Fear in the Fields

For sexual harassers, undocumented farmworkers make the ‘perfect victims.’

Joseph Sorrentino February 28, 2013

On an onion farm in Elba, N.Y., during planting and harvest season about 40 percent of the workforce are women. (Photo courtesy of Joseph Sorrentino)

Like mil­lions of Mex­i­cans, Car­oli­na Martínez dreamed of com­ing to the Unit­ed States to work. Her plan was to put in a few years in the fields, save up enough mon­ey to return to her home­town, and build a house there for her fam­i­ly. Her hus­band was already work­ing on a farm out­side of Albion, N.Y., so she knew there was mon­ey to be made, cer­tain­ly more than the few dol­lars per day she typ­i­cal­ly made sell­ing food on the street.

'At first it was only words, and then he started touching women,' says Romero. 'He'd walk behind you, make sure he wasn't being watched, and he would grab your breasts, your ass.'

In 2004, at the age of 21, she took her 1‑year-old child and trav­eled some 1,200 miles by bus to the U.S. bor­der, where she hand­ed off her son to a friend and found a coy­ote (smug­gler) who would guide her and 10 oth­ers across for $2,000 each. It took a full week of hard and dan­ger­ous walk­ing to get through the desert. She ran out of food and water, and at one point twist­ed her ankle, but she didn’t dare stop. We passed peo­ple who were dead,” she recalls. But she made it out of the desert alive, reunit­ed with her infant son — whom her friend had dri­ven across the bor­der — and even­tu­al­ly made her way to a small town out­side of Rochester, N.Y., where she joined her hus­band. Martínez quick­ly found work pack­ing pota­toes and onions.

The work was hard. Dur­ing plant­i­ng and har­vest sea­sons she might work 10 hours a day, six or sev­en days a week. But she had expect­ed that. What she hadn’t expect­ed was the near-con­stant sex­u­al harass­ment on the job. The crew leader would, she says, touch women in a sex­u­al way… touch women on their ass­es.” When Martínez threat­ened to report him, he’d warn, They’ll get rid of you. And if you do go to the boss, I’ll call Immigration.”

So she didn’t tell the boss. And she didn’t tell her hus­band either, afraid he’d be so angry that he’d pick a fight and they’d both get fired — or worse, deport­ed. Women have to tol­er­ate this in silence,” she says. Because if you talk to the own­ers and you lose your job, then what? Many times dur­ing lunch, I cried. I felt I was alone.” The harass­ment con­tin­ued every day for sev­en months.

Cheryl Gee, a domes­tic and sex­u­al vio­lence spe­cial­ist in the Rochester office of the Work­er Jus­tice Cen­ter of New York, has heard count­less such tales in the 12 years that she has pro­vid­ed vic­tim advo­ca­cy to women farm­work­ers. Many of them per­ceive rape and sex­u­al harass­ment to be part of com­ing here and doing this work,” she says. They believe this is what they have to go through to feed their families.”

The major­i­ty of women farm­work­ers inter­viewed in 2010 by the South­ern Pover­ty Law Cen­ter and Human Rights Watch had expe­ri­enced some form of sex­u­al harass­ment or assault, which ranged from ver­bal abuse to rape. One 2010 study pub­lished in the jour­nal Vio­lence Against Women esti­mat­ed that as many as 80 per­cent of women farm­work­ers in cer­tain areas of the coun­try have been sex­u­al­ly harassed or assault­ed on the job. It’s so bad on some farms in Flori­da and Cal­i­for­nia that women call the fields the green motel” or the field of panties.”

What NAF­TA sowed

Women make up slight­ly more than 20 per­cent of U.S. farm­work­ers, and of these, the major­i­ty are immi­grants from Mex­i­co. Women become migra­to­ry work­ers for the same rea­sons men do — in many cas­es, to escape rur­al pover­ty. The Mex­i­can gov­ern­ment esti­mates that 80 per­cent of all campesinos earn less than $2 a day. Increas­es in the cost of sta­ples such as rice, beans and eggs have made things more dif­fi­cult for the work­ing poor. Poli­cies such as NAF­TA have also strength­ened agribusi­ness and dri­ven up food imports, push­ing small farm­ers and farm­work­ers even deep­er into pover­ty — and, in many cas­es, off their lands.

