Expert Commentary

How they did it: The New York Times exposes migrant child labor exploitation across 50 states

Journalist Hannah Dreier discusses her investigative series, the database of unaccompanied migrant children she created and how other journalists can use it in their own reporting.

(Courtesy of The New York Times) New York Times investigative reporter Hannah Dreier, sitting on the right, at work.

New York Times investigative reporter Hannah Dreier wanted to know what happened to the hundreds of thousands of migrant children who came to the U.S. alone in recent years through the country’s southern border. Most sought to escape extreme poverty in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.

Dreier traveled across the U.S. for almost a year, interviewing hundreds of people and gathering data and documents to determine where the federal government placed these kids and how they were faring in their new homes.

She learned two-thirds were released to relatives who are not their parents or to strangers who agreed to sponsor them. For example, in Grand Rapids, Michigan, 7% of migrant children went to live with parents, she reported in a first-person essay in March 2023.

What she also discovered: Migrant children, often expected to earn their keep and send money home, working long hours on construction sites and in factories, slaughterhouses and commercial laundromats, some of whom suffered serious injuries or died on the job.

In her five-part series, “Alone and Exploited,” Dreier demonstrates how a long chain of government failures and willful ignorance allowed this “new economy of exploitation” to grow and thrive.

“This shadow work force extends across industries in every state, flouting child labor laws that have been in place for nearly a century,” she writes in the first story in the series, published in February 2023.

“Companies ignore the young faces in their back rooms and on their factory floors. Schools often decline to report apparent labor violations, believing it will hurt children more than help. And [the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services] behaves as if the migrant children who melt unseen into the country are doing just fine.”

The series also reveals:

  • More than 250,000 migrant children arrived alone in the U.S. in 2021 and 2022, a sharp increase over prior years. As emergency shelters ran out of room, the federal government pressed case managers to work faster to place kids in private homes and loosened some restrictions to make vetting sponsors easier.
  • The U.S. government lost track of many migrant children shortly after they left the shelters. “While H.H.S. [the Department of Health and Human Services] checks on all minors by calling them a month after they begin living with their sponsors, data obtained by The Times showed that over the last two years, the agency could not reach more than 85,000 children,” Dreier writes in the first story in the series. “Overall, the agency lost immediate contact with a third of migrant children.”
  • Federal officials missed or overlooked warnings signs about child labor violations, including reports from social workers about dangerous working conditions and reports from the U.S. Department of Labor outlining evidence of child labor trafficking.
  • Private audits ordered by several big companies consistently missed child labor violations. “Children were overlooked by auditors who were moving quickly, leaving early or simply not sent to the part of the supply chain where minors were working, The Times found in audits performed at 20 production facilities used by some of the nation’s most recognizable brands,” Dreier writes in the last article in the series, published in December 2023.

Federal and state officials responded quickly to Dreier’s reporting by changing laws, strengthening programs and overhauling some federal agencies. Days after the first story ran, President Joe Biden’s administration announced a crackdown on child labor exploitation. Congress and the Department of Labor launched their own investigations.

Meanwhile, many major companies, including McDonald’s, Costco and PepsiCo, announced their own reforms aimed eliminating child labor across their supply chains, Dreier reported in February 2024.

I interviewed Dreier to learn more about her series and the database she created to ground her coverage. Dreier, who is on maternity leave, answered my five questions by email.

In the short Q&A below, she discusses the database, which contains key details the federal government collected on more than 550,000 migrant children from January 2015 through May 2023, and why The New York Times chose to make it public. Dreier also offers tips to help other journalists use the anonymized data to report on migrant children and labor issues in their states and communities.

Her responses have been lightly edited to match The Journalist’s Resource’s editorial style.

Denise-Marie Ordway: Why did you create this database and how did it help you report out the series?

Hannah Dreier: This was a story that focused on people and on-the-ground reporting, but it started with data. I started out in early 2022 with a question: What happened to the hundreds of thousands of young people who were crossing the southern border by themselves?

I knew from years of immigration reporting that some of these children ended up working industrial jobs. But little was known about the startling scope of child labor throughout the United States, or the industry and governmental failures that have allowed it to thrive.

My first, and largest, hurdle was figuring out how to find children in this hidden workforce. The government provides shelter to children when they arrive, but after releasing them to sponsors, it doesn’t track them further. To find where children were working, I had to develop a new approach to analyzing federal data.

