Used and Abused
With fake names, fake Social Security cards and few rights,
migrant farm workers stay invisible in plain sight.
How They Come Desperate journey: Driven by poverty, a crossing that can kill, a broken dream.
The Real Cost Coming Tuesday: A favored industry, a society burdened, a deadly cycle.
About This Series:
Modern-Day Slavery Slavery is not just the shameful stuff of history books -- not in Florida.
Lives Affected by Slavery:
Injured Guatemalan teen fought, changed labor policy
Accident demolishes family's promising start
Lightning preys on men in fields
Sudden death in an unheated trailer
Slavery is not just the shameful stuff
of history books - not in Florida
The Palm Beach Post presents a three-part examination of slavery,
its costs and its effects - on the migrant workers, and on you
Harvest yields loss of lives and money
Smuggled migrants are dying trying to get to Florida. Those who make it cost U.S. taxpayers.
By CHRISTINE EVANS, JOHN LANTIGUA,CHRISTINE STAPLETON and JANE DAUGHERTY
Palm Beach Post Staff Writers
Sunday, Dec. 7, 2003
Modern-day slaves toil in Florida's fields of plenty.
They slip across the Mexican border at great peril, cross the country in the dark hollows of vans, stay silent as they are "bought" and "sold" in fruit groves and rest stops dotting the American landscape.
A destitute minority in a wealthy, well-fed society, they are packed like prisoners into unfit housing, ferried to work in unsafe vehicles and compelled to labor long hours -- under fake names and numbers -- for substandard wages.
Enslaved by debt from the very moment they arrive, they contribute mightily to Florida's $62 billion agricultural industry, yet they earn little in return.
In the worst cases, they are threatened, beaten and locked up in their dingy quarters to prevent their escape.
This is the state of the harvest in 2003.
"The richest, most powerful people in the state are benefiting from this," says Rob Williams, director of the Migrant Farmworker Justice Project, a legal advocacy group in Florida. "They don't want it to change."
Even those at the top tier of the agricultural industry admit something is terribly wrong. When a federal judge, K. Michael Moore, presiding over a modern-day
slavery case in Fort Pierce last November, suggested prosecutors redirect their gaze from the middlemen labor contractors on trial to others at a "higher level," the powerful industry took note.
"Some of the abuses... certainly trouble us," a spokeswoman for Tropicana, Kristine Nickel, told The Palm Beach Post. "No one wants to see them continue." However, she added, "we are not police in terms of the migrant issue."
That, precisely, is the problem. Nobody is. Some farmers have taken great care in recent decades to make sure they pay and treat workers fairly, but their efforts are easily eclipsed by the stunning abuses that still occur.
The Palm Beach Post, in a nine-month investigation, interviewed farm workers who reported being locked up, raped, struck by lightning, sickened by pesticides and shorted on pay to the point they could barely exist. Primarily Mexican but also Guatemalan, Salvadoran and Honduran, they are part of an eager and oppressed work force that allows Americans to purchase a half-gallon of fresh orange juice for $3.39 and a pound of tomatoes for $1.29.
Slavery exists today. Five modern-day slavery cases prosecuted in the past six years by the U.S. government have roots in Florida. In addition, The Post has found two new cases in which men and women say they were locked up while employed in Florida tomato fields. In Wimauma, south of Tampa, a youth minister found a chained and padlocked trailer -- with men trapped inside. They said they had been "bought" by a labor contractor and were now working off smuggling debts.
"Can you believe that?" the pastor said in an interview. "I told them, 'We don't do that in this country.' "
The men in the trailer were enslaved in one fashion; the wives and daughters of such men often fall victim in another way. Promising jobs in housekeeping or child care, unscrupulous recruiters lure them across the border, then place them instead in brothels. In cheap trailers across the state, and sometimes in houses in middle-class neighborhoods, they work out of popular "twenty-one clubs," where men buy sex for $20 and a condom for $1.
Widespread Social Security fraud. Florida's fields are full of illegal workers laboring under bogus Social Security numbers and fake names. Licensed labor contractors and fly-by-night operators accept and sometimes provide fake identities in order to supply growers with the cheap labor they say they need to stay in business. The workers -- while benefiting from a lax system that insists upon proper documents but limits their scrutiny -- are taken advantage of in a number of ways. They are robbed of minimum wage and subjected to phony Social Security deductions that wind up in a government overflow fund -- or in contractors' pockets.
"In Florida, I never worry about paperwork," says one 36-year-old fruit picker. "Other states, yes. But in Florida, you just go to work, no problem."
A middleman system that perpetuates fraud, abuse and slavish conditions year after year. Contractors can handle a few men or hundreds, setting them up with picking jobs on the land of farmers who distance themselves from the details. Many contractors keep a tight rein on their charges, controlling every aspect of their lives: shelter, meals, transportation, even phone calls and laundry. Some contractors sleep in cramped quarters with their men to ensure they do not leave their employ, and, in extreme cases, scouts with cellphones monitor workers' moves and report to their bosses.
Good contractors can make a worker -- providing him with a scant living and money to send home to his family -- and bad ones can break him. As in arms and legs.
"Most farm workers," says Laura Germino of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, "work in sweatshop conditions."
The Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation, which tests and licenses farm labor contractors, acknowledges a problem. In the past six months, it has stepped up efforts to seek out unlicensed contractors and better regulate licensed ones, said Mark Whitten, the acting division director of regulation. For instance, on Nov. 20, investigators did spot-checks of 10 contractors in Palm Beach County and issued four citations. "We're not done yet," Whitten said.
A political system controlled by agricultural interests. In Florida, laws are shaped by a tight group of politician-farmers with a vested interest in the state's agricultural policy. Fully half of the 14 members of the House Agriculture Committee have strong ties to the industry, including the committee chairwoman, Rep. Marty Bowen, R-Winter Haven. It was Bowen, who has interests in three groves, who allowed a pesticide protection bill to die in committee this year. She also was instrumental in stalling a proposed "anti-slavery bill" that would have given workers the right to sue growers in state court for the misdeeds of their contractors.
Bowen blames the bill's sponsor, Rep. Frank Peterman, D-St. Petersburg. She said she offered to sign the necessary paperwork to allow the bill to skip her committee, but Peterman failed to visit her to discuss that. The bill had little chance anyway, she said: "Slavery was done away with in this country in 1865."
Migrants live and work in squalor -- still. Despite a raft of tough regulations, some workers report they are denied the basics in the fields: drinking water, toilets, hand-washing facilities. Many do not get the pesticide training they are supposed to by law, and pesticide violations recorded by state inspectors seldom result in fines.
