Laundry company owners guilty of trafficking migrants, minors for labor

The manager of a laundry business in Virginia was accused of pulling a 13-year-old girl’s hair while ordering her back to work. Other teenagers told investigators they were forced to toil through grueling 11-hour overnight shifts before school. And a new mother was grabbed by the arm and shaken when she asked for help taking care of her infant son, who was strapped in his stroller “with his bottle tied to the chair” while she worked, court records allege.

Prosecutors say those were some of the conditions workers endured at Magnolia Cleaning Services, a Williamsburg-based business that cleaned linens for hotels and timeshares. Its owners and managers were charged with operating “a family-based labor trafficking enterprise” that smuggled over 100 migrants from El Salvador, including minors, and forced them to work under threats of violence and deportation, officials said Wednesday during a news conference.

After pleading guilty, owners Jeffrey Vaughan and George Evans were sentenced Tuesday to more than four years in prison and 2½ years in prison, respectively. Ana Aragon Landaverde, a Magnolia Cleaning Services manager, was sentenced to almost five years in prison. Salvador Jeronimo-Sis, who was charged with creating false identity documents, was sentenced to nearly two years in prison.

Their attorneys didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment from The Washington Post.

Wednesday marked the end of what James Stitzel, assistant special agent in charge for Homeland Security Investigations, deemed “a groundbreaking investigation.” It resulted in the “most significant of its kind” labor trafficking sentence, given the amount of fraud involved and the deplorable conditions the victims faced, he explained. And it comes at a time in which the Labor Department has announced a stark increase in child labor violations — many of them involving migrant children hired to work some of the nation’s most dangerous jobs in violation of federal law.

A cleaning company illegally employed a 13-year-old. Her family is paying the price.

The probe into Magnolia Cleaning Services began in 2021, when authorities received a tip from one of the victims’ acquaintances. Court documents chronicle the chain of exploitation and abuse that investigators say they discovered at the laundry business.

According to those documents, the owners and managers of Magnolia Cleaning Services recruited workers, often between the ages of 14 and 25, from Central America. Prosecutors say the company facilitated their travel into the United States and to Virginia and provided them with fraudulent Social Security numbers and a place to stay at the laundry facility — but it came at a cost.

The workers were told their “smuggling fees” were a debt owed to the company, Stitzel said. They also had to pay rent for their lodging in the warehouse, which lacked air conditioning in the summer and heat in the winter. Those accommodations were “deprived of basic housing needs, like a kitchen or shower facilities,” said Jessica Aber, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia.

“These business owners enriched themselves through this brutal enterprise using fraudulent identification documents and money laundering to falsify their wage records and just benefit themselves from the proceeds,” Aber added. “These individuals lied, manipulated and threatened their victims using fear to trap them in inhumane situations.”

A 16-year-old worker died at a poultry plant. Federal probes are underway.

Fear was common among the workers, who were often told they’d be deported if they declined to work more hours, according to an indictment. The 13-year-old girl who had her hair pulled was told by Landaverde, her manager, that “her contacts in El Salvador would hurt and/or kill her upon her return to El Salvador if she refused to perform work tasks as directed,” investigators wrote.

The girl was also discouraged from having friends or contacting anyone outside of the company, court records state. But when it became known that she befriended other students at her school, Landaverde struck her with a belt, prosecutors said.

“Once you see this level of exploitation, there’s no doubt that there’s evil in the world,” Virginia Attorney General Jason Miyares (R) said during Wednesday’s news conference.

In December, prosecutors announced the 33-count indictment charging Landaverde, Vaughan and Evans with defrauding and committing offenses against the United States, including human trafficking, benefiting from forced labor and harboring undocumented migrants. Jeronimo-sis — then-listed in court documents as FNU LNU, shorthand for “First name unknown, Last name unknown” — was charged with unlawful transfer of false identification documents and conspiracy to defraud and commit offenses against the United States.

Six months later, Evans and Vaughn have been ordered by the court to forfeit more than $3.9 million in proceeds and Landaverde, to forfeit over $200,000. An undisclosed dollar amount will be paid to the victims in restitution, officials said.

The conservative campaign to rewrite child labor laws

Adriana Mirarchi, a special agent with Homeland Security Investigations, said the victims have since received resources to support them and enable them to assist investigators in their probe. One of them, she added, is the T visa — a visa provided to victims of human trafficking that allows them to remain in the country for a limited amount of time and is a pathway to citizenship.

Though Miyares said he was “incredibly proud” of the collaborative efforts that resulted in shutting down the labor trafficking operation, he added that the case highlights a crime that is too common.

“Human trafficking can occur any time in any community and almost anywhere,” he said. “It is a crime that often happens in plain sight, in plain view. And for too often, too many Virginians and Americans think, ‘It doesn’t happen here. Not my community.’ Tragically, it does.”

In 2021, the last available year of data, 10,360 potential human trafficking cases were identified by the U.S. National Human Trafficking Hotline — 1,066 of them involved labor trafficking.

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