Some migrants waiting in Mexico for U.S. court hearings caught crossing illegally

By Ted Hesson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Roughly one in 10 migrants pushed back to Mexico to await U.S. court hearings under a Trump administration program have been caught crossing the border again, a top border official said on Thursday.

Acting U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Mark Morgan said during a White House briefing that migrants returned to Mexico under a program known as the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) have a 9% recidivism rate. Many of those migrants intend to seek asylum in the United States.

“Unfortunately, some of the individuals in the MPP program are actually going outside the shelter environment,” Morgan said. “They’re re-engaging with the cartels because they’re tired of waiting. And that’s when we’re hearing that some of that further abuse and exploitation is happening.”

Morgan said that around 50,000 people have been returned to Mexico under the program. Customs and Border Protection did not immediately respond to a request for more details on his comments.

The administration of Republican President Donald Trump launched the MPP program in January as part of a strategy to deter mostly Central American families from trekking to the U.S. border to seek asylum. Trump officials have argued the bulk of such claims for protection lack merit and that migrants are motivated by economic concerns.

Immigration advocates say asylum seekers sent to wait in Mexican border towns, for the weeks or months it takes for their cases to wind through backlogged immigration courts, face dangerous and possibly deadly conditions.

Migrants who claim fear of returning to Mexico can ask to stay in the United States for the duration of their court case. But just 1% of cases have been transferred out of the program, according to a Reuters analysis of federal immigration court data as of early October.

The administration has said the MPP program and other measures has helped lead to a decline in border arrests. In October, apprehensions along the U.S.-Mexico border fell for the fifth straight month, Morgan said.

The White House briefing followed a leadership change at the Homeland Security Department on Wednesday.

The Trump administration installed Chad Wolf, previously chief of staff to former Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, as acting secretary. Wolf then announced that acting U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Director Ken Cuccinelli – an immigration hard liner – would be elevated to the No. 2 position at the department.

(Reporting by Ted Hesson; Editing by Mica Rosenberg and Lisa Shumaker)

Allegations of labor abuses dogged Mississippi plant years before immigration raids

FILE PHOTO: Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) officers from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) look on after executing search warrants and making arrests at an agricultural processing facility in Canton, Mississippi, U.S. in this August 7, 2019 handout photo. Immigration and Customs Enforcement/Handout via REUTERS/File Photo

By Mica Rosenberg and Kristina Cooke

(Reuters) – Long before U.S. immigration authorities arrested 680 people at agricultural processing facilities in Mississippi this week, one of the five targeted companies faced allegations of serious labor violations including intimidation, harassment and exploitation of its largely immigrant work force, according to a federal lawsuit.

Last August, Illinois-based poultry supplier Koch Foods settled a multi-year lawsuit brought by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) on behalf of more than 100 workers at the Morton, Mississippi, plant over claims the company knew – or should have known – of sexual and physical assaults against its Hispanic workers.

The workers’ complaints spanned 2004 to 2008, when the plant employed more than 500 people. They allege that a manager would grope women from behind while they were working, punch employees and throw chicken parts at them. Workers also alleged that supervisors coerced payments from them for everything from medical leave and promotions to bathroom breaks.

Privately-held Koch Foods, run by billionaire Joseph Grendys, did not respond to requests for comment. In court filings, the company called the claims of abuse and harassment “baffling” and “outrageous.” Koch said the plaintiffs made claims against the company as a means to obtain U.S. visas for crime victims who collaborate with law enforcement, according to the court documents.

The company settled the allegations last year by paying a $3.75 million and entering into a three-year consent decree to prevent future violations. It agreed to implement new policies such as creating a 24-hour complaint hot line and publicly posting anti-discrimination policies, according to the EEOC.

Some workers at the Mississippi plant who lacked legal immigration status alleged in court documents that supervisors threatened to turn them in to authorities if they spoke out about their concerns, according to the EEOC complaint.

Former federal officials and immigration attorneys said mass deportation operations like the ones conducted by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) on Wednesday in Mississippi can have a chilling effect on future labor complaints.