What's more, Florida farm workers live in some of the worst housing in the country. Aging, rat-infested trailers dot the state, owned by slumlords and rented by crew leaders eager to make a buck off poor migrants. In Palm Beach County, official migrant housing exists for only 6,635 workers, not enough to accommodate the 20,000 to 45,000 laborers who need a place to live during the season. In Lake Worth and West Palm Beach, there is no permitted housing at all; instead, thousands of workers cram into decrepit rentals.
Hidden costs. In a farm labor system that relies heavily on undocumented workers, spillover costs are incalculable: hospital care, education, welfare and public safety programs. In Palm Beach County this year, the school district will spend $2.1 million in federal money to help educate 7,100 children of migrant farm workers. Public and private agencies in Palm Beach, Martin and St. Lucie counties spend at least $21.5 million a year on programs that serve immigrants, according to a survey by The Post.
Earlier this year, the plight of one man, Luis Jimenez, who had crossed the border in search of farm work, illustrated a worst-case scenario: Severely brain-damaged in a car crash, he was hospitalized in Martin County, where he amassed $1 million in medical bills he could not pay. Eventually discharged, the 31-year-old Guatemalan was returned to his country, where he was supposed to receive rehabilitation care. He now lives in a rural village with his ailing mother, without benefit of his prescription medicines.
Jimenez's story made headlines. So, in a much bigger way, did a story from Victoria, Texas, where in May, 19 smuggled Mexican and Central American immigrants died after being sealed in the back of an airless tractor-trailer. But many deaths go unreported.
The Mexican government says at least 398 people died this year trying to cross the 1,933-mile border, but that number does not include undiscovered skeletons or bodies left buried in the dusty desert. As the United States tightens its borders, Mexican and Central American migrants take increasingly remote paths through desert and canyon to get here.
The journey is difficult, the future uncertain, and yet the impoverished life at home seems to carry more risks.
This is why, each year, hundreds of thousands of Mexican workers stream across the border, silently, illicitly, desperately. Many find their way to Florida, where they begin new lives in the glittering citrus fields and rows of blood-red tomatoes, taking their place among the country's hardest-working, lowest-paid labor class.
They are looking for the American Dream -- or simply for $100 to send back home.
Five recent cases with slavery convictions
By Palm Beach Post Staff
Sunday, Dec. 7, 2003
These slavery cases were uncovered and prosecuted in Florida in the past six years. Most involved farm workers.
Three men try to escape Lake Placid contractor
On the night of May 27, 2000, a labor contractor in DeSoto County attacked the driver of a van who was about to take three Mexican men to North Carolina.
The three, who had been held against their will, wanted better work. They said they were spending too much of their earnings to settle their $1,000 smuggling debt to Ramiro Ramos, 43, and Ramos' brother and cousin.
Ramos struck driver Jose Martinez in the face with a pistol several times, accusing him of stealing his workers, Martinez said. Police were called, and Martinez testified at trial.
On June 29, 2002, the Ramoses were convicted of involuntary servitude. Ramiro and his brother, Juan, 35, were sentenced in Fort Pierce last November to 12 years; and their cousin, Jose Luis Ramos, 46, to 10 years. They also were ordered to forfeit $3 million in money and property amassed through their crimes.
Two cousins locked in trailer with 22 other farm workers
Jose Antonio Martinez and Francisco Martinez got sick of working 10 hours to make $15 after being promised $150 per day.
Almost all their money in early 1999 went to their labor contractors for rent, food and their $750 smuggling fees. After picking tomatoes all day, they weren't allowed to leave the roach-infested trailer they shared with 22 other workers west of Immokalee.
"You were locked up... you couldn't stick your head out," Francisco said. The floor had holes through which they saw snakes, and their mattresses were on the floor.
The cousins escaped and eventually reported the contractors to the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), which contacted the U.S. Department of Justice.
Abel Cuello Jr., Bacilio Cuello and German Covarrubias pleaded guilty to smuggling workers and involuntary servitude. On Sept. 20, 1999, Abel Cuello was sentenced to 33 months and ordered to pay $29,000 in restitution. Bacilio Cuello was sentenced to two years, and Covarrubias was given four years probation. Both of the Cuellos have since been released.
Contractor recruited workers from homeless shelters
In April 1997, a team of St. Lucie County sheriff's deputies, on duty near Fort Pierce, was approached by George Williams, who said he'd just escaped from a house where he had been held against his will and beaten by a labor contractor named Michael Allen Lee.
Williams and other men had been recruited from homeless shelters in central and southern Florida and forced to work picking crops for Lee. Prosecutors later said Lee often paid his workers in alcohol and drugs, including crack cocaine. He charged up to $40 a gallon for cheap wine. He beat them if they tried to leave.
Williams and nine others filed a civil suit against Lee and his business associates, which was settled in January 1999 for an undisclosed amount. In December 2000, a federal grand jury indicted Lee on the criminal charge of servitude. He pleaded guilty, and in 2001 he and another defendant were sentenced to four years in prison.
15-year-old girls forced to work as prostitutes
In November 1997, two 15-year-old Mexican girls escaped a trailer near West Palm Beach and told authorities a brutal tale.
They said they had been smuggled into the United States by a Mexican family and promised work in the health care industry. Instead, they were forced to become prostitutes, working in a string of trailers around south and central Florida -- several in Palm Beach County -- that catered to migrant workers. They were warned that if they tried to escape, their family members in Mexico would be harmed.
They were told they had to work off $2,000 or more in smuggling fees. They were paid only about $3 per sexual encounter, minus extra debts such as medical expenses. At least two dozen other women worked in the brothels with them -- some as young as 14.
Prosecutors later said the people-smuggling and prostitution racket was run by Rogerio Cadena, originally of Veracruz, Mexico, and about seven family members. Prosecutors accused the Cadena family and its employees of brutalizing women -- beating them, forcing them to have abortions, locking a rebellious girl in a closet for 15 days.
In January 1999, Rogerio Cadena pleaded guilty, was sentenced to 15 years and forced to pay $1 million to the federal government.
Woman smuggled to Florida, kept as personal slave
Collier County sheriff's deputies answered a domestic abuse call at the house of Guatemala native Jose Tecum in Immokalee one night in November 1999. They found Maria Choz, 20, consumed by tears. She said Tecum was keeping her as a slave.
Choz and Tecum were from the same area in Guatemala. Tecum had tried to buy her from her poor family, Choz told police. He eventually raped her and threatened to kill her or her father if she didn't come to Florida with him.
Tecum made her live in the same house with his wife and children and forced her to have sex when his wife was not there. He found her work in the fields but took almost all the money she made.
In 2000, Tecum was found guilty of involuntary servitude, kidnapping and smuggling and in 2001 was sentenced to nine years.
Cocoa farm imprisoned us, women say
The women of Hidalgo were earth-scratch poor. Their corn grew fitfully in rough patches.
