Corporate Accountability and WorkPlace  
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Undocumented Farmworkers Are 'Perfect Victims' for Sexual Assault and Harrassment

Women farmworkers face not only brutal working conditions but a climate of intimidation and virtually no protection from sexual advances.

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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.

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