WEST GROVE, Pa. (AP) -- While most children in southeastern Pennsylvania are asleep, Omar Cruz Gonzalez, 15, rises to pick mushrooms.
By midmorning, while most American kids are in school, he is cutting stems from the bright white fungi and arranging them in 10-pound boxes.
Since last Christmas, Omar has chosen work over school to make $5.15 an hour -- minimum wage here, but a princely sum in his central Mexico village.
Omar is one of dozens of immigrant boys under 16 who spend their days stooped in dank cinderblock sheds or hunched over cases at farms in Chester County, according to recruiters for migrant-education programs.
It is against federal law for children this age to work during school hours.
"He needed a job, and we needed the help,'' said Harold Brosius, owner of Marlboro Mushrooms. He said he hired Cruz based on a "green card'' showing the teen was 18.
"My job isn't to police for the INS,'' he said.
Boys such as Omar work with about 1,200 men and about 600 older teenagers, in the mushroom sheds, according to Mauricio Rebollo, one of the migrant-education recruiters.
The boys are on their own, without parents, in Chester County, which produces about a quarter of the nation's button mushrooms.
The children find out about the jobs through friends and relatives who come before them.
To get here, they swim across the Rio Grande, crawl through irrigation ditches on the Arizona border or run through the hills south of San Diego.
When they reach the neighboring Pennsylvania communities of Kennett Square, Toughkenamon or Avondale, they seek out companies that don't ask for identification. Or they tap the underground market in false work authorization cards.
"Even if they wanted to go to school, even if they wanted an education, they couldn't,'' Rebollo said. "They have no parents to support them. ... In many cases they're the ones who are supporting the parents.''
Company owners say they are not aware the children are illegal.
"As long as the cards don't have a handwritten name on it, we're not going to turn them away,'' said Michael Cardile, owner of Cardile Brothers Mushroom Co. in Avondale.
Mexican law requires children to finish middle school, but many leave school at 12 to look for work.
In Pennsylvania, some live dozens to a house.
"The only thing that's bad about all this is that I could be getting an education in Mexico,'' said Jose Ortiz, 14, as he sits outside a run-down house he shares with his uncle, two cousins and several others from his village in central Mexico.
Rigoberto Rosales, 17, learned of the picking jobs through his brother, who has been working mushrooms for two years.
Rigoberto lives on the second floor of a house filled with at least 25 other immigrants.
He has carved a certain privacy for himself by erecting a cardboard box around his bare mattress. A statue of the Virgin Mary sits by his side.
"I look around and say to myself, `Is all this worth it? When I get paid and I have money in my pocket, I think it is,'' he said. ``But when I run out and there's nothing left, I want to go back.''
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