By Christine Evans
Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Sunday, Dec. 7, 2003
The women of Hidalgo were earth-scratch poor. Their corn grew fitfully in rough patches. Their coffee groves no longer paid to harvest.
And so, one by one, they went to see "Florentina," the recruiter who promised jobs in the United States. They signed her papers, bought their passports, kissed their families, and, a bit scared but optimistic, boarded buses for Florida, the promised land.
They did not know, they say, that they would be working such long hours for such little pay. Or that, while working for Hydro Age, a gourmet hydroponic tomato farm in Cocoa, they would be locked up at night.
"El patron would put a lock on the gate where our trailers were, and he or a trusted worker were the only ones who could open it," said Marisol Ponce-Rubio, now back home in Mexico. "If we asked permission, sometimes we could go out, but only between 7 and 8 at night on the weekend... It was such hard work for such little money.
"The boss would say you have to finish your work, no matter how much time it takes. Sometimes, he would find us after hours in our trailers and tell us to do more. The hours were never counted. We didn't have pay stubs."
Hydro Age, which enjoyed positive press coverage about its innovative growing techniques during the years the women were employed -- 1999 to 2003 -- breached "numerous" contract provisions and "falsely imprisoned" the women, according to a class-action lawsuit brought on behalf of 15 women by Florida Legal Services.
In interviews with The Palm Beach Post, six women described how they left their families in Mexico for legal, seasonal employment through the U.S. Department of Labor's agricultural guest worker program. The women had different experiences with common themes: Shorted paychecks and long hours, all under the watchful eyes of bosses who made sure they didn't leave.
"After a time, they would not let us communicate with other people," said Rodolfina Garcia Montealegre, who to her distress was told she could not go to church. "Everything was locked up with a key."
Norma Franco Delgado, 24, said she usually received permission to leave the grounds once every weekend, an arrangement she could live with. But she said she resented the seven-day work weeks because the pay was not what she had been promised.
When she complained, she said, the boss told her "the reason the pay was low was that the tomatoes weren't selling the way they expected."
Leo Calligaro of Hydro Age, who is named in the suit, did not return several calls for comment. A lawyer for Hydro Age, John Biedenharn Jr., said the company "strongly denies the allegations in the complaint and intends to vigorously contest them."
Some of the women served out their contracts, and some left. Ponce-Rubio and her sister Ana scaled a fence and jumped into the waiting cars of friends.
"We called and told them to help us escape," she says. "They came at night. It was all planned."
Another worker, Maria Eugenia Chavez Ramirez, said employees had to dip their bare feet in a chlorine solution before entering the work area. "Some of the girls got sores on their feet and itching."
Other workers complained about having to fumigate tomato plants without proper protection. "They would feel sick later," one ex-employee said.
But it was the pay arrangement that bothered Chavez most. Unlike some other workers, she said, she received a pay stub -- an inaccurate one.
"We realized later that the check stub said the pay was for one week when it was really for two weeks.
"They were cheating us."
Labor under lock and fist
Migrants sealed in a trailer tell a clergyman that their labor contractors have 'bought' them.
By John Lantigua
Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Sunday, Dec. 7, 2003
WIMAUMA -- On an evening last December, Helion Cruz, youth pastor at the Good Samaritan Mission, went fishing for souls. What he found instead was the dark underside of Florida agriculture -- a case of modern-day slavery.
"I was told there were Christian boys from Mexico living in a trailer over on Route 301," recalls Cruz, 55. "I was told they wanted to come to church but had no transportation."
The following Sunday, Cruz sent a church elder to pick them up, but a farm labor contractor employing the migrants denied them permission to leave. Two days later, Cruz drove to the trailer to investigate. He says he found its front door chained and secured with a large padlock.
"But there were people inside," he says. "I went to a window and saw it was nailed so that it couldn't be opened all the way, and nobody could get out. All the windows were like that. I called in and spoke with the young men who were inside. I asked them, 'What are you doing in there?' They said the men who usually watched them weren't around, so they were locked in."
Cruz asked what men they were speaking of and why they were being guarded. The answer he received still astounds him.
"They told me that these labor contractors who ran the trailer had 'bought' them from a coyote, and that's why they couldn't go out without permission.
"Can you believe that? Somebody bought them. I told them, 'We don't do that in this country.' "
Cruz, like the church elder, Victor Pecina, 47, would eventually make contact with the contractors. They both found the men surprisingly brazen about the control they exercised over other human beings.
"When I got to the trailer, several of the boys said they wanted to come to church but they couldn't," recalls Pecina about his initial visit. "A man guarding them said they were not allowed to leave the property. I spoke to him through the window. He said they couldn't leave. I told him that if he was afraid they wouldn't come back, he could come with them. He said no."
Pecina continued to press his case. Finally, he was allowed to take one particularly religious migrant, after promising on his honor to bring him back.
Two days later, when Pastor Cruz found the migrants locked up, he told them he would call police right away.
"This one kid... he said to me, 'I am not a slave. Call the police!' But the others said that if the police came, they would all be deported because they were illegal. Instead, they gave me the phone number of one of the contractors, and I called him."
Cruz says he left a message, and the contractor called him back in the morning.
"I asked what he thought he was doing," Cruz recalls. "And he said to me, 'They owe me money.' I told him, 'I don't care what they owe you, if I go back there and find those kids locked up, I'm calling the police.' "
Eventually, as often happens, the young men paid off their debts and followed the long vegetable harvest north.
Months later, in Ohio, The Palm Beach Post tracked down the one migrant who went to church with Pecina, the same one who asked Cruz to call the police. He told an angry story of being locked up and mistreated not just once, but many times.
He is from Chiapas, Mexico, undocumented and calls himself Jose Moreno, although he admits that isn't his real name.
Like many undocumented workers, he always uses a false name in the U.S., so that if he is caught and deported, he can return under yet another false name. But he says he is also afraid of his former bosses and doesn't want them to know who he really is.
"They are extremely bad people, violent," Moreno, 28, says. He identified the three contractors who kept him and the other workers locked up as David, Agustin and Olegario Marquez, brothers from Veracruz, Mexico. He said they have three half-brothers, whose names he doesn't know but who were also present at times.
Moreno believes the Marquez brothers are all in the U.S. illegally. No one with those three names is licensed to work as a contractor in the state of Florida.
'I went to a window and saw it was nailed so that it couldn't be opened all the way, and nobody could get out. All the windows were like that.'
- Pastor Helion Cruz
Moreno says the men also work as coyotes, or people smugglers, and that it was David Marquez who smuggled him and nine others across the sweltering desert from Mexico in September 2002. Moreno had made his way to the border by himself. The others might have been brought there by another coyote and "sold" to Marquez, but they crossed the border together near Sasabe, Mexico.
"We walked for two days," he says. "We drank water from puddles on the Indian reservation down there."
