considering allowing teenagers as young as 14 to work in meatpacking plants and construction. Currently, 11 states are considering legislation to loosen restrictions around child labor.

What is the cause of this sudden interest in child labor? America’s dwindling adult labor force.

U.S. businesses have been dealing with a labor shortage for over the past decade, and it will only get worse. The answer to our labor shortages is not in child labor — it is in the president and Congress working together on immigration reform.  

Make no mistake: America’s labor shortage is well on its way to becoming a labor crisis. In 2018, there were more than 52 million adults aged 65 or older, and by 2060 that number is projected to grow to 95 million. While some older adults will work longer, the vast majority will retire. This trend, although bad, was manageable, but baby boomers began retiring at the same time of seemingly the most anti-immigrant administration in history under President Trump and a once-in-a-century pandemic.

Currently, there are nearly 10 million job openings for only 6 million unemployed individuals. In manufacturing, a shortage of 8 million people is anticipated by 2030, which could result in a revenue loss of $607 billion.

Lack of action on the obvious solution — legal immigration — has forced states to take drastic action, and nothing could be more drastic than encouraging children to essentially leave the classroom to work.

The bills are gaining traction at the same time as a rising tide of minors employed in violation of child labor laws, which have more than tripled since 2015. According to the Department of Labor, there has been a 69% increase in the use of illegal, domestic child labor since 2018. 

Among the most concerning situation, investigators from the Department of Labor found hundreds of children employed in dangerous jobs in meatpacking plants. Packers Sanitation Services paid a $1.5 million fine — the maximum amount — for employing 102 children as young as 13 to work in dangerous meatpacking facility jobs cleaning "razor-sharp saws" with "caustic chemicals." Two of those plants were in Arkansas.

Federal regulators have committed to investigating more than 600 more child labor cases per year. This rush to send children to work puts our nation’s children, who are already behind in terms of education on the world stage, at even greater risk of falling behind.   

Meanwhile, there is an untapped labor force of hundreds of thousands of adults who could provide much-needed relief to American businesses across the nation that wouldn’t force the U.S. to sacrifice one of the most vulnerable demographics. There are around 200,000 encounters with would-be immigrants at the southern border each month. While these individuals should reasonably go through a vetting process, most of the adults are available, willing and able to fill these unskilled jobs.

Beyond these, there is another immigrant population looking for a way to U.S. citizenship who have already been vetted by the U.S. government: international students. There are nearly 1 million international students currently in the U.S., with little to no prospect of obtaining a green card.  As the students grow into adults, they, too, can contribute to our economy.  

Currently, the U.S. government only issues 140,000 employment-based green cards per year. Of those 140,000, only 10,000 of them are available for unskilled jobs like the positions now being filled by our nation’s children. While some state governments appear eager to remove the children from the classroom and place them in meat packing plants, they could easily refocus that energy toward increasing the visa cap for employment-based visas — specifically for unskilled jobs.   

For current processing times, it takes an average of 2.5 years to get a worker on-site through the employment-based visa process. This involves a lengthy recruitment process through the Department of Labor, which averaged 18 months in 2022. This wait time makes it nearly untenable for a business struggling to find workers. How does a business begin to plan to make its business operable over a three-year period while they wait for the workers they need now?   

Instead of forcing state legislatures to consider ludicrous laws hampering the development of children and hampering the progress of our nation, Congress needs to increase the visa cap for unskilled jobs. It’s an easy win for both parties. The GOP gets to support American business and bolster local economies through common-sense legislation, and the Democrats get to make good on their allegedly pro-immigration platform. After all, an uneducated, overworked and ill-prepared generation of future voters isn’t what this country needs.  

While child labor is a clear step backward for our nation, immigration is a proven solution to our nation’s needs. Time and time again, immigration has closed the gaps and bolstered the strength of our nation. That source of strength should be tapped into again.  

Chris Richardson is an immigration attorney, a former U.S. diplomat and an expert on immigration policy. He is also the co-founder of Argo Visa, as well as chief operating officer and general counsel for immigration consulting firm BDV Solutions. Richardson served as a foreign service officer in Nigeria, Nicaragua, Pakistan and Spain. He was the recipient of the State Department’s Superior and Meritorious Honor Awards. Richardson resigned from the State Department in protest of President Trump’s policy dubbed the “Muslim ban” and the former president’s derogatory statements about African countries. He has advised both Democratic and Republican members of Congress and their staffers in the U.S. House and U.S. Senate on critical immigration and foreign policy issues. 

Ben McEuen is a senior immigration specialist at BDV Solutions, as well as a paralegal and Juris Doctor candidate at the University of Dayton School of Law.

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