“If workers are being threatened with being turned over to ICE, and then here comes ICE and arrests workers,” people could be more reluctant to speak up, said John Sandweg, a former acting ICE director during the Obama administration.

In the EEOC lawsuit, one Koch Foods employee without legal immigration status alleged that a manager sexually harassed his wife and made him pay to use the bathroom, once waiting until he had soiled himself to give him permission to leave his spot on the production line.

“If he found out that I had talked about anything that he was doing, charging money, the way he mistreated us, the dirty words he used, he told me that if I went to complain in the office that he had contacts in immigration,” the worker said in a 2012 deposition that was filed as part of the suit. “And that he knew where I lived.”

Maria Cazorla, a Cuban immigrant and lead plaintiff in a lawsuit against the company that was wrapped into the EEOC case, said in an interview Thursday that a manager inappropriately touched her and hit her then-husband, also a co-worker, in the ribs while he was working.

According to Cazorla’s interview and court documents, her husband at the time was targeted by management and fired over his immigration status after she filed her lawsuit against the company in 2010. Cazorla, now a U.S. citizen, left the company and Mississippi and now renovates houses in Florida.

Even after the manager accused of some of the most serious violations was fired in 2008, workers continued to be subjected to threats of violence and reprisals in the workplace, the lawsuit said.

The EEOC enforces federal anti-discrimination laws and can investigate employee complaints. The agency tries to settle the claims but, if unsuccessful, it can file a lawsuit against employers for workplace discrimination.

Marsha Rucker, EEOC Regional Attorney based in Birmingham, Alabama who oversaw the lawsuit, said she did not believe the EEOC’s civil complaint was connected to the ICE action this week.

SCENES OF MASS ARRESTS

The dramatic operation on Wednesday was the biggest workplace immigration sweep since December 2006, when ICE targeted meatpacking plants in six states and arrested almost 1,300 people.

Some children of workers were left traumatized by their parents’ detention on what was for many the first day of school, according to local media reports.

“Government, please,” an 11-year-old girl said on a CBS News segment, weeping in front of a community center where she and other children were sent to spend the night. “My dad didn’t do nothing. He’s not a criminal.”

ICE officials told reporters on a call on Thursday that they had released 303 people for humanitarian reasons – if they were pregnant or a primary caretaker of children, for example. Among those released pending a hearing before an immigration judge were 18 “juveniles” who had been working in the plants, ICE said, including one 14-year-old.

Koch Foods has been the target of worksite enforcement in the past.

In August 2007, immigration agents arrested more than 160 employees of a Koch Foods chicken plant in Fairfield, Ohio, and paid about a half-million dollars in fines. At the time, ICE said Koch Foods was being investigated for federal crimes including encouraging, inducing or harboring immigrants in the United States illegally.

The company, which according to its website is not affiliated with Koch Industries or the Koch brothers, started with 13 employees deboning and cutting up chicken in one room in 1985. It now counts more than 13,000 employees and bills itself as one of the biggest poultry processors in the United States, with facilities in Alabama, Georgia, Ohio, Tennessee and Illinois as well as Mississippi.

In a letter to President Donald Trump, who has made cracking down on immigration a centerpiece of his administration, the National Chicken Council – a lobbying group – said the poultry industry “uses every tool available to verify the identify and legal immigration status of all prospective employees” but said there was no government system available to “confirm with confidence that new hires are legally authorized to work in the United States.”

(Mica Rosenberg reported from New York and Kristina Cooke from San Francisco; Editing by Julie Marquis and Marla Dickerson)

Exclusive: $6 for 38 days work: Child exploitation rife in Rohingya camps

Azimul Hasan, 10, a Rohingya refugee boy, serves plates at a roadside hotel where he works at Jamtoli, close to Palong Khali camp, near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, November 12, 2017.

By Tom Allard and Tommy Wilkes

COX’S BAZAR/KUTUPALONG, Bangladesh (Reuters) – Rohingya refugee children from Myanmar are working punishing hours for paltry pay in Bangladesh, with some suffering beatings and sexual assault, the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) has found.

Independent reporting by Reuters corroborated some of the findings.