Then 10 of them crossed the country in a Ford camper driven by David Marquez, arriving in the first days of October, Moreno says. He was charged $1,300 for the trip, $800 of which he paid up front, leaving him $500 in debt. The other migrants owed more.
"Marquez said the work in tomatoes was good," Moreno recalls. "He said we would pay what we owed easily. But when we got here, there was little work, only eight or 10 hours per week. We were being paid about $50. Out of that, we had to each pay $70 per month for rent." This is the precise scenario that has led to other cases of slavery in Florida.
Moreno says some of the migrants in the trailer had mattresses, but others slept on blankets on the floor. "And he was taking money out that we owed him. I couldn't send anything to my family," complains Moreno, who has a wife and a child.
With no clothes, except those on his back, Moreno went to another nearby church, the Beth-El Mission in Wimauma, where used clothes are distributed to the poor. He did so without permission.
"After I went there, they thought I was going to try to escape," he says. "David said, 'You can't go out any more.' "
That was in November. Moreno says after that, the Marquez brothers always had someone guarding the migrants and refused to let them leave without escorts. Moreno says he and the other migrants were locked up at least once that month when no keeper could be found. Moreno, older than most of the others, complained.
"David threatened to hit me," Moreno recalls. "He said, 'We're going to beat you. You don't leave here until you pay everything.' I told him, 'If you hit me, I'll go back to the mission and have them call the police...' He never did hit me."
But toward the end of November, Moreno says, the others started getting restless because of the shortage of work and the time it took to pay off their debts.
"Some of them also started to complain, and they hit some of them," Moreno recalls. "I saw it happen various times. There are six brothers altogether, and they would surround a person, threaten him and sometimes hit him."
Then, the youth pastor and the church elder showed up. Moreno comes from a part of Mexico where minority Protestants at times have been subjected to violence by majority Catholics. He takes his religion seriously and was incensed when he was not allowed to go to church. "I told the pastor, 'I am not a slave. I am not a cow. I am not their property.' "
In his rage, he refers to the Marquez brothers as changos -- apes or monkeys. "Those apes were denying me my right to worship." But he agreed to go along with the others and not call the police.
Shortly after Cruz found them, Moreno says, he was finally able to pay off his debt. The tomato harvesting work had picked up, and he had a large check coming.
"David tried to take it all," he recalls. "The owner" -- he does not know his name -- "was there giving the checks to David, and I said, 'Don't give it to him. I don't owe him all that. Give it to me.' "
"(David) was trying to cheat me, and with the others he took almost everything they made," says Moreno. Once he paid off his crossing debt, Moreno says the Marquez brothers let him leave the trailer when he wanted. And since the work was plentiful, he stayed there.
"I'm a good worker, and they didn't bother me after that," he says. But he says he continued to see instances of violence. In March or April, Moreno says, another migrant argued with the Marquez brothers about lack of pay.
"His name was Gustavo. It was a weekend, and he was drunk. They were drunk, too. They got into an argument, got all around him. He fought them, and they broke his arm."
Several attempts by The Post to reach the Marquez brothers failed. Moreno says he understands the Marquezes are in Arizona at the moment, in the process of bringing another shipment of migrants, but are expected back in Wimauma.
And although Moreno agreed to speak with The Post under his assumed name, and Cruz and Pecina confirm his story, Moreno has been afraid to go to authorities.
"Maybe you put three of them in jail, but how about the other three," he says. "Maybe they will come after me. These are violent people. I'm scared."
If it's Tuesday, he's Jose
'In agriculture, there is a wink-wink, nod-nod, and everyone knows': Bogus identities are commonplace.
By Christine Evans and Christine Stapleton
Palm Beach Post Staff Writers
Sunday, Dec. 7, 2003
Night in the camp in Indian River County.
Two men lug laundry bags over their shoulders. By day, they pick oranges and by night they do laundry, because their wives are back home in Mexico. Three years they have labored in the United States, and in that time they have grown accustomed to many things: English. Hamburgers. Sore backs at the end of long days.
And this: Answering to the wrong names.
"You get several identities," explains Jose Luiz, who says he is really Ismael Luna.
"The contractors take care of everything. They give you your name, your Social Security number. We don't even fill out an application.
"It's a nombre falso, everybody knows that. It's just the name they assign you. Sometimes it's your real name, and sometimes it isn't. Sometimes it is a little like your real name but different in some way."
His friend shifts his laundry bag to another shoulder.
"I have worked as Antonio Diaz," he says, "but these days I am working as Joaquin Ramirez. I think. I need to look at the check to be sure."
This is the name game that is played out daily in Florida's fields. Citrus groves, tomato fields, cornfields -- this is a land of aliases.
Tap a man on a shoulder in a field or a camp and ask him who he is, and you are likely to wind up confused. He might say, "Jose, but that is just my work name." Or, "Which name do you want?"
Or even: "I cannot tell you my name, I have gone by so many."
In a way, it does not matter. A worker is a worker, at least in the eyes of the contractor who hires him, and in the eyes of the grower who hires the contractor. The system, precarious, entrenched, blessed by indifference and incompetence, is based on need:
The farmers need their fields picked clean at harvest time. The contractors need workers to fill their vans so they can deliver on promises made to the farmers. The workers, from impoverished regions in Mexico and Guatemala, need to send money home to their families.
Although the paychecks of Florida's undocumented farm workers show they pay Social Security taxes, the system is obviously flawed. Sometimes, the pay stub reflects a deduction that is actually pocketed by an unscrupulous contractor. Many undocumented workers toil for years but never receive any benefits.
If the Social Security Administration collects the tax but the worker is here illegally, the money is dumped into a special fund, the Earning Suspense File. And there it sits.
Since 1937, when the Social Security Administration began collecting withholdings, the Suspense File has received 237 million mismatched wage reports from wages that totaled $375 billion.
"We take this very seriously," says Charles Liptz, the director for employer wage reporting with Social Security. "It all starts with bad reporting."
'Enforcement is ... a joke'
The king of bad reporting is U.S. agriculture.
A 2001 study by the inspector general for Social Security examined the W-2 forms of the top 10 agricultural offenders in both California and Florida. The study found that 60 percent of the W-2s featured names and Social Security numbers that did not match, signaling a large number of bogus identities.
Two of those employers -- which the Social Security Administration will not name -- submitted more than 7,000 W-2s with Social Security numbers that had never been issued.
One employer submitted over 900 duplicate Social Security numbers.
All this prompted Inspector General James G. Huse Jr. to conclude that the agriculture industry is guilty of "widespread" misuse of Social Security. That might be news to some people but not those who labor in Florida's fields or those who employ them.
JoNel Newman, a lawyer for Florida Legal Services, has witnessed all kinds of pay arrangements in her representation of farm workers. She has collected so-called "pay stubs" that are just envelopes with the worker's hours hastily scrawled on the front.
