- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 22, 2021

Prosecutors didn’t say what the 15-year-old Guatemalan girl was expecting when her father brought her to the U.S. as part of the previous family migrant surge, but they did say what awaited her after she was caught at the border, released to await an asylum hearing, then headed to Chicago, where the family had made arrangements to stay at the home of Concepcion Malinek.

Her father was forced into the basement of a home in Cicero, Illinois, living with more than 20 other migrants among roaches and mold. The girl was allowed to live on the upper floors of Malinek’s home along with about a dozen others, but she didn’t go to school.

Instead Malinek, a onetime nun turned human smuggler, got the girl a fake ID showing she was 28 and, according to court documents, sent the teen to work in a cold sandwich factory alongside her father. Malinek took most of their pay to use toward the “debt” she claimed the family owed her.

“Malinek was verbally abusive to me and the others in the house. Malinek would tell the adults that if anyone told anyone about what was happening in the house or their debt payments to Malinek that she would have them deported back to Guatemala and Malinek would keep their kids here with her,” the teen, identified in the government’s sentencing memo as “Victim 1,” told investigators.

At one point, Malinek feared the father was going to report what was happening and said she would claim the man was sexually abusing the girl, the teen explained.

She also said she saw Malinek hit her 5-year-old cousin and heard Malinek threaten her own brothers with deportation.

A federal judge slapped a 6½-year sentence on Malinek this week for forced labor. Prosecutors said she arranged to sneak families into the U.S., agreed to take in others once they crossed and then charged fees of up to $42,000 to compensate her for her efforts.

As tens of thousands of illegal immigrant families stream into the U.S., the case offers a stark warning about what some of them are likely facing now that they are in the country.

“There were no white picket fences or endless shopping sprees in Malinek’s America,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Christopher V. Parente, who prosecuted the case, told the judge. “Instead, the victims were packed like sardines into Malinek’s basement, and together they fought off the roaches, lice, mold and desperation of their new life.”

The teen girl’s father said he paid $14,000 for the two of them to be smuggled into the U.S. When they were nabbed at the border, he said, they gave Malinek’s name as the place they would live while their immigration case was pending. They were released under those conditions.

Malinek then charged him $18,000 for getting him from the border to her Illinois home, he said. At the sandwich factory, he earned $1,956 a month and paid nearly $1,000 of that to Malinek — $200 to his debt, $200 for transportation to and from work, $35 for a phone and $424 for “bills.”

Jessica Vaughan, policy studies director at the Center for Immigration Studies, said it’s certain there are other cases like Malinek’s.

“But we have no way of knowing how many because the government does no meaningful monitoring of the migrants or their welfare,” she said.

That’s partly because the Department of Homeland Security is so overwhelmed with cases — U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement reported earlier this year that it has 1.2 million people actively awaiting deportation and another 2.3 million with ongoing cases — and partly because there is a segment of the country that Ms. Vaughan said takes a “see no evil attitude toward everyone involved.

“They don’t want to know how often it happens because it disrupts their preferred narrative that everyone who comes here illegally needs to be helped,” she said.

The 15-year-old wasn’t the youngest of Malinek’s targets. Mr. Parente, the prosecutor, said that designation goes to a 2-year-old, the son of parents identified as Victim 8 and Victim 9.

They were at work at the sandwich factory one day, paying an extra fee to Malinek to have her relatives babysit the boy, when they got a call that their son had pulled a steaming mug of tea off the counter and scalded his scalp.

The parents begged to bring the boy to the hospital but, as Mr. Parente tells it, Malinek refused and threatened deportation if the parents disobeyed, fearing they would expose her operation. Malinek gave the parents tomato sauce to put on the sores.

“It is a crime where there is such a power imbalance between the trafficker and their victims that the trafficker is even able to control and silence parents who have to watch a 2-year-old child suffer in pain and anguish when they know a doctor could provide instant relief to their ailing child,” Mr. Parente told the court.

The case raises troubling questions, including how Malinek was able to escape detection for so long.

Her attorney pointed out that immigration authorities regularly came to the house as part of check-ins on the migrants with pending cases. FBI Special Agent Ashley Kizler said in a court affidavit that Malinek also drove migrants to in-person check-in appointments.

One of the victims told the FBI that while most of the migrants living there had pending asylum cases, at least two were “in the United States illegally with no pending asylum claim.”

There is no indication in the court records that Homeland Security Department authorities ever flagged the situation before the FBI learned of it.

Indeed, the fact that Homeland Security didn’t do anything seemed to embolden Malinek.

“Immigration knows how many people live in this house, you guys are poor, and I have all the money,” one victim recalled her saying. Another time, she said, Malinek dared them to call immigration officials to report her, saying, “They already know you are here, so go ahead and call them.”

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement issued a press release this week touting the sentencing, but a spokeswoman declined to answer The Washington Times’ follow-up questions about the case.

Malinek, 51, is herself an immigrant from Guatemala who came to the U.S. as a Catholic nun on a religious visa three decades ago. She left the order after two years in Milwaukee and headed for Chicago to earn a living.

She became naturalized as a U.S. citizen in 2018. By that time, prosecutors said, she had been trafficking fellow Guatemalans for nearly a decade.

As Mr. Parente tells it, she was involved every step of the way, dangling “false promises and prices” to persuade victims to make the trip in the first place, helping arrange their smuggling north, assisting them in getting released from Homeland Security custody, arming them with bogus Social Security cards and holding them in servitude.

Malinek used her connections in her hometown in Guatemala to select some of the most susceptible victims: those she knew were desperate enough to risk everything and leave their home for a chance at a better life in the United States,” the prosecutor said.

She would suggest a fee of about $5,000. Once the migrants were in her clutches, she would reveal the real price: “anywhere from $18,000 to $42,000,” the prosecutor said.

Prosecutors asked for a sentence of more than eight years. Malinek was asking for no more than half that time.

Malinek’s attorney, Robert L. Rascia, described her upbringing as a series of misfortunes, including an attempted forced abortion by her grandmother, an abusive father and a childhood of “extreme poverty.” She was forced to join the convent at age 13 as a way to escape that troubled home life, he said.

Still, she would help her parents migrate to the U.S. and live in her home. They both died in June from COVID-19.

Mr. Rascia said the victims sought out Malinek, and she was doing them a service by receiving them. That allowed them to be released by ICE, he said.

The lawyer acknowledged that Malinek used threats of deportation but vehemently denied the suggestion that she forbade the parents of the 2-year-old from seeing a doctor.

Mr. Rascia said Malinek did not actively target families with children.

“There has been no showing that the defendant has caused these children to receive worse treatment in this country than they would have otherwise received back in Guatemala. The defendant did not want or direct anyone to bring their children with them to this country,” he told the judge.

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