Inside the Hidden Reality of Labor Trafficking in America
The teens grew up more than 2,500 miles from central Ohio, in the western highlands of Guatemala.
They were impoverished. The smuggler promised them a chance at a better life in America in exchange for $15,000. To help pay, some of their families traded the deeds to their homes.
Once the teens made the dangerous trip north and crossed the border, most were detained by the border patrol and then turned over to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) as unaccompanied minors. It was the job of HHS to place them with a relative or adult sponsor, and the smuggler had a network of accomplices who posed as sponsors for the boys.
Instead of being safely settled, they were brought to Ohio, and forced to live and work in virtual slavery to pay off their debts.
Their case is at the heart of Trafficked in America, a new documentary from FRONTLINE and the Investigative Reporting Program at U.C. Berkeley that goes inside the hidden world of labor trafficking. The investigation exposes a criminal network that exploited undocumented minors, the companies who profited from their labor and how government policies and practices helped to deliver some teens directly to their traffickers.
“We’ve got these kids. They’re here. They’re living on our soil and for us to just, you know, assume someone else is gonna take care of them and throw them to the wolves, which is what HHS was doing, is flat out wrong,” Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), whose subcommittee investigates the government’s handling of unaccompanied minors, tells FRONTLINE in the above excerpt from the documentary. “I don’t care what you think about immigration policy. It’s wrong.”
Produced by Daffodil Altan and Andrés Cediel, with Altan as correspondent, the documentary goes inside the major 2014 labor trafficking case involving the Guatemalan teens, who were forced by a third-party contractor to work against their will at Trillium Farms in Ohio — one of the country’s largest egg producers — to pay off their debts.
In the above clip from the documentary, hear from a man who worked with the teens at Trillium, and the uncle of one of the teens. Both men say that if the teens complained or didn’t want to turn over their wages to their traffickers, their lives or those of their families would be threatened.
“When my nephew called me, he said the man had told him, ‘If you don’t pay back your debt, I’m going to shoot your dad two or three times,'” the uncle says.
While the alleged mastermind of the trafficking scheme is now in federal custody, Trillium has not been charged with any wrongdoing. In his first on-camera interview, the company’s vice president, J.T. Dean, tells FRONTLINE that Trillium had no knowledge of the trafficked teens working at their plants.
The HHS division responsible for placing the teens declined to be interviewed. They told Portman’s committee they had strengthened their procedures to protect children.
But as the documentary explores, the committee found that the Ohio egg farm case wasn’t an isolated incident — and said it’s impossible to know just how many other victims in similar situations there are.
For the full story, watch Trafficked in America starting Tuesday, April 24, at 10 p.m. EST/9 p.m. CST on PBS stations (check local listings) and online.