Now, work­ers trav­el­ing to the Unit­ed States are stay­ing longer, and some­times per­ma­nent­ly; they can no longer count on earn­ing even pover­ty wages back home, and those in the Unit­ed States are afraid to leave because it’s no longer so easy to slip back across the border.

Peo­ple used to stay two, three years and go back to Mex­i­co,” says Amí Kadar, the for­mer direc­tor of the now defunct Con­gre­so Inde­pen­di­ente de Tra­ba­jadores Agri­co­los, an agri­cul­tur­al work­ers cen­ter in Albion, N.Y. Now, with so much activ­i­ty at the bor­der, they’re stay­ing sev­en, eight years or longer. A lot of women, their hus­bands are here and they want to join them.” She said some sin­gle women are com­ing, too. They think, Men can go and make mon­ey, I want to, also.’”

These women, like so many undoc­u­ment­ed work­ers, often end up on farms, doing some of the most dan­ger­ous work in the Unit­ed States. Accord­ing to the Nation­al Safe­ty Coun­cil and the Depart­ment of Labor, farm work con­sis­tent­ly ranks among the top five indus­tries for acci­dents and injuries. It’s also among the low­est pay­ing. And for immi­grant women, it’s rife with sex­u­al harass­ment and abuse.

Gen­er­al­ly, [the per­pe­tra­tor] will have some kind of legal immi­gra­tion sta­tus,” says Liz Maria Chacko, a super­vis­ing attor­ney at Friends of Farm­work­ers in Philadel­phia. This gives them pow­er over their vic­tims. They’ll make threats like, I have papers and you don’t.’” Accord­ing to Chacko, a lack of flu­en­cy in Eng­lish makes the women even more vul­ner­a­ble. Their imme­di­ate super­vi­sors, who tend to be their harassers, also tend to be bilin­gual. If a woman com­plains, the per­pe­tra­tor can direct­ly present his case to the farm own­er in Eng­lish. The woman who’s been vic­tim­ized cannot.

That’s what hap­pened at one farm where Car­oli­na Martínez worked. She says the man­ag­er, a Mex­i­can immi­grant him­self, rou­tine­ly approached women for sex. (He didn’t both­er her, prob­a­bly because she lived with her hus­band.) He told [women] if they did not have sex with him, they were going to lose their jobs,” she says. Many women com­plied. Final­ly, one woman spoke up about the abuse to the farm own­er. But, says Martínez, the own­er didn’t believe her. In fact, he may not have under­stood her at all, because the woman spoke only Span­ish and the own­er, like most, spoke only Eng­lish — while the super­vi­sor spoke both. The hand­ful of bilin­gual work­ers who could have trans­lat­ed were afraid to get involved. Not will­ing to lose his man­ag­er, own­er instead fired the woman who com­plained — which sent a strong mes­sage to the oth­er women.

Chacko says own­ers often react defen­sive­ly to accu­sa­tions of harass­ment. The response we get is usu­al­ly denial.”

A sec­ond group of agri­cul­tur­al labor­ers par­tic­u­lar­ly vul­ner­a­ble to harass­ment are those in food pro­cess­ing plants, says Chacko. I don’t think I’ve spo­ken with a woman work­er in meat pack­ing or poul­try pro­cess­ing who hasn’t expe­ri­enced sex­u­al harass­ment,” she says. A male super­vi­sor will just walk down the line and run his hand along their but­tock, make sex­u­al com­ments.” She rep­re­sent­ed one woman who worked in a food pro­cess­ing plant who was forced to have sex with her super­vi­sor in order to keep her job.