"In agriculture, there is a wink-wink, nod-nod, and everyone knows we're relying on undocumented workers," says Newman. "The reason is, we aren't as a society -- and the government isn't -- serious about this.
"The enforcement basically is a joke."
IRS comes knocking
How big a joke?
Ask Catalina Morales, a Guatemala-born agricultural worker. She now lives in Indiantown with her husband, Roberto Lorenzo Santiago, and their three children. And she isn't laughing.
Seven years ago, she worked for DuBois Farms, one of Palm Beach County's oldest farming operations and once the nation's biggest pepper grower. Eventually, she moved on to another company. And then, in 1999, she received a letter from the Internal Revenue Service stating she owed taxes on $3,000 in income she was certain she had not earned. Her response: "What!"
Letter in hand, she visited the IRS office in Port St. Lucie.
"I said, 'No, that's not what I earned.' The woman said, 'Well maybe you lent your papers to someone else.' I said no, and she said, 'Well maybe you lost them.' " Eventually the IRS worker checked her computer and discovered a problem:
There was indeed a Catalina Morales working at DuBois, but it was not the same Catalina Morales standing before her now. They just happened to share the same name -- and, suspiciously, Social Security number.
The real Catalina Morales tucked a tape recorder into her small black purse and paid a visit to DuBois, where she says she spoke to Joe Ortiz, an employee who handled paperwork for the company.
"He said, 'I don't know what is happening, but maybe someone bought your papers.' He said this happens to a lot of people."
At Ortiz's suggestion, she tracked down the other Catalina Morales, who happened to live nearby in Indiantown. The fake Morales, the real one says, first denied she was working under a false name and number, and then, in a later conversation, admitted it. The imposter said she had been hired under her real name, but that somewhere in the process, her identity was switched and she was paid under the assumed name.
'The contractors take care of everything. They give you your name, your Social Security number. We don't even fill out an application.'
- Jose Luiz, who says he is really Ismael Luna
Soon after, the real Morales says, a bus driver associated with DuBois knocked on her door and tried to present her with a check for the back taxes.
"We didn't even look at it," she says. "My husband said, 'That is not necessary. You can talk to our lawyer.' "
With a lawyer, the matter was resolved, but not before Morales received a second letter from the IRS -- she owed, it said, another $1,000.
Farmers not 'a police force'
Joe Ortiz of DuBois said he did not recall the unusual case: "We work with so many people. I've been in the office 14 years. That's a lot of paperwork."
Larry Schone, a lawyer for the company, said, "It was an isolated incident." He added that DuBois had cooperated with Florida Legal Services, which looked into the case on behalf of Morales. He declined to comment further.
It is a touchy subject, certainly. According to the 2001 study by the Social Security inspector general, various farmers knew many of their workers were undocumented, but as the report summarized it, "They did not believe it was their responsibility to be a police force."
"These employers stated they could go out of business if they asked too many questions regarding their employees' work eligibility," the inspector general wrote.
But what about getting caught? Didn't that worry the farmers?
Not according to the IG report, which noted that "one employer told us it is a business decision and the company will takes its chances with the government."
Jay Taylor, owner of Taylor & Fulton farms, a fruit and vegetable grower in Florida and Virginia, says farmers can't win under the competing interests of the law.
"On the one hand, we've got Social Security saying we are responsible for verifying the numbers and collecting the funds," he says. "On the other hand, we've got the Department of Labor telling us that if we don't accept their identification, we could be held liable for discrimination.
"We can't single someone out because they look like they were born somewhere else."
It is common knowledge that an aspiring worker who lacks the proper paperwork can get it, by trading money or labor to procure a real document, or by buying a fake set of documents, commonly available at flea markets and from drivers who transport field workers. As a last resort -- or, perhaps, a lucky break -- a worker might find himself with a new identity courtesy of his employer, who has somehow manufactured or recycled the necessary identification.
With his papers in hand, the worker is guaranteed a certain measure of job security based on the presumption that the farmer would rather get the crop out than busy himself with replacing workers who do not meet eligibility standards. For, as the government likes to point out, invalid Social Security numbers are not difficult to isolate.
The SSA even offers a program that does just that.
The only catch is, it's voluntary. Employers have to sign up for it; many times, it seems, they would rather not.
Of the 6.5 million employers in the U.S., only 392 employers actually used the service during the three years studied by the inspector general.
Even when the SSA catches the offending employers in the act, which it sometimes does, the agency is essentially powerless to correct the situation.
It can send out letters, called "no-match letters," informing deviant employers that the names and numbers of their workers do not match. Usually, this results in protracted correspondence between the employer and the agency but little else.
"Enforcement is not our mission," says Liptz, the SSA director of employer and wage reporting. "It's the IRS. We feed them all the W-2s that come in."
Background check isn't mandatory
But the IRS hasn't levied any fines, either.
"First of all," says Joseph Brimacombe, director of small business compliance at the IRS, "the authority does not give us a great deal of impact over the employer."
The fine for filing a false wage statement is $50 per report, with a maximum fine of $250,000. And under the law, the fine must be waived if the employer can prove "due diligence" in verifying the worker's status.
"The requirements on the employer aren't as extreme as most people assume," Brimacombe says. "There is nothing requiring the employer to do a background check."
One more thing:
Not everybody needs a Social Security number. In 2003, it's still possible to gain employment and earn a paycheck without one.
Out at the camp in Fellsmere, a few days after he did his laundry, the man known sometimes as Antonio Diaz and sometimes as Joaquin Ramirez scrutinized his pay stub.
"You know," he said, "I have been working for this contractor for two months, and I just noticed there is no Social Security number on here."
No number -- but a deduction.
U.S. obligingly provides fake I.D.
Sometimes, undocumented aliens get their Social Security cards from the same people you do -- your local Social Security office worker.
By Christine Stapleton
Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Sunday, Dec. 7, 2003
Sometimes, undocumented aliens get their Social Security cards from the same people you do -- your local Social Security office worker.
"It's rare," said Social Security spokesman Mark Lassiter, when you consider there are 65,000 workers in 1,300 Social Security field offices around the country. But one bad employee can do a lot of damage.
In December, a worker in the Arlington, Texas, office was indicted for his role in counterfeiting more than 1,700 cards for $2,500 apiece. In November, a 43-year-old claims adjuster in the Atlanta office was one of 28 people indicted in a ring that issued 1,900 cards to undocumented immigrants.
This year alone, two Social Security employees in Palm Beach County were charged in two separate cases with processing and arranging delivery for about 400 illegal cards.
