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Why Children Are Selling Candy in the Subway During School Hours

by Marko Florentino
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On a subway platform in the Bronx recently, a girl in a puffer coat strolled past passengers with a basket of M&M’s, Kit Kats and Trident gum slung across her shoulder. She looked to be 7 or 8.

One rider captured her on a video posted on X, calling out, “No parent, no parent, where the parent at?” as she walked by.

Of all the manifestations of human misery that the two-year-old migrant crisis has brought to New York City, few trouble the conscience more than the sight of children selling candy on the subway — sometimes during school hours, sometimes accompanied by parents, sometimes not.

On trains and on social media, New Yorkers have asked: Isn’t this child labor? Is it illegal? Shouldn’t someone be doing something to help these children?

Children between the ages of 6 and 17 are required to be in school. Children under 14 are not allowed to do most jobs. You can’t sell merchandise in the transit system without a permit.

But whose job is it to do something? Recent queries to seven city and state agencies found the consensus to be “not mine.”

More than 180,000 migrants have been processed by New York City agencies in the last two years, and about 65,000 are staying in homeless shelters. Many of the newcomers are desperate to find ways to survive in an expensive city, but unable to work legally. Selling food is one of their main sources of income.

A 16-year-old recently spotted selling candy on a downtown 1 train in Manhattan at 10:45 on a weekday morning said she was there “because I have to help my parents.” She refused to give her name.

The Department of Education has “attendance teachers” who work to ensure families send their children to school, but they do not go out on patrol. “I think I’ll refer you to the N.Y.P.D. on this,” a spokeswoman wrote.

The Police Department said that it issued more than 1,100 summonses last year for “unlawful vending and unlawful solicitation/panhandling” in the subways. But the department declined to say whether officers are instructed to do anything if they see school-age children selling candy during school hours.

The State Labor Department said it was “difficult to determine” whether the practice of children selling candy in the subway would violate labor law, which generally “regulates employment relationships (i.e., between employers and employees).”

The city’s child welfare agency, the Administration for Children’s Services, said that anyone who sees a child in a situation that seems unsafe can call the state child abuse hotline.

But the State Office of Children and Family Services, which runs the hotline, said that a child selling merchandise or panhandling would not be considered maltreatment or neglect unless there was a specific concern about possible harm, like “children selling candy at a dangerous intersection.” (While crime has declined in the subways in recent years, the governor deployed the National Guard and the State Police to subway stations last week to allay persistent concerns about safety.)

There are logistical hurdles to addressing the issue. By the time someone called the state hotline and the report was evaluated and passed along to A.C.S., a candy seller could have already moved to a different location. The police can respond more quickly, but they typically are dispatched only in emergencies.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which runs the subways, cited its rule against unauthorized commercial activity, which carries a $50 fine, and referred further inquiries to the police and City Hall.

Most of the candy sellers come from Ecuador, advocates for migrants say, and photos of children selling candy here have stirred concerns there. When Mayor Eric Adams visited Ecuador in October on a whirlwind tour of Latin America to discourage migrants from coming to New York, a local reporter confronted him at a news conference.

“What’s going to happen to our Ecuadorean children, who we have seen selling candy in Times Square, in the subway?” she demanded.

The mayor responded obliquely. “I have noticed children selling candy on the streets of all my countries,” he said, adding, “In New York City, we do not allow our children to be in dangerous environments.”

Migrants are hesitant to talk about their work or where they buy the candy. New York Magazine reported last year that some get it from wholesalers or cheap stores.

Monica Sibri, an Ecuadorean immigrant who advocates for migrants in New York, listed a number of reasons that she said newly arrived migrants had given her for bringing their children with them to sell on the trains.

Some, she said, wrongly assume that their children can miss a semester of school and catch up easily. Some face delays getting their children enrolled because of paperwork and vaccination records. Some, she said, sold candy with their children back in Ecuador and are simply doing the same thing here as a temporary measure.

“The families are not saying they don’t want to put their kids in school,” Ms. Sibri said. “What they’re saying is they haven’t figured out the paperwork that they need to be able to put them in, and some of them aren’t trusting the system.”

Ms. Sibri and other advocates are holding sessions this spring for migrant children and their families who have become candy sellers, to help provide resources for them to pursue an education and “live with dignity.”

At 2:25 p.m. on Friday on the uptown A/B/C/D platform at Columbus Circle in Manhattan, a woman with a small girl and smaller boy was selling Snickers and Welch’s Fruit Snacks.

Kristina Voronaia, a 32-year-old caterer from Kazakhstan, was sitting near them on the bench and glanced over. “It would be better if they were at school,” she said.

The girl went off by herself in search of customers. Josefina Vazquez, 50, a home health aide, asked where her mother was. Close by, the girl said.

“That’s bad,” Ms. Vazquez said, “using kids.”

The candy seller said she was 9 years old. She was not in school, she said in Spanish, because she hadn’t gone for a vaccine appointment.

Further down the platform, she approached Sandra Acosta, 55, beseechingly. Ms. Acosta bought a bag of peanut M&M’s. “She should be in school,” said Ms. Acosta, who is also a home health aide. “And it’s dangerous — there’s a lot of crazy people.”

She thought a little more and said she felt sympathy for the child’s mother. “Maybe she doesn’t have anyone to leave them with, to care for them,” she said. “We have to see the balance from both sides.”

Liset Cruz contributed reporting.

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