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Written Testimony of Ana Isabel Vallejo
Supervising Attorney
Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center

Madame Chair and Commissioners, thank you for the opportunity to speak with you on the subject of trafficking in persons in the context of the agricultural industry, which perhaps represents the most extreme form of abuse in a an industry that is riddled with many other forms of labor abuses, such as sub-poverty wages, harsh working conditions, lack of benefits, and little or no worker protections.  While the extent of slavery has diminished and evolved during the course of history, the agricultural industry remains plagued by one of the most dehumanizing and insidious violations of human rights. 

My name is Ana Isabel Vallejo and I am a Supervising Attorney for Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center’s Lucha:  A Women’s Legal Project in Miami, Florida.  Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center is a not-for-profit non-governmental organization founded in 1996 to protect and promote the basic human rights of immigrants. Since 1997, Lucha:  A Women’s Legal Project has been dedicated to assist victims of violent crimes including domestic violence, sexual assault and trafficking in persons in their immigration process.  For the past eight years, I have been responsible for providing direct legal representation to foreign-born trafficked persons in South Florida throughout the investigation and/or prosecution of their traffickers, and in their immigration related matters.

In our experience in Florida, the majority of the cases of forced labor in the fields are immigrant and migrant farm workers from Mexico, Guatemala and other Central-American countries.  Many of them are also of indigenous descent and speak indigenous languages.  Additionally, although a common misconception is that only undocumented immigrants are trafficked, we have seen cases in Florida of US Citizens, mainly homeless African-American men and temporary foreign-born workers who have also been held in involuntary servitude and forced labor conditions through the use of threats and the actual use of violence, which include beatings, shootings, and pistol-whipping.  We are also now seeing more and more cases where workers have been trafficked in the United States through the abuse of the H2A and H2B guest worker programs.  These visas particularly lend themselves to abuse by employers and recruiters because they authorize the worker to work only for the specific employer who petitions for them.  The worker is thus not free to change employers.  Often times, recruiters in the country of origin entice workers to come to the United States to work and, once in this country, the conditions of employment change or there is no work.  In many instances, some of these workers have mortgaged their houses or incurred loans or other significant debt in the home country in order to be able to pay for the visas and travel costs.

To get a deeper understanding of how trafficking in persons has manifested itself in the fields, I would like to review some of the cases successfully prosecuted in Florida over the past 15 years:

  1. U.S. v. Flores - a 1997 case of an estimated 400 workers, mostly indigenous Mexican and Guatemalan men and women, harvesting vegetables and citrus who were forced to work 10-12 hour days, 6 days per week, for as little as 20 dollars a week under the watch of armed guards.  This case involved both foreign-born documented and undocumented workers who were recruited in Arizona and transported to work by force in Florida and South Carolina.  The immigrant workers who had visas had their documents taken away and were held against their will.  In addition, people who attempted to visit the employer’s labor camps, such as priest, vendors, friends and relatives, were also threatened and physically harmed.
  2. U.S. v. Cuello (1999) – more that 30 pickers were held in two trailers in swamplands west of Immokalee, a rural town in south central Florida.  In that case, the employer “bought” workers from a coyote (“smuggler”) for $1,000.00 each and kept them under constant watch.  They were paid approximately $40.00.   
  3. US v. Tecum (2001) – a young, indigenous Guatemalan woman was forced to work in the tomato fields and at the home of her trafficker.  In addition to being forced to work in the fields all day, she was repeatedly raped at night by her trafficker.
  4. U.S. v. Ramos (2004) – involved the enslavement of over 700 farm workers in the citrus industry in Florida and North Carolina who were threatened with death if they tried to leave.  Employers controlled every aspect of the farm worker’s lives.  They controlled, their housing, work, transportation to and from the groves and owned the stores in town where they took workers to purchase food.  Additionally, traffickers pistol-whipped and assaulted service drivers who gave farm workers rides leaving the area. 
  5. U.S. v. Navarrete – one of the most recent cases involving Mexican and Guatemalan workers, some of indigenous descent, that were beaten for being unwilling or unable to work or when they attempted to leave their employers.  In addition to substandard living conditions, the traffickers held the workers in debt, and chained and locked workers in box trucks as punishment for not following traffickers’ orders.

