The Lives of Working Immigrant Teenagers in America

Lauren Maslankowski

It’s 3 a.m. and Mateo is just arriving home from his night job at the auto body repair center. The two-room apartment he shares with his older brother is frigid cold. Gusts of January wind seep into the plywood walls like poisonous snakes, jabbing at his skin under a thin coat and an outgrown pair of jeans. He hungrily gulps down a microwaved ramen noodle soup, washes his face, and lays down next to his brother on a shared mattress. Mateo’s mind mulls over how much money he made, how much he has left before paying off debts, and what can be used for groceries, notebooks, and rent. Images of his mother back in Guatemala sneak into his mind; I hope she’s safe. He’ll be up in three hours, learning about trigonometric functions in his junior year Geometry class. 

Each year, thousands of migrant children under 18 make the treacherous journey across Central America to the U.S. border. Some are accompanied by their families, while many travel alone in search of work. Then, they are pushed into a dangerous American world and forced to illegally work impossible hours to support themselves and their families.

The average American teenager’s day consists of attending school, participating in an extracurricular activity, doing homework, working a short shift at ShopRite, then wasting time on unproductive social media. For most, this is true, but for many working immigrant teens, that daily schedule is an inviable reality. Many immigrant teenagers must sacrifice a “normal” childhood and high school experience to keep their families afloat. Thousands do not have the time or resources to receive an education.

A typical schedule for working immigrant teens includes going to school, working throughout the night, and coming back home in the morning with minimal time to get ready for school again. Not being able to have the proper time for schoolwork or sleep is detrimental to a teenager’s development and their future. Mental health is dangerously compromised from this strenuous schedule and many pediatricians have expressed concern: “They come in with a physical complaint and then we get to the bottom of it, and the bottom of it is anxiety” reports a Californian pediatrician regarding the unconsolable ailments of immigrant children. These mental health and developmental issues are a real and harmful consequence of long schedules and unlivable wages. 

One of the biggest players in an immigrant teen’s life is the stress of their current conditions. These teens may not be living in satisfactory housing or living situations. On top of this, they have the stress of school like any other teen, combined with keeping their job, and the circumstances of where their family stands in regards to their legal status. According to Professor Krista M. Perreira, Ph.D. at University of North Carolina, “…studies find a positive association between acculturative stress and a variety of internalizing behaviors, including low self-esteem, symptoms of depression, and greater suicidal alienation.” Stress leads to other mental health issues that are rooted in the circumstances put before working immigrant teenagers in America.

The task of finding a job for an asylum seeker in America is extremely challenging since employers often look for work visas and documentation when reviewing applicants. Contrary to the popular ignorant belief that people can simply “get in line” to obtain citizenship, the documentation process is not straightforward or welcoming. Specifically, under the Trump administration, this right to immigration can often be denied at the border. This can be considered extremely deadly because many immigrants are no longer looking for the American Dream; they are escaping a death sentence in their home country and seeking asylum in a supposedly safer new home.

In a series of interviews with immigrant families conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation, the difficulties of obtaining a job are explained. “The work situation is getting more difficult… if they know you don’t have documents… they start questioning why you are working there…” said a Latino parent in Chicago, Illinois. Jobs are typically dangerous and illegal for teenagers to be working because of American child labor laws. Undocumented immigrants are overrepresented in construction, manufacturing plants, and agriculture. Overall, the process of obtaining jobs for immigrant teens and their families is arduous and is constantly put at risk of injury because of the unsafe working conditions that they are thrust into with no prior experience.

These busy schedules come with countless sacrifices that people do not consider or realize. American nurse Lillian Wald’s ideas of success and personal advancement are extremely relevant to the treatment of immigrants today. Immigrants who have the most difficulty being successful, who are dehumanized at the border, who cannot afford to live another day, are not this way because of any personal moral failings, but because society has failed them. 

With an uncertain future and impossible burdens to bear at age 17, Mateo closes his eyes and quickly falls to sleep.


How you can help:

  • Donate money to The Women’s Refugee Commission, United We Dream, Immigrant Defense Project, Families For Freedom, 
  • Donate old clothes, books, blankets to Immigration Nexus
  • Call your local, state, or national representatives to let them know that you believe this to be a humanitarian issue
  • Sponsor a child with SavetheChildren