Anoth­er client, Jose­fi­na Romero, grew up in Guadala­jara and immi­grat­ed from Mex­i­co eight years ago to escape work­ing for pover­ty wages in a plas­tic bot­tle fac­to­ry in Mex­i­co City. Hop­ing to save mon­ey to help her moth­er, who was sick with dia­betes, she head­ed north and even­tu­al­ly end­ed up work­ing at a poul­try plant in Penn­syl­va­nia. Romero’s new line leader liked to harass the women on the assem­bly line as they worked. At first it was only words, and then he start­ed touch­ing women,” she says. He’d walk behind you, make sure he wasn’t being watched, and he would grab your breasts, your ass.”

Romero con­sid­ered approach­ing a super­vi­sor, but he was worse — he was harass­ing women, too.” She com­plained repeat­ed­ly to oth­er man­age­ment, but no actions were tak­en. She had no one to con­fide in; she was afraid to tell her hus­band because she thought he might attack her line manager.

At one point, Romero woke up to find half her face tem­porar­i­ly par­a­lyzed. At the hos­pi­tal, doc­tors told her the prob­lem was most like­ly stress-relat­ed. All that pres­sure to remain qui­et made me sick,” she says.

A month after her last com­plaint to man­age­ment, she was fired.

Who to trust?

In its report, the South­ern Pover­ty Law Cen­ter calls women agri­cul­tur­al work­ers the per­fect vic­tims.” They are typ­i­cal­ly undoc­u­ment­ed and don’t speak Eng­lish. They des­per­ate­ly need the work to sup­port their fam­i­lies back in Mex­i­co. Those who work on farms often live in remote camps or farmer-owned hous­es, far from any town. If the harass­ment gets bad enough, they may final­ly approach their employ­er or an advo­cate. But these women almost nev­er involve law enforce­ment. A client has the right to file a crim­i­nal charge [in sex­u­al harass­ment cas­es],” says Chacko, but I’ve nev­er had any­one do that.” One work­er put it this way: It’s a rule Mex­i­cans have…never call police because they will call Immi­gra­tion. If I get beat­en and I call the police, then I’m beat­en and deported.”

Sher­iff John York of Liv­ingston Coun­ty in west­ern New York says that in his expe­ri­ence, undoc­u­ment­ed work­ers aren’t afraid of the police or sher­iffs them­selves — they’re afraid that these local law enforce­ment offi­cers will call Immi­gra­tion. Because Mex­i­can farm­work­ers rarely speak Eng­lish and offi­cers rarely speak Span­ish, most offi­cers will call Bor­der Patrol or Immi­gra­tion and Cus­toms Enforce­ment (ICE) for trans­la­tion, York says. And when the fed­er­al offi­cials show up, they’ll usu­al­ly ask for iden­ti­fi­ca­tion, even from the vic­tim — exact­ly what undoc­u­ment­ed women most fear. I don’t tell women they should go to law enforce­ment or they shouldn’t,” says Gee. I tell them it’s an option, and we talk about the risk. The imme­di­ate risk is they’re going to be detained.”

There­sa Asmus is a rape cri­sis ser­vice super­vi­sor in Batavia, N.Y. — not far from Liv­ingston Coun­ty — who also works with vic­tims of domes­tic vio­lence, includ­ing some farm­work­ers. She says that undoc­u­ment­ed women often wait to seek help until they have been vic­tim­ized so severe­ly that seek­ing the pro­tec­tion of the police was a life or death choice.”

Occa­sion­al­ly, police involve­ment can have a hap­py end­ing. One young woman I spoke with, an undoc­u­ment­ed immi­grant from Guatemala who worked on a veg­etable farm in west­ern New York, final­ly sought police help after being raped twice by a friend of her hus­band. The per­pe­tra­tor was arrest­ed and deport­ed and, with Gee’s help, the young woman applied for a U‑Visa, which grants crime vic­tims tem­po­rary legal sta­tus and work eli­gi­bil­i­ty for up to four years.

Harassed and defeated

Mike Sci­oli is a lead Bor­der Patrol agent based in Grand Island, N.Y. He says that crime vic­tims have no rea­son to fear the Bor­der Patrol or ICE. If some­one is a vic­tim, that takes prece­dence over any­thing,” he says. In a res­cue, legal or ille­gal doesn’t come up.” (ICE offi­cials did not respond to repeat­ed calls and emails request­ing an interview.)

