Federal Agencies Investigate Migrant Exploitation in Alabama Chicken Industry

ENTERPRISE (Reuters) - According to sources familiar with the probes, at least three federal agencies began investigating the working conditions of migrants in the growing southern hub of the U.S. poultry sector last year.

Federal Agencies Investigate Migrant Exploitation in Alabama Chicken Industry

These people said that agencies are looking for evidence of exploitation of Hispanic immigrants in the area, after an unusually high number of minors who were not accompanied were released from federal shelters last year to sponsor families.

Three sources familiar with the investigation said that a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services inquiry was focused on whether minors are being exploited for labor by traffickers. Although no evidence has been found of child trafficking, investigators did find "exploitative" working conditions in some migrants, according to the sources, but they didn't provide any further details.

U.S. Department of Labor. Homeland Security Investigations for their part have also looked into staffing and conditions in the region, according to people familiar with those probes. It's not clear if any of the probes will lead to criminal or civil charges.

Spokespersons from the three agencies declined comment regarding ongoing investigations. Bloomberg Law first reported some details about the probes.

Federal employees who were responsible for releasing unaccompanied minors crossing the Mexican border to the United States became concerned about the investigation. These officials were worried about the increasing number of children heading to Enterprise, where processing plants and poultry farms are in high demand for work.

Monday's Reuters profile featured a recently arrived Guatemalan minor using false identification to work in a plant near Enterprise. The teenager found work quickly and skipped school to pay back debts she owed to smugglers.

Since 2014, the U.S. government has been vigilant about trafficking migrant minors into poultry industry. This was after authorities found that Guatemalan teenagers were living in trailers at an Ohio egg farmer.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement oversees Homeland Security Investigations and has stated under President Joe Biden it is shifting its enforcement focus to places of work. Instead of arresting immigrants, the agency is targeting employers that exploit undocumented migrants.

Enterprise workers from the poultry industry said that minors and migrants easily obtain fake credentials to supply staffing firms that help them find jobs in their area plants.

They claimed that the firms sometimes deduct workers' wages for transportation to and fro work and deny them benefits such as overtime pay, sick days and medical coverage.

According to labor law experts, large poultry processors have sometimes relied on staffing companies to avoid legal liability for hiring undocumented laborers. As the direct employers, staffing firms are legally responsible for screening applicants and deciding if they can work.

An earlier federal investigation into the employment of poultry workers in Alabama resulted in criminal convictions last Oct.

A federal trial in Alabama highlighted the abusive practices of one staffing company and how lucrative the migrant recruiting business can be. Deivin Escalante and Crystal Escalante were convicted by the jury of money laundering as well as conspiracy to transport illegal migrants.

According to court documents and transcripts of the trial, Escalantes provided undocumented workers to a plant owned Mar-Jac Poultry Inc., Jasper, Alabama.

The Escalantes have pleaded not guilty to the charges and are currently awaiting sentencing. Gregory Reid, Deivin’s lawyer, was referred to them. Reid said to Reuters that Mar-Jac hired Reid and Deivin because of their connections within the Hispanic community.

Mar-Jac is a Gainesville, Georgia-based poultry processor. No wrongdoing has been charged against Mar-Jac. Linda Cox, Mar-Jac’s human resources manager, stated that the poultry processor cooperated with the investigation and had a written agreement with the contractor, which required lawful workers.

Deivin Escalante testified that Mar-Jac paid them $175 per worker. He said that the Escalantes paid their employees $120 per day. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, over three years the couple earned more than $16 million from Mar-Jac.

The Escalantes purchased multiple properties and luxurious cars before federal agents arrested them in October 2020.