Undocumented Farmworkers Make “Perfect Victims” for Sexual Harassers and Abusers


This piece originally appeared in In These Times and was published in partnership with the Investigative Fund at the Nation Institute.

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, New York, 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.

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, New York, 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, New York. “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, the 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, New York—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, New York. 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.”

Names of agricultural workers have been changed to protect their anonymity.

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