But immi­grant advo­cates tell a dif­fer­ent sto­ry. Lew Papen­fuse, co-exec­u­tive direc­tor of the Rochester-based Work­er Jus­tice Cen­ter, says that, in his expe­ri­ence, whether an undoc­u­ment­ed crime vic­tim is detained and deport­ed depends on the enlight­en­ment” of the law enforce­ment agent. In some domes­tic vio­lence cas­es, immi­gra­tion is called; in oth­ers, offi­cers focus on help­ing the victim.

We do call Bor­der Patrol or ICE when there’s a lan­guage issue,” says Sher­iff Scott Hess of Orleans Coun­ty, on Lake Ontario in New York. It’s at the deputy’s dis­cre­tion.” Hess is aware that call­ing fed­er­al agents for trans­la­tion pre­sent­ed a prob­lem for undoc­u­ment­ed crime vic­tims. There are a lot of crimes in the His­pan­ic com­mu­ni­ty that go unre­port­ed because of ICE or Bor­der Patrol and the lan­guage issue. [But] we don’t have the lux­u­ry of call­ing a paid interpreter.”

Sher­iff York’s depart­ment does things dif­fer­ent­ly, rely­ing instead on vol­un­teer inter­preters from the com­mu­ni­ty. He has also worked with advo­cates to build trust” — and send a mes­sage: We’re not going to treat them as ille­gals.” But, he adds, Not every police depart­ment does what we do.”

Women who are the vic­tims of seri­ous crimes, includ­ing rape, domes­tic vio­lence and sex­u­al harass­ment, are eli­gi­ble to apply for a U‑Visa. But in order to qual­i­fy, they must coop­er­ate with law enforce­ment — and thus risk depor­ta­tion. Sev­er­al of the women in this arti­cle, includ­ing Martínez, have been grant­ed U‑Visas, but they described it as a long and com­pli­cat­ed process fraught with risk.

Most of the women farm­work­ers I inter­viewed who expe­ri­enced harass­ment end­ed up feel­ing defeated.

Ana Gutiér­rez, like the oth­er women I spoke with for this arti­cle, came to the Unit­ed States seek­ing a bet­ter life for her fam­i­ly. She’d been work­ing in a sta­tionery store in Copala, Mex­i­co, earn­ing about $25 a week, bare­ly enough to pro­vide for her infant daugh­ter. Like Martínez, her plan was to save enough to build a home in Mex­i­co by work­ing in the Unit­ed States for a few years. She entered the coun­try in 2003 and end­ed up in New York’s Hud­son Val­ley, where she found work on a duck farm. The farm pro­duced paté, which requires that the ducks be force-fed every few hours. It was very hard work,” she says.“Very dirty.”

In addi­tion to the bru­tal work sched­ule, Gutiér­rez found her­self sub­ject­ed to near­ly con­stant sex­u­al harass­ment by a Mex­i­can cowork­er. He said he would help with my work if I paid him with my body,” she says. The abuse got so bad that she final­ly quit. But at her next job, on anoth­er farm, men also harassed women. When she spoke to me she was between jobs, des­per­ate­ly hop­ing to get anoth­er job and save enough mon­ey just to return home to Mex­i­co, her dream in tat­ters. The Unit­ed States is not a pret­ty place,” she says. It is like a prison. I have a sis­ter and niece who want­ed to come here. I told them not to come. To live here is to suffer.”

This arti­cle was report­ed in part­ner­ship with The Inves­tiga­tive Fund at The Nation Insti­tute. Names of agri­cul­tur­al work­ers have been changed to pro­tect their anonymity.

Joseph Sor­renti­no is a writer and pho­tog­ra­ph­er. He has been doc­u­ment­ing the lives of agri­cul­tur­al work­ers on both sides of the U.S./Mexico bor­der for 12 years.
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