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Feds: Mold, sewage, cockroaches in Cicero home where immigrants were held

Federal authorities say they found 19 adults and 14 children in a Cicero home during an early morning raid Tuesday, following allegations that Guatemalan citizens were being held in the basement there and forced to work. | Manny Ramos / Sun-Times

When they got to the Cicero home where a woman had allegedly “enslaved” Guatemalan immigrants for years, the FBI had to break down every door, a prosecutor said.

Inside, agents found “deplorable” conditions. Mold. Cockroaches. Mattresses “all over the place.” And sewage backing up in the basement where Concepcion Malinek allegedly forced the immigrants — one as young as 18 months old — to live.

Malinek told the immigrants they couldn’t leave until they paid debts to her worth thousands of dollars, prosecutors say. That included the rent she charged them to live amid the squalor. When one immigrant fell behind on payments, she allegedly refused access to a bathroom until she was at least paid a late fee.

But Thursday, Malinek found herself in federal custody and facing a judge. Her lawyer argued that she had actually tried to help the immigrants, offering them shelter from trouble in Guatemala. Assistant U.S. Attorney Christopher Parente said Malinek had instead “exploited the exploited” for financial gain.

“Don’t dare say she has a good heart,” Parente countered.

A criminal complaint filed earlier this week charged Malinek, 49, with forced labor, and U.S. Magistrate Judge Jeffrey Cole ordered her held in federal custody after the hearing Thursday at the Dirksen Federal Courthouse. He said she appeared to have “a glut of money” available, and he called the risk she might flee “quite enormous.”

Concepcion Malinek | Law enforcement mug shot
Concepcion Malinek | Law enforcement mug shot

Parente said the evidence against Malinek is “getting stronger by the minute.” He also said Malinek’s husband — a TSA officer — is a subject of the investigation.

The TSA said in a statement: “TSA has become aware that an employee’s spouse was arrested in connection to an alleged labor trafficking case. TSA is cooperating with law enforcement during their investigation.”

Federal authorities said they found 19 adults and 14 children in Malinek’s Cicero home during the early morning raid Tuesday. Prosecutors say Malinek helped the immigrants cross into the United States, either through the use of her name and address or by paying airfare. Then, she told them they owed her thousands of dollars for her assistance and helped them find employment in a Romeoville factory.

Malinek allegedly forced the immigrants to live in her basement, collected large portions of their paychecks, told them they couldn’t leave until their debt was paid, and kept track of the money in a ledger. One child, a 15-year-old girl, was allegedly given an ID that said she was 27 and was sent to work on the factory floor five days a week.

It wasn’t clear Thursday what happened to the immigrants after Tuesday’s raid. A spokeswoman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement declined to provide details. A Department of Children and Family Services representative said it was “unable to respond.”

Though some of the children held in the home were teenagers, Parente said much younger children were found there, including an 18-month-old.

The prosecutor said Malinek told the immigrants never to open the door for anyone, which is why the FBI had to break down the doors Tuesday.

Malinek is a dual citizen of the United States and Guatemala, Parente said. She might have an ownership stake in a hotel in Guatemala known as Hotel Malinek.

Raymond Pijon, Malinek’s defense attorney, painted a completely different picture of his client Thursday. He said many of the immigrants were relatives of Malinek’s who had fled Guatemala. He said she spent her own money to fly the immigrants to the area and put her own home at risk by letting them stay there.

“There was a lot of good heart behind that,” Pijon said, “because she knows what’s happening in Guatemala.”

He said the Guatemala hotel — a building made of cinder blocks that cost $30,000 to build — is really more of a “fortress” or “safe place” for people to stay.

Pijon said immigration officials visited the Cicero house once a week and knew about the people living there. He said that gave the immigrants an opportunity to report Malinek. But Parente said Malinek actually preyed on the immigrants’ fear of being deported, and the judge didn’t buy Pijon’s argument.

“Theoretically, they could go to Trump Tower,” Cole said.

Pijon said Illinois “social services” had also visited the home — prompting another retort from the judge.

“A worthless agency, in my judgment,” Cole said.

Finally, Parente insisted that no one in the government knew Malinek had actually been exploiting the immigrants financially.

“If it’s true,” the judge said, “God help us all. And shame on those agencies.”