On Feb. 11, Walther Velasquez, 38, an employee at a Social Security office in Delray Beach, was arrested after trying to persuade a co-worker to help him process and sell cards. According to court records, Velasquez offered to pay $1,000 per card to a co-worker to help him process paperwork. Velasquez said he had a source in Boston who would supply him with biographical information to use on the cards. After processing the paperwork, the cards would be sent to a middleman, who would then sell them to undocumented immigrants.
Shortly after Velasquez posted bond, agents searched his apartment on South Dixie Highway in West Palm Beach. As they opened the door, they found Velasquez holding a garbage bag containing a hot dog, a cigar laced with marijuana and the torn-up biographical information of prospective illegal applicants. On a table, the agents found stacks of blank Social Security card applications.
He pleaded guilty and was sentenced in August to 27 months in federal prison.
Four months after Velasquez's arrest, police arrested Sylena Britt, 31, an application processor at a Social Security office in Belle Glade. An informant in another case in Atlanta told investigators he bought his illegal papers from a man who had a supplier in South Florida. Detectives tracked his application to the Belle Glade office and discovered that Britt had issued it. Upon checking her records, they learned she had issued 378 cards to undocumented immigrants. Britt, of Greenacres, pleaded guilty and will be sentenced Dec. 30.
A spokesman for the agency didn't know how many employees had been charged with illegally processing applications or how many bogus cards ended up in the hands of undocumented workers. But careless employees are also to blame. An inspector general's report found at least 96,274 foreign-born workers with invalid and inappropriate papers were issued Social Security cards in 2000. In nearly 80 percent of those cases, the Immigration and Naturalization Service had no record of entry for these workers.
To deter Social Security workers -- who can earn thousand of dollars per illegal card sold -- the inspector general has asked for tougher prison sentences. Currently, there is no minimum sentence for illegally selling cards, and sentences range from probation to years in prison. One former employee who pocketed $120,000 for illegally issuing about 300 cards was put on probation for three years and ordered to pay a $2,000 fine, said James G. Huse Jr., inspector general.
He wants Congress to impose minimum sentences or to propose sentences of one to five years in prison for selling up to 50 cards, five to 10 years for 50-100 cards and 10-20 years in prison for more than 100 cards: "Participation in such crimes cannot be tolerated."
Labor contractors control migrants' lives
'Worst places ... are the big cities and Florida'
By John Lantigua and Christine Stapleton
Palm Beach Post Staff Writers
Sunday, Dec. 7, 2003
It is labor contractors who have been accused of the most serious crimes against undocumented workers -- from stealing wages and Social Security payments to paying workers with drugs, and outright slavery.
Of the major slavery cases involving farm workers prosecuted in the U.S. in the past decade, most have been in Florida and have involved contractors. In some cases, contractors pay off smugglers who bring workers into the country and then lock up workers or threaten them until they work off those debts.
Everybody knows that the worst places to go to work in the States are the big cities and the state of Florida," says Juventino Calva, 25, a migrant worker interviewed in Mexico who was heading to Missouri.
Advocates for migrants say Florida's poor reputation is due, in large part, to the fact that contractors serve as the employers of farm workers, as opposed to direct employment by growers. In Florida, 50.4 percent of migrants work for contractors, as compared to 20.6 percent elsewhere in the U.S., a federal study states.
"The reason that growers use contractors is to distance themselves," says Raul Barrera of the Migrant Farmworker Justice Project in Florida. "The growers use it as a way to hire undocumented workers and avoid liability."
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, in the past four years, Florida labor contractors were cited 916 times for failure to pay wages when due, 464 times for failure to provide safe transport vehicles, 442 times for failure to present workers with proper wage statements, and 431 instances of interfering with federal investigators -- among other violations. Most violations draw warnings, not fines. Of 6,605 violations recorded by DOL inspectors the past four years, only 869 drew fines, and the average penalty was less than $300.
The Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation fined contractors another 1,083 times in the past three years and it revoked the licenses of 173 contractors, according to department figures. But no one believes that all the violations have been reported.
"Most of the time, the workers are too scared to report abuses," says Rob Williams, an attorney for the Justice Project. "They keep their mouths shut."
Labor contractors say they're 'just caught in the middle'
"Everybody blames us," says Juan Pablo Flores, a labor contractor from LaBelle. "But we are just caught in the middle... I don't know how most contractors make it these days."
Contractors make their money mostly by operating trucks that gather the crop from pickers in the fields and transport it to packing houses. They are paid by the bin or the ton of fruit or vegetables. Contractors complain that the insurance for those trucks and the buses to transport workers has gone up while their pay from growers has not.
I pay $4,800 per year for just one bus," complains Sergio Villagomez, 44, an Immokalee contractor. "And I work eight trucks and pay $2,500 per year in insurance for each. I take in money, but I pay out a lot, too. We all do."
Some contractors pad their income by cheating workers out of hours of pay and also pocketing Social Security payments, say investigators. Greg Schell, an attorney with the Justice Project, doesn't absolve the contractors but agrees that the system is squeezing most of them.
"The contractors are not being paid enough by the growers to pay the workers right," he said. "They are forced to fiddle with the hours. The economics force the contractors to cheat the workers."
Increasingly, contractors are finding another way to increase their take: They smuggle migrants.
"I'm told there are contractors up north who have the workers pay off the smuggling fees with almost everything they make," says Flores. "As soon as the debt is paid off, they get rid of the workers and smuggle in more people. That way they never have to pay them for the harvesting work, and they make all the money themselves."
Even when violators are prosecuted and banned from working again as labor contractors, they can slip through the cracks. Some get a family member to take out a license and continue to work. Others mistakenly are omitted from federal logs of banned contractors. The Post found eight convicted contractors whose names do not appear on the list. Among them are Abel Cuello, convicted of peonage in 1999 and released from prison this year, and Michael Lee, who confessed in 2001 to threatening and beating workers.
What a typical Lake Worth migrant makes
Here's how one man in Lake Worth is able to send $300 to $500 home to Mexico each month.
EARNS: About $760 a month, or $180 to $200 a week
RENT: $100, an amount kept low because he shares a home with six other workers
LAUNDRY: About $25
CALLING CARD: $30-$40
FOOD: About $300
What he ate in one day
FOR BREAKFAST: Spent about $2 for milk and snack from neighborhood store before ride to the fields.
LUNCH: Purchased lunch for $4 from a neighbor -- rice with chicken in a large cup and a couple of tortillas wrapped in foil. Usually the women put the items in a large Ziplock and the men put the items in a plastic grocery bag.
SNACK: $1 for soda from lunch truck in the field.
DINNER: $4 purchased from the same neighbor. Soup, rice and beans and tortillas. They can eat the meals at the dinner table of the neighborhood cook. These mini-restaurants spring up everywhere, including a trailer park the reporter visited. Men wait outside the door and take turns eating inside. Some pay their food on a weekly basis.
SNACK: About $2 to $3 for juice and snack in the evening.
