When the Department of Labor discovered more than 100 immigrant children cleaning Midwestern slaughterhouses in February, their employer, Packers Sanitation Services Inc., paid a $1.5 million fine, agreed to stop employing children and, according to PSSI and employees who spoke with NBC News, he quickly fired all the workers who turned out to be minors.

But a 16-year-old whom NBC News calls Pedro said he is still cleaning blood and animal parts from a Kansas slaughterhouse up to seven nights a week, an illegal job for anyone under 18 under labor law. US. Pedro spoke to NBC News on condition of anonymity. Although the work is hard, dangerous and exhausting, he fears that losing his salary would put him and his family in Guatemala in an impossible situation.

Bodies inside an unnamed slaughterhouse where Department of Labor investigators found children illegally cleaning overnight.US Department of Labor

From 11 at night to 6 in the morning, Pedro is responsible for removing the animal parts in a cart, mopping up the blood on the floor and cleaning the machines with aggressive chemicals. He is proud of the work he does and said that he works extremely fast to get the job done on time.

“Where they kill the cows. I have to clean up all the blood from the cows until I’m done. I have to leave my area clean,” Pedro said.

He said he is no longer bothered by blood and has gotten used to it after working in the slaughterhouse for over a year.

If anyone is late, Peter said, “they rebuke you. you can’t take back [the time]. Five minutes is worth an hour there.

In the midst of that hustle and bustle, Pedro suffered a serious burn from the harsh cleaning chemicals he uses. But he keeps working.

PSSI is owned by the private equity group Blackstone. PSSI has previously said it requires all new hires to present identification that goes through the government’s E-Verify system and that some employees present fake or stolen identification.

PSSI asked NBC News to reveal Pedro’s identity so he could be fired immediately, but NBC News is withholding his name to allow him to share his story without fear of losing the job he says he needs. PSSI said he would redouble his efforts to find him.

“As we have said repeatedly, we have a longstanding zero tolerance policy against employment of anyone under the age of 18 and we do not want a single minor to work for our company, period,” a PSSI spokeswoman said.

“We have taken extensive steps since the DOL matter to continue to strengthen our procedures to enforce that absolute ban, including new training to detect identity fraud. But the unfortunate reality for our company, as well as many other employers today in the midst of our country’s unaccompanied minor crisis at the border, is that we are increasingly subject to sophisticated identity theft attempts to try to circumvent our extensive enforcement measures.”

In a statement, Blackstone said: «PSSI has made it very clear that it has a zero-tolerance policy against the employment of children under the age of 18 and is committed to taking action in cases where false identification documents are used to circumvent its extensive procedures. of recruitment».

‘I’m alone all the time’

Pedro said he left Guatemala only after his parents struggled to find work and feed their family. Like hundreds of other children who cross the border alone every day, he paid a smuggler to bring him here to live with a relative. He said he now sends money to his parents in Guatemala, pays the relative’s rent and is still working to pay off $2,500 of his remaining debt to a smuggler.

He considers himself lucky to still have the job after many other minors who worked for PSSI were recently laid off. Many of the former child employees are struggling to survive, he said.

“There were some who do not live with their parents, like me, and it is very difficult for them to pay the rent and [for] their lunch,” Pedro said.

Pastor Joel David Tuchez said he knows of more than a dozen mostly Guatemalan boys in his community in Kansas who worked for PSSI cleaning slaughterhouses at night.

Although many children have difficult jobs in Guatemala, including on sugar plantations, it is illegal for anyone under the age of 18 to clean meatpacking plants in the US Tuchez said the work has robbed children of their right to a childhood and a bright future in the United States

“You wish you could take them all in and find a way to let them live their age. Let them enjoy what other kids their age are enjoying here in the United States,” Tuchez said.

Now, as a result of the Department of Labor’s investigation, most of those children have lost their jobs at PSSI. Tuchez said they now live in fear.

Fear, he said, “that they are not going to be able to pay the money they owe, the things they are going to have to do to pay that money. They can be sent back.»

Tuchez said there are smugglers living in his community who bring unaccompanied minors into the US for a fee and then provide them with fake work documents to make it appear they are working as adults. He makes sure not to know who they are so he doesn’t get involved in helping the children pay off their debt in the dangerous system.

NBC News first reported that the Department of Homeland Security’s Homeland Security Investigations is investigating a possible human smuggling scheme that has profited from children working for various companies linked to the meatpacking industry in several states. There are no indications that slaughterhouse companies or PSSIs are being investigated for trafficking.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokeswoman Tanya Roman said in a statement: «Due to an ongoing investigation, HSI is unable to comment at this time.»

Tuchez said the number of migrant children arriving in his small Kansas community without their parents began to rise about two years ago. It was around the time the Biden administration announced that it would waive Covid border restrictions known as Title 42 on unaccompanied children, and the number of unaccompanied children rose sharply.

Pedro was one of those children. As an unaccompanied minor who entered the US, he was first sent into the custody of the Department of Health and Human Services. A relative came forward to sponsor him and HHS approved his placement before releasing him. Under HHS guidelines, some children are given a single phone call to check on their welfare if it can be established that the sponsor is related to the child.

After work, Pedro attends high school, where he said he has a hard time staying awake in class.

«It takes its toll,» he said. He said his teachers were aware that many of his students had jobs cleaning slaughterhouses at night.

Diana Mendoza runs the English as a Second Language program in a Kansas school district where some of her students work night shifts in hazardous jobs. She said her students struggle to balance their competing interests in working to make ends meet now while getting an education to ensure a better future.

“They arrive tired and it shows in their body. For example, they lower their heads, they try to rest a bit at school,” Mendoza said. «When people are tired [they] You can’t always pay the attention you need to learn.”

Pedro said the hardest part of his life in Kansas isn’t the dangerous work followed by trying to stay awake at school. it’s loneliness

“I miss my parents, my family,” he said. “I am alone all the time. It is very difficult for me».