By Julia Aisley and Laura Strickler - NBC News
The federal investigation into Guatemalan minors who have been employed in the United States in violation of child labor laws has been expanded to include meat and produce companies that allegedly hired underage migrants in at least 11 states, two senior officials told NBC News.
Investigators from the Department of Homeland Security's Office of Homeland Security Investigations (DOJ), as well as White House officials, are participating in this expanded probe, the officials said.
Meat and produce companies that are under scrutiny for possible violations of child labor laws operate across the country, from Virginia to Colorado, the sources said.
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The investigation is part of a larger effort by Biden Administration agencies, including the Department of Labor (DOL), to combat violations of child labor laws. The Department of Labor has documented a 69% increase in the number of children employed in violation of these laws since 2018.
A photo taken by a Department of Labor investigator shows a boy working for Packers Sanitation Services Inc. cleaning a slaughterhouse in Grand Island, Nebraska.
NBC News reported earlier this year that, according to two officials familiar with the investigation, DHS and DOJ were trying to determine whether a human trafficking operation had led migrant children to work at multiple companies in the meat sector across the country. Officials said the companies were not targeted in the investigation.
The researchers did not name any of the companies currently under investigation. Penalties for violating child labor laws can range from civil fines to criminal charges, officials said, but no charges have been filed.
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"I think it's a big positive step," said Wendy Young, president of Kids in Need of Defense, a legal organization that helps migrant children. "Now we need to make sure that the federal government actually invests resources to continue and sustain this effort. But I'm encouraged by the fact that we're seeing multiple agencies working together and really taking this issue seriously," Young said.
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Spokesmen for Homeland Security Investigations, the White House and the DOL declined to comment. The DOJ did not respond to a request for comment.
When a DOL investigation found that Wisconsin-based Packers Sanitation Services Inc. (PSSI) had more than 100 minors working at 13 plants in eight states, the company paid $1.5 million in civil penalties.
A company spokesperson said at the time that any children hired by the company used false documentation to get the job. "We have always taken rigorous steps to comply with the law, including the use of the E-Verify system for new hires, extensive training for all hired supervisors, multiple audits, and the use of biometric [data]," the spokesperson said.
The company announced in April a $10 million fund to "improve the well-being of children in the communities we serve and help reduce the prevalence of the growing problem of underage workers."
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An official told NBC News that there is a sense that underage immigrants have unfairly paid a higher penalty than businesses. Previously, some of the parents of children employed by PSSI faced child abuse charges and the children were left afraid to speak to investigators for fear of being deported, according to community advocates and court documents.
[Government Knew Immigrant Children Were Being Exploited for Labor But 'Wouldn't Listen": Report]
Child labor, particularly among Guatemalan adolescents, is on the rise in the United States due to worsening economic conditions in Central American countries, an increase in migration of unaccompanied children in 2021 and 2022, and a labor shortage in the United States. Teens often provide false documents, including stolen identities, to prove they are 18 or older and legally authorized to work in the country.
More than 260,000 co-accompanied migrant children have been released into the United States in the past two years and nearly half have been from Guatemala, according to federal data.