TOTAL COST: About $13
Harvesting alien fields with visions of home
A married ex-cop picks N.J. blueberries and Florida bell peppers, struggling to amass $9,000.
By Connie Piloto
Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Sunday, Dec. 7, 2003
LAKE WORTH -- The aging van sputtered along the road before coming to a stop between two bodegas -- the unofficial gateway into this neighborhood where men toil in the fields and crowd into tiny old Florida houses to sleep at night.
"Get out and find a place to live," the driver told the small young man who had spent 12 days and paid $1,200 to make the illegal journey from Mexico to South Florida.
Alejandro Ramirez, 23, hopped out of the van, carrying a knapsack and $5 in his pocket.
It was 4 a.m. and the streets were empty.
At dawn, Ramirez walked door-to-door:
"I just got here and I need a place to stay. I'm here to work."
A group of Guatemalan men, who spoke Mayan but understood Ramirez's plight, allowed him to stay. The next day, Ramirez rode an old blue school bus and went to work in the fields of western Palm Beach County.
But there wasn't much work in mid-March. So Ramirez and about 10 others paid a driver to take them north in search of more abundant crops. He spent 28 days in New Jersey picking blueberries, making $2,100 -- enough money to send $1,000 to his wife in Cancun, pay room and board and pay for a ride back to Florida. By the time Ramirez arrived in Lake Worth, he was broke -- again.
It's 5 o'clock in the morning, and Ramirez needs to get moving if he wants to catch the bus to the fields. He's living in a shotgun house with peeling pink paint, about a block from the bus stop. He is happier here, because everyone in the house speaks Spanish. But the two-bedroom, one-bath, 1,120-square-foot house built in 1959 is crowded -- with seven people living there.
He and three other men share a tiny bedroom lined with mattresses. Ramirez sleeps in the middle -- on the floor.
A couple, who rent the house and forward the payments to the landlord, share the adjacent bedroom. A young woman sleeps on a mattress in the living room. Ramirez, his three roommates and the woman pay $100 a month each for rent. Each paid $32 for water and sewer in September.
On his way to the bus stop, Ramirez visits a neighbor who runs a takeout service in her house. For $4, Ramirez gets a tall cup filled with chicken and rice, beans or soup and several tortillas wrapped in foil.
"It's pretty good," Ramirez says. "If I don't eat out there, I'll pass out... I'll die."
With his lunch under his arm, Ramirez joins about 50 other workers at the corner of E and Lucerne streets waiting for the bus. He climbs aboard and sits in the dark for the 55-minute ride west. He's working in the field by 7.
It's early October, and Ramirez is on his knees planting rows of bell pepper plants. This job is paid by the number of rows planted. Ramirez gets $1.65 for each row -- about the length of two football fields. Except for a 30-minute lunch break, he works nonstop. He makes about $11.
'How can I help anyone if I'm barely making it myself?'
- Alejandro Ramirez
Ramirez grew up in a town near Cancun with dreams of becoming a police officer. He graduated from the Mexican police academy in 2000 and married soon after. He worked at the Cancun Airport, patrolled the streets on a motorcycle and investigated traffic accidents. He and his wife dreamed of buying land and building a house where they could raise a family -- but not on his $300 monthly policeman's salary. To purchase land in Cancun, near the apartment where his wife now lives alone, he needs at least $9,000.
A slender man with a quick smile, prescription glasses and a wooden cross around his neck, Ramirez has learned to work the system. After arriving in Florida, he purchased a fake Social Security card for $100 so he could work in the fields. "I just asked around. You can get them anywhere out here."
The card bears Ramirez's name, but the number belongs to a 43-year-old woman living in Tacoma, Wash.
"I can't believe it," the woman said by telephone. "I never give out my Social Security number. I refuse to write it down on forms, so for this guy to steal my number is just crazy." After learning Ramirez was using her number, she reported it to the Social Security Administration office and sent letters to the three major credit agencies.
Ramirez says his dream job is as a cashier or stockman at Wal-Mart or Target.
"That would really be nice," he says with a smile. "I'd be able to help my parents and my wife. But how can I help anyone if I'm barely making it myself?"
Lately, he's been thinking about home and family. He walked to a nearby travel agency and inquired about purchasing an airline ticket: Miami to Cancun, Saturday, Dec. 20, $368.
"I'd be home just in time for Christmas," he says.
Then, he thinks about how hard it was to make it to South Florida. He remembers the three-night walk in the desert; hiding in the trees so the Border Patrol planes flying overhead wouldn't see him; begging in the Lake Worth darkness for a place to stay.
"I don't know," Ramirez says. "I don't know what I'm going to do."
Housing dodges health codes
Unlicensed migrant housing hides in plain sight in Palm Beach County because 'you've got to really want to find it.'
By Christine Stapleton
Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Sunday, Dec. 7, 2003
LAKE WORTH -- The nine men are scared. Hands shoved in pockets, they stand wide-eyed, silent in what they call home -- a run-down, one-bedroom trailer in a mobile home park tucked between businesses on Lake Worth Road.
A small, tinny portable radio plays Mexican music. Tomatoes and onions sauté on the stove. The men stand, because there is no place to sit. The closest thing to a chair is a cinder block on the floor in the kitchen.
"S," we all live here, Eliaquin Garcia explains matter-of-factly, knowing he's supposed to have only five men in the trailer. There are no beds, no mattresses, no pillows, no blankets, no sheets.
In the bedroom, one man sleeps on a door lying flat on the floor. The man next to him sleeps on a flattened cardboard box. In a corner is a flimsy, dirty comforter, folded in half. A couple of pieces of wood have been nailed over a window because there is no screen to keep bugs out.
One by one, shirtless men with a towel slung over the shoulder go into the bathroom for a shower -- nothing more than a pipe coming out of the wall above them. The shower head is long gone, and the men have poked holes in the bottom of a plastic soda bottle and jammed it on the pipe as a makeshift shower.
This, according to Florida law, is residential migrant housing. Under the law designed to protect migrant farm workers from unscrupulous landlords and ensure decent living conditions, this trailer, and several others in the park occupied by migrant farm workers, should be inspected twice every 12 weeks by the Palm Beach County Health Department.
If they were, no one would sleep on the floor. Each man would have a bed. Each would have at least 50 square feet of sleeping space -- impossible in the tiny 540-square-foot trailer. All the windows would have screens.
But the landlord, a Palm Beach attorney who owns this mobile home park and the 33 trailers on it, never applied for a migrant housing permit from the health department. So the park isn't inspected. By mid-November, migrant farm workers filled at least seven trailers at the park, some with as many as 10 workers in one bedroom and paying up to $850 a month.
