They’re landscapers, laborers at construction sites, and they cook our food at restaurants. Undocumented workers are pretty much everywhere.
What is typically hidden from public view is the other side of the coin: the people who hire, and sometimes exploit, undocumented laborers, and what penalties they face.
That’s what came to mind last week after 17 undocumented migrants from Nicaragua and Guatemala were found living in unsafe conditions in a Lisbon, Maine, house that had allegedly been rented by a Massachusetts-based company that the migrants worked for. In a press release, the US Customs and Border Protection said Border Patrol agents had infiltrated an “elaborate human smuggling scheme” and that the 17 migrants had been removed from the “Maine stash house.”
But conspicuously absent from the statement was the name of the company involved in the alleged scheme. Federal authorities declined to identify the company or say whether it will be subject to any sanctions for its role. “Per CBP policy, we cannot comment further on this investigation,” Ryan Brissette, a CBP press officer, told me in an e-mail.
It’s possible that federal authorities are building a case against the company in question. There are civil and criminal penalties involved in recruiting and hiring undocumented immigrants. They include civil monetary fines, which vary from $100 to $10,000 per unauthorized worker depending on the scope of the violations.
But the one-sided language CBP used to describe the operation feels particularly egregious and even hypocritical. “The exploitation of the undocumented population will continue as long as there is no consequence. We will do all we can to remove the incentives that drive such exploitation, including the continued issuance of civil penalties, fines, and seeking federal criminal prosecution through the U.S. Attorney’s office for every criminal law violation we encounter,” said William J. Maddocks, chief patrol agent for the Houlton Sector, which includes Maine.
Ultimately, what happened in that home located on an unnamed street in Lisbon raises significant questions about the lack of accountability for companies that exploit undocumented laborers.
To be sure, the US Department of Homeland Security has directed its Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency to end mass work enforcement operations, where undocumented employees used to be rounded up in massive raids, and focus on labor exploitation. As part of that new directive, ICE conducted “Operation Blooming Onion” in 2021 in Georgia, where it allegedly exposed a massive labor trafficking scheme and charged 24 individuals in a 54-count indictment. According to the indictment, dozens of Mexican and Central American migrants were recruited to dig onions with their bare hands and paid just 20 cents per bucket harvested. Government officials called them “victims of modern-day slavery.”
But that was one of only a handful of labor exploitation operations that ICE has announced under its new directive. Historically, the picture is as dismal. A 2019 report from Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, which gathers federal data about enforcement, found that between April 2018 and March 2019, only 11 individuals and no companies were prosecuted for illegal employment of immigrants in seven cases. And yet, during the same period, more than 85,000 individuals were prosecuted for illegal entry, nearly 35,000 for illegal re-entry, and nearly 5,000 for illegally bringing in or harboring immigrants.
Such a one-sided approach has to shift more rapidly to fully address the exploitation of immigrants. In a recent New York Times investigation, reporter Hannah Dreier showed how widespread the exploitation of child migrant workers is: They are stitching “Made in America” tags into J. Crew shirts and processing milk used in Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. Dreier’s report led to federal changes almost immediately, including the targeting of the brands and corporations whose supply chains employ child migrant labor. On Sunday, Globe reporter Katie Johnston exposed a similar dynamic locally: “migrant children are processing fish in New Bedford” and “roofing houses in the Boston suburbs,” Johnston wrote.
Aviva Chomsky, a professor at Salem State University and an activist, told me in an interview that the focus is always on all the “criminal violations committed by the immigrants, and how they’re going to be prosecuted, how they’re going to be fined, how they’re going to be imprisoned, and how they’re going to be deported.”
Chomsky is right. “People coming to Maine aren’t here for donated clothing or food banks; they’re here to provide safety and security for themselves and their loved ones with hopes of achieving a better life,” Tobin C. Williamson, advocacy manager at the Maine Immigrants’ Rights Coalition, said via e-mail. Williamson referenced Maine’s severe workforce shortage. A 2022 study found that there are as many as two and a half open jobs for every unemployed worker in Maine.
Undocumented workers usually do the jobs no one else wants. When they’re caught, the companies that depend on them should be just as exposed as the workers themselves.