The Kids on the Night Shift

Teachers were used to seeing middle schoolers sleeping outside the building first thing in the morning in cars they drove without licenses after coming directly from the overnight shift. But no one could remember a student getting as badly hurt as Marcos, and they worried about who might be next. Applegate sometimes listened to a police scanner at night and wondered if the emergencies involved her students. Once, firefighters responded to a call in which a Perdue sanitation worker was hoisted 20 feet in the air by a conveyor belt. They had to take him out of the factory with a piece of machinery still attached to his body.

Many of Applegate’s students had only a few years of education. Some didn’t know that a globe represented the shape of the world. Others had never learned how to hold a pencil, or interpret a clock, or read. Lately, though, she wasn’t sure if going to school made sense for the working children who were unlikely to graduate. If they weren’t coming to class, they could at least switch to the day shift and get a good night’s sleep.

“It’s a moral dilemma because it’s not the best thing for them,” she said. “They’re not going to cut their hours, and sleep deprivation is one of the worst things you can do to your body. I question whether they should be here because they don’t really need to know geography or trigonometry.”

The native-born teenagers tended to avoid socializing with recent arrivals, but Marcos was proud that he could now often keep up in mainstream classes. Even as he succeeded in school, though, his family was sliding further toward disaster. His mother had been sick and needed surgery, but she couldn’t find a hospital that would perform the operation without being paid beforehand. The $6,000 debt was weighing on his parents, with interest mounting. Marcos’s mother told him they were eating their chickens and turkeys and sometimes selling the larger animals to turn the lights back on. “They’re doing everything they can think of, but it’s impossible because they can’t work,” he said.

After school, he returned to the trailer, which was now home to nine people. An aunt had come from Guatemala a month earlier with her 15-year-old daughter, Antonieta. His aunt had planned to work while Antonieta went to school, but they suffered a series of setbacks on their journey. Kidnappers held them hostage in Mexico and forced them to borrow from relatives to buy their freedom. They were turned back at the border and decided to cross through the desert, but his aunt fell from the border wall, shattering her leg and running up $107,000 in debt to an El Paso hospital. Now she was sleeping in the kitchen and using a walker, and instead of enrolling in ninth grade, Antonieta was looking for a job.

As Marcos walked into the kitchen, his aunt was lost in worry. “I don’t know how we’re going to get through this,” she said. Marcos nodded to her, then hurried to his bedroom and closed the door. He opened a flashcard app on his phone and started matching vocabulary words to images. The sooner he learned English, the sooner he might be useful again. He might be able to get a job at a fast-food restaurant off the highway. Until then, there was not much he could do to help anyone.

On Saturdays, much of the town went to a small shop packed with specialty groceries, medicine with Spanish labels and piñatas to withdraw their salaries and send home remittances.

The store is more than just a place to wire money. Mary Enamorado, the woman at the cash register, acts as an informal social worker and immigration advocate. This part of the Eastern Shore has no pro bono immigration lawyers, few nonprofits and no Spanish-speaking community organizations beyond churches. Enamorado helps adults navigate the paperwork to sponsor minors, welcomes children once they arrive and dispenses advice.

“So, are you working already?” she asked one of her first customers of the day, a student from Applegate’s class.

Enamorado had helped the ninth grader’s brother apply to be her sponsor. Now she noticed that the girl had the white payroll debit card used by the sanitation companies. The companies deposited a week’s pay each Friday, and workers usually withdrew it all in cash the following day. The girl told Enamorado with pride that she had gotten a job.

Enamorado sympathized with children who worked nights but thought their sponsors were akin to traffickers. She had joined the cleaning shift herself when she first arrived in Virginia from Honduras in her early 20s and knew how dangerous it could be. She had been especially disgusted by what she heard of Marcos’s case. “Making a 13-year-old go to work like that?” she said. “Awful.”

Enamorado’s son played on the varsity soccer team with many of the working children. The captain who led the team to state quarterfinals this year came to the United States on his own as a 12-year-old and started working immediately to pay his sponsor rent. He juggled the soccer team with shifts at Perdue, getting home at 10 p.m. after away games, sleeping a couple of hours and then heading to the plant. Now he was weeks away from graduating, one of a few students from his English-language-learners cohort who had made it through high school. “We can all be proud of him,” Enamorado said. She encouraged the migrant children who had dropped out of school to take G.E.D. classes at the local community college. Most dreamed instead of joining the military.