The results of a probe by the IOM into exploitation and trafficking in Bangladesh’s refugee camps, which Reuters reviewed on an exclusive basis, also documented accounts of Rohingya girls as young as 11 getting married, and parents saying the unions would provide protection and economic advancement.

About 450,000 children, or 55 percent of the refugee population, live in teeming settlements near the border with Myanmar after fleeing the destruction of villages and alleged murder, looting and rape by security forces and Buddhist mobs.

Afjurul Hoque Tutul, additional superintendent of police in Cox’s Bazar, near where the camps are based, said 11 checkpoints had been set up that would help prevent children from leaving.

“If any Rohingya child is found working, then the owners will be punished,” he said.

Most of the refugees have arrived in the past two and a half months after attacks on about 30 security posts by Rohingya rebels met a ferocious response from Myanmar’s military.

Described by the United Nations human rights commissioner Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein as a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing”, Myanmar’s government counters that its actions are a proportionate response to attacks by Rohingya “terrorists”.

The IOM’s findings, based on discussions with groups of long-term residents and recent arrivals, and separate interviews by Reuters, show life in the refugee camps is hardly better than it is in Myanmar for Rohingya children.

The IOM said children were targeted by labor agents and encouraged to work by their destitute parents amid widespread malnutrition and poverty in the camps. Education opportunities are limited for children beyond Grade 3.

Azimul Hasan, 10, a Rohingya refugee boy, stands inside a roadside hotel where he works at Jamtoli, close to Palong Khali camp, near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, November 12, 2017.

Azimul Hasan, 10, a Rohingya refugee boy, stands inside a roadside hotel where he works at Jamtoli, close to Palong Khali camp, near Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, November 12, 2017. REUTERS/Navesh Chitrakar

Rohingya boys and girls as young as seven years old were confirmed working outside the settlements, according to the findings.

Boys work on farms, construction sites and fishing boats, as well as in tea shops and as rickshaw drivers, the IOM and Rohingya residents in the camp reported.

Girls typically work as maids and nannies for Bangladeshi families, either in the nearby resort town of Cox’s Bazar or in Chittagong, Bangladesh’s second-largest city, about 150 km (100 miles) from the camps.

One Rohingya parent, who asked not to be identified because she feared reprisals, told Reuters her 14-year-old daughter had been working in Chittagong as a maid but fled her employers.

When she returned to the camp, she was unable to walk, her mother said, adding that her daughter’s Bangladeshi employers had physically and sexually assaulted her.

“The husband was an alcoholic and he would come to her bedroom at night and rape her. He did it six or seven times,” the mother said. “They gave us no money. Nothing.”

The account could not be independently verified by Reuters but was similar to others recorded by the IOM.

Most interviewees said female Rohingya refugees “experienced sexual harassment, rape and being forced to marry the person who raped her”, the IOM said.

A 12 year old Rohingya girl who worked as domestic help in a house in Bangladesh, looks out the window at an undisclosed location near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, November 8, 2017.

A 12 year old Rohingya girl who worked as domestic help in a house in Bangladesh, looks out the window at an undisclosed location near Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, November 8, 2017. REUTERS/Mohammad Ponir Hossain

PAID A PITTANCE, IF AT ALL

Across Bangladesh’s refugee settlements, Reuters saw children wandering muddy lanes alone and aimlessly, or sitting listlessly outside tents. Many children begged along roadsides.

The Inter Sector Coordination Group, which oversees UN agencies and charities, said this month it had documented 2,462 unaccompanied and separated children in the camps. The actual number was “likely to be far higher”, it said.

A preliminary survey by the UNHCR and Bangladesh’s Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commission has found that 5 percent of households – or 3,576 families – were headed by a child.

Reuters interviewed seven families who sent their children to work. All reported terrible working conditions, low wages or abuse.

Muhammad Zubair, dressed in a dirty football shirt, his small stature belying his stated age of 12 years old, said he was offered 250 taka per day but ended up with only 500 taka ($6) for 38 days work building roads. His mother said he was 14 years old.

“It was hard work, laying bricks on the road,” he said, squatting in the doorway of his mud hut in the Kutupalong camp. He said he was verbally abused by his employers when he asked for more money and was told to leave. He declined to provide their identities.

