by Reid Maki, Coordinator, Child Labor Coalition
When Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents raided a Greenville, South Carolina chicken processing plant on October 7th, they arrested 330 workers and unwittingly uncovered a problem we at the National Consumers League are deeply concerned about: child labor. The agents found six minors working in the processing plant, performing one of the dirtiest jobs in America—meat processing. One worker in the plant was 15; five others were 16. They were involved in cutting wings and muscles on the poultry, very dangerous work that federal government’s child labor laws, as outdated as they are, prohibit.
Another immigration raid last May in Postville, Iowa, revealed that nearly 60 kids were working in a kosher meat processing plant. In August, the state of Iowa accused the plant managers of more than 9,000 child labor violations.
In August, I visited Postville and talked to a young man who had worked in the plant when he was 16. He spoke of arduous work, low pay, and routinely being cheated out of his wages. He said that when he complained to his employers about being cheated, he was told to quit. He revealed a scar on his elbow where he had accidentally stabbed himself working on the line. He said when the accident happened, his employers bandaged his arm and told him to get back to work.
Many states prohibit workers under 18 from working in slaughterhouses and meatpacking plants because the work is dangerous. The Charlotte Observer published an investigation earlier this year that found that poultry plants are filled with hazards. “Workers are surrounded by dangerous chemicals and machines. They stand shoulder to shoulder wielding sharp knives. They routinely make more than 20,000 cutting motions a shift, which can leave them with nerve and muscle damage. And they sometimes lose fingers,” reported the Observer’s Ames Alexander and Franco Ordonez.
The companies involved in the raids claim that they didn’t knowingly hire minors—that they believed the young workers to be 18 or older. Yet, immigration officials had no difficulty quickly establishing the teenagers’ actual ages. The former child laborer we spoke to in Postville told us that he wrote on employment forms that he was 20 but said he was sure his supervisors knew he was underage.
When NCL’s Executive Director Sally Greenberg testified before a House subcommittee hearing on child labor this September, she asked the Department of Labor (DOL) to conduct a targeted investigation of meat processing and slaughterhouse facilities across the nation to determine if large numbers of children are working in the plants. This month’s immigration raid in Greenville suggests that Wage and Hour investigators should take our advice and begin looking as soon as possible.
In addition to the concerns it raised about child labor enforcement, the Postville raid raises serious questions about ICE’s evolving immigration enforcement strategies. On Monday, October 20th, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear a case involving ICE’s use of aggravated identity theft charges against immigrant workers who use someone else’s Social Security Numbers (SSNs) to secure work. ICE convinced—many advocates would say coerced—302 Postville workers to plead guilty to misusing SSNs by threatening to charge the workers with aggravated identity theft, which carries a minimum two-year sentence. The workers—many of whom were indigenous Guatemalans and seemed unaware that they had committed a crime—agreed to plead guilty to lesser charges and accept a five-month jail sentence, rather than waiting indefinitely in prison for their trial to start and risking a minimum two-year sentence.
In the case being heard by the Supreme Court, Ignacio Flores-Figueroa used illegal papers and was convicted of aggravated ID theft and other counts and received a six-year prison sentence, a longer sentence than some convicted rapists receive. Flores-Figueroa’s attorneys have argued that the government hasn’t proved that he knew he was using someone else’s identity—in many cases, undocumented workers use made up numbers, and no real person’s identity is actually stolen. The immigrant workers often do not know if the numbers they are using belong to someone else. In such cases, there is no intent to steal someone’s identity.
When President Bush signed the Identity Theft Enhancement Act in 2004, he characterized the law as an attempt to stop identity thieves who steal one’s money or credit or commit acts of terrorism—not immigrants taking “dirty” jobs that few Americans want. ICE’s decision to try immigrants or to use the aggravated identity theft charge to coerce immigrants into pleading to lesser charges is a relatively new strategy, used in Postville to great effect.
The Postville workers had very little time to discuss the case with their federally-appointed attorneys and decided they had no choice but to plead guilty. They were “tried” in court in groups of five or six. Attorneys and judges were provided with scripts by ICE prosecution teams. As Erik Camayd-Freixas, an ICE-hired interpreter for the immigrants, has noted in an important essay about the raid, the men were “caught between hopelessness and despair,” terrified about what would become of their wives and children while they were imprisoned. Despite their guilty pleas, the workers, wrote Camayd-Freixas, did not seem to understand what a SSN was or how the numbers got on their applications. In Camayd-Freixas’s view they could not “knowingly” have used the fake numbers—a criteria of the charge.
In an editorial, which called ICE’s strategy “Dickensian cruelty,” the New York Times noted that “No one is denying that the workers were on the wrong side of the law. But there is a profound difference between stealing people’s identities to rob them of money and property, and using false papers to merely get a job. It is a distinction that the Bush administration, goaded by immigration extremists, has willfully ignored. Deporting unauthorized workers is one thing; sending desperate breadwinners to prison, and their families deeper into poverty, is another.”
Carried out with ridiculous overstatement (assault rifles and a helicopter), the ICE raid cost the federal government $6.1 million to conduct. Add another $2 million to house 300 prisoners for five months and the current tab exceeds $8 million. The raid caused profound problems for the town of Postville, which basically lost one-third of its population overnight. Businesses closed their doors. The tearing apart of families was both traumatizing and heartbreaking. Even if ICE is correct that the raids deter future illegal immigration, we wonder if the price is worth it. Is sending a message worth this kind of civic trauma?
The firestorm of protest over the Postville strategy has caused ICE to back away from using aggravated identity theft as a tool to get workers to plead to lesser charges in subsequent immigration raids. We hope that the next President will look at ICE’s strategy to determine whether the agency is out of control. We hope that in looking back at Postville, they will note one final irony: the Postville workers were processed for arrest at a livestock facility—the National Cattle Congress— in Waterloo. What does that say about how federal officials view these workers?