US federal agencies investigate migrant exploitation in Alabama chicken industry

Investigators found "exploitative" working conditions for some migrants
calendar icon 8 February 2022
clock icon 4 minute read

At least three federal agencies last year began investigating working conditions for migrants in this growing southern hub for the U.S. poultry industry, according to people familiar with the probes.

The agencies have been looking for evidence of exploitation of Hispanic migrants in the area after an unusually large number of unaccompanied minors were released from federal shelters to sponsor families here last year, these people told Reuters.

A U.S. Department of Health and Human Services probe focused on whether minors were falling victim to traffickers exploiting them for labor, three sources familiar with the investigations said. While investigators have discovered no evidence of child trafficking, they found "exploitative" working conditions for some migrants, the sources added, without providing more details.

The U.S. Department of Labor and U.S. Homeland Security Investigations, for their part, have also investigated staffing and work conditions in the area, people familiar with those probes told Reuters. None of the probes have yet led to criminal charges or civil penalties, and it's unclear whether they will.

Spokespeople at the three agencies declined to comment on ongoing investigations. Some details of the probes were first reported by Bloomberg Law.

The investigations follow worries among federal employees overseeing the release of unaccompanied minors caught crossing the Mexican border into the United States. These officials were concerned by the growing number of kids headed to Enterprise, where poultry farms and processing plants offer high demand for employment.

Reuters on Monday profiled one recently arrived Guatemalan minor who uses false identification to work at one plant near Enterprise. The teen found a job with ease, forgoing school as she races to repay debts to smugglers who got her across the U.S. border.

The U.S. government has been on heightened alert for trafficking of migrant minors into the poultry industry since 2014, when authorities discovered Guatemalan teens working without pay and living in ramshackle trailers at an Ohio egg farm.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which oversees Homeland Security Investigations, has said under President Joe Biden that it is shifting its enforcement focus at places of work. Instead of arresting workers for immigration violations, it is targeting employers who exploit undocumented migrants.

Poultry industry workers in and around Enterprise told Reuters that migrants, including minors, easily obtain fake credentials and supply those to staffing firms who help them find work in area plants.

The firms, they said, sometimes dock workers' pay for services, including transportation to and from the workplace, and deny them benefits like overtime pay, sick days, time off and medical coverage.

Labor law experts say large poultry processors at times have relied on staffing firms to avoid liability for hiring undocumented laborers. The staffing firms, as the direct employers, by law become responsible for vetting applicants and determining if they are allowed to work.

A previous federal investigation into the hiring of poultry workers in Alabama led to criminal convictions last October.

The federal trial in northern Alabama illustrated abusive practices by one staffing firm there and how lucrative the migrant-recruiting business can be. The jury convicted a married couple, Deivin and Crystal Escalante, on charges of money laundering and conspiracy to transport migrants illegally.

According to court documents and transcripts from the trial, the Escalantes supplied undocumented workers, including several minors, to a plant owned by Mar-Jac Poultry Inc. in Jasper, Alabama.

The Escalantes pleaded not guilty and are now awaiting sentencing. They referred questions to Gregory Reid, Deivin's lawyer. Reid told Reuters that Mar-Jac contracted the couple because of their connections in the local Hispanic community.

Mar-Jac, based in Gainesville, Georgia, hasn't been accused of wrongdoing. Linda Cox, Mar-Jac's human resources manager, said the poultry processor cooperated in the investigation and "had a written contract with the contractor requiring lawful workers."

In trial testimony, Deivin Escalante said that Mar-Jac paid the couple $175 per day for each worker. The Escalantes then paid employees around $120 a day, he said. Over three years, the couple received over $16 million in revenue from Mar-Jac, the U.S. Department of Justice said.

Before federal agents arrested the couple in October 2020, the Escalantes bought multiple properties and luxury cars.

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