I quickly realized that children released to distant relatives and strangers were the most likely to be put to work. So I filed multiple FOIA [Freedom of Information Act] requests with the Department of Health and Human Services — and eventually sued them in federal court. I was able to obtain ZIP code-level data showing where children had been released to these nonparent sponsors. I then overlaid this data with U.S. Census population-density data to pinpoint parts of the country with especially high concentrations of children living far from their close relatives.

The resulting database guided two years of reporting across 13 states.

The data pointed to spots I never would have thought of: Flandreau, South Dakota; Parksley, Virginia; Bozeman, Montana. I started visiting these towns for weeks at a time, embedding in schools, and accompanying families to weddings and quinceañeras. I sat in factory parking lots during the midnight shift change and waited outside day labor sites before dawn. I found town after town where migrant child labor was an open secret.

Ordway: What made you decide to make this data public? Should more journalists and news outlets do this?

Dreier: Yes! And I hope more reporters use this data to dig into migrant child labor in America.

After I wrote a Times Insider piece explaining my process for mapping migrant child labor, Congressional staffers, academics, other journalists and even Department of Labor investigators requested access to our database. As part of its commitment to exposing the full scope of child labor, The Times made this data public, along with a detailed map that outlined outcomes for more than 550,000 children over a period of eight years.

We found migrant child labor in all 50 states. It’s clear there’s more to this story than what one journalist or even a team of reporters can report.

Ordway: How do you recommend other journalists use this database?

Dreier: Journalists at different outlets around the country have already picked up on some child labor stories, and this data can help them tell new stories. For local reporters, the database provides a previously unavailable level of detail about migrant children, including where kids are coming from, how long they’re staying in government-run shelters, and what kind of relationships they have with their sponsors (if they’re being released to aunts and uncles, distant cousins, strangers, etc.).

It’s been great to see reporters starting to use the database to fuel their own reporting, including at The Cincinnati Enquirer and Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Ordway: What advice would you give other journalists who’d like to create databases for their own reporting projects?

Dreier: Though the heart of this reporting was the stories of the children themselves, I used data to add sweep and bring home to readers just how widespread this problem has become.

We found useful data everywhere. It doesn’t always take a federal lawsuit to shake it loose. We used court records from PACER [the federal Public Access to Court Electronic Records system] and state courts, as well as documents from dozens of FOIA requests to the Department of Labor and state labor agencies to hunt down outcomes the government does not track.

We built a database of migrant children killed on the job, including a 15-year-old who fell on his first day roofing and a 14-year-old who was hit by a car while delivering food.

Another database showed how rarely the government prosecuted child labor trafficking cases. I also tracked serious workplace injuries suffered by children, including crushed limbs and seared lungs.

A lot of data is sitting there for the taking, and doesn’t require submitting any requests at all. I’d encourage reporters to spend time on the websites of the agencies they’re reporting on — for me, that was OSHA [the Occupational Safety and Health Administration], DOL [the Department of Labor], HHS [the Department of Health and Human Services], SEC [the Securities and Exchange Commission], and CBP [Customs and Border Protection].

I also found it helpful to try site searches of these websites (by adding “” to Google searches for example), and to add the search term .csv or .xlsx, because some databases are posted to the site but not listed anywhere.

Ordway: When you ask government agencies for data such as this, how do you make sure you receive it in a form that you can easily use for reporting purposes?

Dreier: I always ask FOIA officers to email me records and to send data as a spreadsheet, but government offices often ignore that request.

With this project, some state agencies and police departments would send records only in hard copy or on CDs.

HHS gave us thousands of rows of data in the form of poorly rendered PDFs. We resolved this issue by scanning hundreds of pages of documents, and then using online tools to convert them to searchable text and spreadsheets.

For me, the most important thing is to get the records. From there, it’s almost always possible to find some way to make them useable … even if it ends up being a time-consuming process.

Read the stories

Alone and Exploited, Migrant Children Work Brutal Jobs Across the U.S.

As Migrant Children Were Put to Work, U.S. Ignored Warnings

The Kids on the Night Shift

Children Risk Their Lives Building America’s Roofs

They’re Paid Billions to Root Out Child Labor in the U.S. Why Do They Fail?

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