As summarized in the cases above, in Florida we see a farm labor contractor model whereby the farm labor contractor or “crew leader” acts as an intermediary between the grower and the worker.  For a fee, they will recruit, transport, and supervise the farm worker.  The crew leaders offer employment, make other representations regarding the terms of employment, transport workers to the farms, ranch or processing plants, and oversee the work performed in the fields.  Often the contractor not only contacts and moves the farm worker but also controls housing, food, and other vital aspects of the workers’ everyday needs.  Moreover, many times the contractor or crew leader” is the only link between the foreign-born workers and the outside community because of the isolated location of the farms, and differences in language and culture.  As such, the contractor ends up being the banker, the landlord, the food supplier, the transporter, and the check cashier.

Unfortunately, the multiple layers of contracted labor make it difficult to impute criminal liability to the grower who benefits from cheap labor. Sadly, many growers will turn a blind-eye to immigration status and the working conditions in their lands in order to obtain a workforce that is cheap to employ and with little the risk of being reported for violations of labor and employment rights. The Commission is in a great position to guarantee that these rights are protected. While criminal liability might be difficult to impute, civil liability has a less stringent standard of proof. Moreover, while the chief purpose of the Trafficking Victim’s Protection Act of 2000 (TVPA) and it’s subsequent amendments of 2003, 2005, and 2008 was to address the crime of human trafficking, these statutes also provide a framework for civil actions either by individual trafficked persons or by other governmental departments or agencies. However, in order to be successful in prosecuting a case either in the criminal context or in the civil context, workers, especially foreign-born workers, must feel safe from the threat of deportation.

To this end the TVPA has created several forms of immigration relief, including T Visas and U Visas, and other protections. Now, continued presence, a mechanism that allows the trafficked person to remain and work in the United States legally during the investigation and/or prosecution of the acts of trafficking, is also available for victims seeking civil remedies in the United States.

By collaborating with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Commission can now insure that victim-witnesses in an ongoing case where it is involved will be available to testify should it be necessary. Promptly seeking this relief will provide access to social and medical services that the trafficked person might need. Most importantly, securing employment authorization allows the worker the ability to obtain employment in an environment that is free of abuses and exploitation. Moreover, the EEOC is in a unique position to insure the long-term availability of foreign born victim-witnesses because it is one of the agencies recognized as a “Certifying Agency” for the purposes of U Visa, which allows victim-witnesses in a federal investigation that appears to involve one or some of the qualifying criminal activity.1

In addition, collaboration with other law enforcement, government agencies and non-governmental agencies is critical because investigations involving migrant workers can be complex since there are no fixed addresses, door to door investigation may be necessary, schedules for interviews can be unpredictable (evenings and weekends), and there is a lot more possibility for retaliation against witnesses or attempts to intimidate and/or interfere with the investigation by the employers. Therefore, protection for the workers, and other witnesses involved needs to be swiftly coordinated.

Finally, the Commission should insure that all of its employees who may come into contact with trafficked persons receive specialized training developed and imparted by non-governmental organizations in partnership with law enforcement, such as the one offered by the Freedom Network Training Institute.

Thank you again for your important work and continued support in this area. On behalf of hundreds of trafficked persons that my organization represents, I thank you for the opportunity to speak today.


Footnote

1 Qualifying criminal activity for a U Visa includes any one or more of the following or any similar activity in violation of federal, state, or local criminal law : rape, torture, trafficking, incest, domestic violence, sexual assault, abusive sexual contact, prostitution, sexual exploitation, female genital mutilation, being held hostage, peonage, involuntary servitude, slave trade, kidnapping, abduction, unlawful criminal restraint, false imprisonment, black mail, extortion, manslaughter, murder, felonious assault, witness tampering, obstruction of justice, perjury or attempt, conspiracy, or solicitation to commit any of the above mentioned crimes. 8 USC §1101 (a) (15)(U)(iii).