North America

The Associated Press
9 December 1997

In Maryland, a Quiet 15-Year-Old and a Hard Day's Work
by Todd Spangler, Associated Press Writer

MARYDEL, Md. (AP) -- Filomena Simon Perez seems younger than her 15 years. Her dark, wide eyes move quickly, trying to make sense of things.

She still plays with dolls.

But Filomena passed for 21 at Chestertown Foods, where she worked 40 hours a week chopping chickens at minimum wage at a plant where they scald birds in boiling water.

She had papers falsifying her age -- and she said she could handle the work. She said few questions were asked.

Filomena, who has only three years of schooling, came to Maryland's Eastern Shore from Guatemala with a relative, who charged her $500 to smuggle her into America.

"He charged that little'' because he's a relative, Filomena said.

Not long after they arrived in Maryland, the relative left for Ohio. She stayed in Marydel -- alone.

"It gets lonely,'' she said through an interpreter, "but I play with dolls.''

Filomena's new life was disrupted when U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service agents raided the plant on Sept. 9. They expected to find illegal aliens, INS Baltimore director Benedict Ferro said; they didn't know they would find kids.

Of the 40 illegals picked up at Chestertown Foods, Filomena and five others were under 16 -- too young to be working there under federal law.

Chestertown Foods needed the help. They had orders for chicken pieces from big companies, including Campbell Soup Co. and H.J. Heinz. Americans don't want the messy jobs, plant manager Jack Laird said.

Immigrants do, he said, and ``they all had the work papers.'' When INS agents came, Filomena tried to run, but the area was fenced in. Behind her, she remembers, a voice shouted: ``Where are you going, senorita?''

The agents released her a short time later, taking her back to the run-down trailer she shares with two strangers.

Filomena now spends her days sleeping in the empty trailer or playing with her dolls.

She wonders if she will work again. She wonders if she will be deported.


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