Tennessee JFON Comes to Aid Florida Farmworkers
Duette, Manatee County
Seen from a distance, the strawberry fields of this Central Florida farm are pretty. People driving by can admire the expanse of neat rows of green stubby plants, the glimpses of the summer red berries. You can see the workers bent over in the fields, but they are faceless, nameless. The day is sunny and the sky is blue. It all makes for a pleasant pastoral scene.
Get out of your car, however, walk into the fields, and it's an entirely different picture.
The furrows between the plants are thick with mud. The workers do not have boots; they wear regular sneakers and the mud has soaked through, squishing between their toes. Many of them have developed foot fungal problems. The workers don't have gloves, and the pesticides the farmer uses on the fields cause skin rashes and make their eyes burn.
The workers are moving fast through the fields and, although it's a hot day, they don't often stop for water. The water they are given "tastes like mud," explains Tomás*, a young man from Honduras. It tastes like it hasn't been stored properly; it burns going down the throat and causes stomach cramps. Drinking it just makes them thirstier, so what's the point of drinking at all?
Back in Honduras, Tomás has a wife and two daughters. The 5-year-old is sickly and her medicine is expensive. There isn't a lot of work available, but there is a man in town who sells- illegally, of course - H-2A visas, meant for seasonal agricultural workers. Tomás borrowed $3,500 to buy one. He was promised four months of work at $10.25 per hour. He was told he would be provided proper equipment and training.
It didn't take Tomás long to realize he'd been told lies.
Complaints were met with threats of deportation. Workers who talked to outsiders- or government officials -were kicked off the property. Those who talked, the overseers told them, will ruin it for everybody. And what about the people who are counting on you back home?
"They told us we were ungrateful," Tomás remembers with a snort of disgust. "If you complained, they moved you to a worse section of the field where there were even fewer strawberries. Fewer strawberries mean less pay," he says bitterly. "It was retaliation- our punishment for asking for better water and wages."
The overseers took steps to ensure that the workers would never talk to anyone who might be able to help them. One night, they kept the men in the fields late, much later than usual. It became so dark that none of them could see well enough to pick strawberries. They were bone-tired and confused. Why were they standing around in the fields? Why weren't they allowed to go back to their trailer and sleep?
Tomás found out later that immigration officials had been waiting for them at their trailer- not to deport them, but to investigate their treatment. The officials had finally given up and gone home.
After two months at the strawberry farm, the fields were picked bare, the men's labors over. That morning, Tomás and his friends were waiting to go to the next farm to complete the terms of their agreement. They were exhausted, but hopeful. Perhaps they would be luckier this time; perhaps conditions would be better at the new place.
Instead the farm manager gathered the men together and handed each of them $200. Vacate your quarters, he told them, and leave. You have until noon.
They had nowhere to go. Could they go back to Honduras with nothing to show for their troubles? Could they find work by themselves? Five despairing men huddled together, discussing what they would do next. One of the men mentioned his aunt in Nashville. They found a driver for the farm who had her own car and paid her $150 each to drive them to Tennessee.
The U visa program was designed by U.S. Congress to encourage undocumented victims of serious crimes (e.g., domestic violence, armed robbery, extortion) to come forward to report crimes without the fear of deportation. Those who are willing to help law enforcement officials investigate and prosecute these crimes may be eligible to receive one of the 10,000 U visas awarded annually by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Those holding a U visa are allowed to remain legally in this country for a period of four years, although extensions can occasionally be granted and the recipient may be eligible to apply for permanent residence (a Green Card).
Adrienne Kittos, Legal Director for Tennessee Justice For Our Neighbors, has helped many clients obtain U Visas, but this case, she says, was different. "I'm used to domestic violence and assault cases," she explains. "This was a bit of a challenge."
Tomás and his friends had already been in Nashville for several weeks when they first met Adrienne. They had nothing. They couldn't work. They couldn't afford a private immigration lawyer. Luckily, the aunt had been a volunteer for TNJFON. She made an appointment for them to see Adrienne.
"I was worried at first that it would be hard for them," Adrienne says. "I wasn't sure they could be forthcoming enough about their experiences."
Besides the five men who were TNJFON clients, there are 10 others from the same strawberry farm in Florida who are now part of the same ongoing investigation. Charges include witness tampering, forced labor, fraud and foreign labor contracting, and peonage, also known as debt slavery.
"This isn't uncommon." explains Adrienne. "Workers get here and find they don't have a lot of options. They are exploited with impunity."
The men were initially hesitant to speak up about their struggles, but, slowly, with the help of Alvaro Manrique Barrenchea, the staff Legal Advocate at TNJFON who serves as their translator, they learned to relax and to feel safe. Meetings with officials of the Department of Labor gave them further confidence that the U.S. government was serious about prosecuting these crimes.
Adrienne filed the men's petitions in late August. The U visas are all pending now, and she estimates the men will all have received them by late next year. Meanwhile, the men are unlikely to be deported.
"They are surviving at the moment," she says. "They have been able to find interim work, but they are very concerned about how they are going to pay off their debts and support their families."
Tomás misses his wife and daughters and worries about them constantly. He needs to make money to send to them, but he would also like to return home.
What would he say to the farm boss if he could? What would he say to the man who sold him the H-2A visa?
"I would tell them to not deceive people," he says, then sadly shakes his head. "But that would be very difficult. They might retaliate. It's dangerous to speak out in Honduras."