A Mississippi poultry plant said Wednesday that it had no idea a 16-year-boy who was killed in an on-the-job accident was a minor.
The victim, a Guatemalan immigrant named Duvan Tomas Perez, died July 14 after he became entangled in machinery that he was cleaning, Mar-Jac Poultry said in a statement.
"The tragedy was compounded when we learned that the victim was a minor," the company said.
Mar-Jac Poultry said it relies on staffing companies to fill positions, and it's a condition of their contracts to verify the ages and immigration status of prospective hires with the Department of Homeland Security and through the government's E-Verify electronic system.
"Although the investigation is still ongoing, it appears now that this worker was less than 18 years of age and should not have been hired," the company said. "Mar-Jac would never knowingly put any employee, and certainly not a minor, in harm's way but it appears, at this point in the investigation, that this individual's age and identity were misrepresented on the paperwork."
"The company is undertaking a thorough audit with the staffing companies to ensure that this kind of error never happens again," Mar-Jac Poultry added.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Division have opened investigations into the accident. Workers under the age of 18 are not allowed to work in poultry plants because it’s deemed to be too dangerous and therefore a violation of child labor laws.
Duvan's body was trapped on a conveyor belt when police arrived at the facility in Hattiesburg at about 7:40 p.m., according to a police report. He was pronounced dead at the scene.
Forrest County's deputy coroner, Lisa Klem, and multiple family members told NBC News that he was 16.
Duvan was a middle school student who arrived in the U.S. from the town of Huispache in Guatemala about six years ago, relatives said.
In an interview with Telemundo in Huispache, Jose Modesto Ramirez Mendez, an uncle of Duvan's, said he was told the boy was cleaning a piece of equipment when "his whole body was pulled in where he couldn't stop himself."
"Nobody could help him," Mendez added.
Mendez said Duvan's mother objected to him working at the plant.
"The mom didn’t want him to, but he decided he wanted to have money on hand," Mendez said.
A family friend, Cipriano Chun Gabriel, lamented that Duvan's family immigrated to the U.S. in search of a better life, only to find tragedy.
"He said goodbye to his grandmother, his uncles, his family members and, sadly, he’s returning in a box," Gabriel said in an interview with a Guatemalan news outlet, Huispa Mega Visión Ramirez.
Duvan's death comes as the Biden administration is cracking down on child labor violations involving migrants.
NBC News reported last month that a federal investigation into Guatemalan children working in the U.S. in violation of child labor laws has expanded to include meatpacking and produce firms that have allegedly hired underage migrants in at least 11 states.