Zubair then took a job in a tea shop for a month, putting in two shifts per day from 6am to past midnight, broken by a four-hour rest period in the afternoon.

He said he wasn’t allowed to leave the shop and was only permitted to speak to his parents by phone once.

“When I wasn’t paid, I escaped,” he said. “I was frightened because I thought the owner, the master, would come here with other people and take me again.”

 

FORCED MARRIAGE

Many parents also pressure their daughters to marry early, for protection and for financial stability, according to the IOM findings. Some child brides are as young as 11, the IOM said.

But many women only became “second wives,” the IOM said. Second wives are frequently divorced quickly and “abandoned without any further economic support”.

Kateryna Ardanyan, an IOM anti-trafficking specialist, said exploitation had become “normalized” in the camps.

“Human traffickers usually adapt faster to the situation than any other response mechanism can. It’s very important we try to do prevention.” Ardanyan said.

“Funding dedicated to protecting Rohingya men, women and children from exploitation and abuse is urgently needed.”

 

(Reporting by Tom Allard and Tommy Wilkes; Editing by Philip McClellan)

 

Nepal quake survivors struggle with debt, raising trafficking fears

By Rina Chandran

KATHMANDU (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Hundreds of Nepalis who had borrowed money to rebuild their lives after two earthquakes left them homeless are at risk of being trafficked or duped into selling their kidneys to pay off their debts, an international development organization said.

Nepal received $4.1 billion in pledges from donors for reconstruction after quakes last April and May killed 9,000 people, injured at least 22,000 and damaged or destroyed more than 900,000 houses in the Himalayan nation.

More than a year on, reconstruction has been slow with unrest over a new constitution adding to the delays. Unable to find work, hundreds of Nepalis are deep in debt, the Asia Foundation said on Tuesday.

“Their ability to pay is very limited and indebtedness makes them more vulnerable to exploitation,” said Nandita Baruah, Asia Foundation’s deputy country representative in Kathmandu.

“Their desperation makes them take greater risks, such as sending their children away for what they think are better lives, or even selling their kidneys,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview.

“We’re going to see an uptick in people moving out to earn money as their debts become due. Some of them will be trafficked,” Baruah added.

Nepal’s economy is highly dependent on remittances sent back by its migrant workers, which make up about 30 percent of its gross domestic product.

Following the earthquakes, hundreds of migrant workers returned to Nepal to help their families.

Many are likely to have paid their employers to be allowed to return home, going without wages for several months while spending money on rebuilding, Baruah said.

“These are workers who pay 200,000-500,000 rupees ($1,850-$4,640) to go abroad in the first place, and are very likely still paying off that debt,” she said.

“The quakes exacerbated their indebtedness,” she said.

BORDER CHECKS

Activists say there are signs of an increase in the number of Nepali women and children being trafficked after last year’s disaster.

Anti-trafficking charity Maiti Nepal said it stopped 745 women and children – suspected victims of human trafficking – at the Nepal-India border in the three months following the earthquakes.

That compares with 615 such interceptions in the three months before the quakes, their data showed.

Nepal is both a source and a destination country for victims of human trafficking with some 8,500 Nepalis trafficked every year, according to the country’s human rights commission.

Women are typically trafficked for sex work, domestic work and forced marriages to India, the Middle East, China and South Korea – while men are made to work in construction, as drivers and in hotels in India, the Middle East and Southeast Asia.

Some victims are duped into selling their kidneys and brought to India, where a chronic organ shortage has fueled a black-market trade in illegal transplants, activists say.

Nepal’s economy is forecast by the Asian Development Bank to have grown only about 1.5 percent in the fiscal year to mid-July after reconstruction delays and trade disruptions. A recovery is dependent on the pace of reconstruction, it said.

“Now, the aid will also stop flowing. We’re going to see more migration, more trafficking,” said Baruah.

“Those who have taken on debt don’t have options,” she said.

(Reporting by Rina Chandran @rinachandran, Editing by Katie Nguyen. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit news.trust.org to see more stories.)