Undocumented Life: Protecting migrant farm workers from abuse

During a hot afternoon last week, a group of farm workers sat under a tree resting after a long day working in the corn fields in Central Illinois.

The 100-degree heat is unforgiving and the men lay in the grass tired. Attorney Miguel Keberlein-Gutierrez walked up to them and introduced himself.  As he starts talking to three workers sitting on the grass, others start to gather around and he starts handing out his business cards.

"I'm just here to tell you about your rights," he tells them.

Keberlein-Gutierrez, who runs the Illinois Migrant Legal Assistance Project, sits next to the workers and starts talking to them about work, their contract, the heat and whether they are getting enough water in the fields.

About 700 2HA workers came to Illinois last year and that number is expected to increase to about 1,000 this year, he said.

(Scroll down for photos.)

These temporary agriculture workers are vulnerable to abuse because they are under the radar. No one really knows they're here picking fruits and vegetables or working in the corn fields. These workers live in isolated areas, without knowing where they are.

Employers transport them from their country of origin to the fields. They're completely dependent on their bosses for food and shelter.  They are supposed to be paid $11 an hour, and have their living costs covered.

They also know that if they are fired they will be shipped back to their countries.

Many employers use this to their advantage. They know the workers won't complain,  said Keberlein-Gutierrez.

The workers nod. But no one says anything.

The attorney reminds them that just a year ago, another temporary farm worker died in the same fields where they are working now.  He's name was Humberto Casarrubias Sanchez, 36, who died from hyperthermia due to extreme heat, the coroner told a local newspaper.

The worker disappeared July 19, 2011 while detasseling -- the same work these migrant workers were hired to do.

The workers nod, they know about Humberto's death. He, too, was an H2A worker.

This type of visa is used by growers to fill positions when owners can prove that they can't find Americans to work the fields.

Because a visa is given to each worker thanks to the employer, many workers are not paid fairly  and some workers are even abused. Many workers often have to pay for housing, the legal fees employers encountered while processing the visa, among other "administrative" costs, said  Keberlein-Gutierrez.

"They are brought here by bus and they have no geographical idea of where they are," he said while driving to LaSalle Illinois.  "This is a vulnerable population."

The Illinois Farm Bureau was asked about these alleged abuses, but they were unable to comment Monday.

Keberlein-Gutierrez and his team -- another attorney, an intern and a paralegal -- use the public contracts posted on the U.S. Department of Labor's web site to find these workers. They visit the workers regularly to ensure they're not being abused.

The Illinois Migrant Legal Assistance Project has filed many complaints with the U.S. Department of Labor on behalf of U.S. workers who were denied these jobs and recently settled a lawsuit against a company for not paying H2A workers their last paycheck, he said.

The settlement had a privacy clause and Keberlein-Guitierrez said he couldn't talk about the settlement.

During this recruiting trip, the attorney stopped at a motel at Springs Valley and a motel in LaSalle Illinois. Most of the workers were new in the area. Most of them were brought to Illinois by bus from Alabama, Georgia and some from Florida.

The workers were quiet. The youngest of the workers joked around and talked about their loved ones. But not many reported abuse.

"They are afraid of talking"  Keberlein-Gutierrez  said while driving back to Chicago that night. For him, this is the beginning of a long work season. The important thing is that the workers know him and he'll come back to continue the relationship and build trust, which is what workers need in order to feel safe and report abuse.

Photos by Maria I. Zamudio.

© Community Renewal Society 2012

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