Garcia, who moved another four men in to help pay the monthly rent of $680, isn't about to complain. Other trailers he has rented in North Carolina, where he harvests squash and tobacco, are cheaper and nicer. But here the men make only $35 a day picking peppers in Fort Pierce.
"What can we do?" he asked.
There are between 22,000 and 45,000 migrant and seasonal farm workers in Palm Beach County. The health department inspects housing for 6,635 workers -- not nearly enough but more than any other county in the state. Most landlords who rent to migrant workers don't want the hassle of inspections and ignore the licensing requirements.
Nearly all the county's permitted housing is in Belle Glade. Despite the armies of farm workers picked up by vans and buses every morning in Lake Worth and West Palm Beach, there is no permitted migrant housing in either city, meaning migrant farm workers in those cities aren't protected by the codes designed to shelter them.
Health department inspectors have tried to find migrant housing in urban Palm Beach County neighborhoods -- along Broadway in the northern end of West Palm Beach, in Grandview Heights and in Lake Worth. But it takes time, inspectors who speak Spanish or Creole and flexible schedules. Migrant workers are home only in the evenings and on weekends, and "you don't want to send inspectors into these neighborhoods after dark," said Karl Henry, environmental supervisor in the health department's West Palm Beach office.
'When we're doing block inspections, we'll find eight to 15 people in a one- or two-bedroom house.'
- Lake Worth chief housing inspector Armand Harnois
Inspectors have other responsibilities. The same five inspectors responsible for finding and inspecting migrant housing must also inspect mobile home parks, school cafeterias, child-care facilities, adult assisted living facilities and foster homes and pick up dead birds for encephalitis, malaria and West Nile virus testing.
"You've got to really want to find it," said Greg Schell, managing attorney at the Migrant Farmworker Justice Project. "They just don't have the resources to go door-to-door."
Lake Worth, which has the largest concentration of Mexicans in the county, has set up a special team within code enforcement, called the CAT Team, that handles the toughest cases. The team conducts block inspections in the city center, where 60 percent of the real estate is rented.
"The overcrowding issue is extremely large," said Armand Harnois, Lake Worth's chief housing inspector. "When we're doing block inspections, we'll find eight to 15 people in a one- or two-bedroom house."
Owners are cited, and if the problems aren't corrected, they're fined. Frequently, tenants are evicted.
That is not solving the problem, said Rob Williams, director of the Justice Project. Often, it just makes it worse.
"This is a delicate thing, using code enforcement," Williams said. "If you do too much, you close down a bunch of housing and you intensify the crisis. If you don't do enough, you allow the housing stock for farm workers to deteriorate, and then it becomes irretrievably awful. You need to strike a balance."
Stepping on a cinder block -- this one is their stairway -- the men relax on a screened-in porch after dinner. Two seats stripped from a van are as close as they'll come to comfort tonight. They hang their clothes on a line inside the porch and stack their boots by the door.
Throughout the trailer park, the men seem less concerned about their living conditions than the amount of money they are spending.
"We pay too much for rent," one worker said. "We'd like to find a cheaper place."
'Sometimes there are no good choices'
Fellsmere migrants crowd in squalor, 'owned' as chattel until meager wages can cover their debts.
By Christine Evans
Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Sunday, Dec. 7, 2003
FELLSMERE -- This small city in the heart of the harvest has 1,000 stories, and if you wander the dirt roads and knock on the doors of the shabby trailers, you will hear them all.
Or enough, anyway, to make you think human beings shouldn't live this way.
Should a little girl have to wear her shoes on the wrong feet because in her filthy trailer -- crowded with three families -- a needle pierced her knee and two months later she couldn't walk? (Reversing her shoes, her mother explained, helped lessen the pain.)
Should a young mother have to drag a urine bag on a pole behind her everywhere she goes, including work and English class, because she cannot afford the surgery that would eliminate her need for the bag? (She finally got her operation, for kidney stones, after a well-off patron signed the payment papers.)
Should a young father with only a Bible and a bicycle to his name have to sleep on the floor of a backwoods shack with no running water and his food for the day -- an avocado and a Fanta soda -- hung on a peg to cheat the rats? Should his body, every inch of it, every morning, itch with the sting of insect bites? (The price, he says, for being too poor to purchase a bed frame to lift himself off the floor.)
This is Fellsmere, migrant town, and if there is a harder place, good luck finding it.
Or, looking at it another way, all around Florida there are dozens of other places just like it.
The city of 3,813 (many more in the harvest season, when the Mexicans come through to do the work) has quite a few success stories, and if you pass through for more than a minute, people here will be happy to tell you about them.
Maria Sanchez, whose parents used to work in the fields, is the new PTA president. She works in the police department.
There's Jose Magdaleno, owner of the popular Azteca grocery, where he pumps out homemade tortillas and Mexican bread.
Take a drive through town and you will also see the bright, sturdy homes built by Mexicans who came here, settled and thrived.
That's the good news.
This is the bad:
When the city fills up for the harvest and coyotes dump out their human cargo at the church doors -- disoriented men with swollen feet, thirsty from days of border crossing -- there are not nearly enough places for them to stay, and so they sandwich into rickety trailers and houses that literally lean with the wind.
Some men -- hundreds of them -- report to heavy-handed crew bosses. They earn paychecks they cannot read. They prop chairs against refrigerator doors to keep them closed, so their food won't spoil. They ride in unsafe vans to jobs in distant places, and when they get in accidents, which they frequently do, given the condition of the vans, they give the hospital assumed names.
They bring women and children with them. Or, sometimes, the women and children come alone, crossing rivers and deserts on a prayer. The women look for work in the packing houses, try to find sitters for their toddlers, pay outrageous sums to lease trailers with an option -- or so they are promised -- to buy.
The trailers are cramped. The roofs leak. The floorboards bend.
The little girls, with no place to play, keep their secondhand dollhouses not in fancy bedrooms but in bathrooms.
"Come," one says, "I will show you."
And there, by the rusted sink, in a tiny bathroom where the plumbing smells and the tub leaks, is the wonderful big home of her imagination.
Arriving, 'they are just totally lost'
Fellsmere is just one part of a great, long state, and yet it stands as a microcosm of all that can go wrong, and right.
Tucked deep into the lush groves of Indian River County, this sweet citrus spot 90 miles south of Disney has an ever-so-sleepy reputation. But in terms of modern labor trends, it is fully up to date: The place is full of cheap Mexican labor.
Fairness calls for a disclaimer here. Not everybody is miserable. Just the opposite.
The old-timers in this pioneer town are proud of its history and traditions, and rightly so. How many places, after all, boast a Frog Leg Festival?
But like other farming towns around the state, this one stands tall on the backs of oppressed labor. Growers in the area rely upon a cheap, illegal, tireless and frequently oppressed work force to get out the crop.
"You would not believe what these people go through," says the Rev. Noel McGrath, the local rector who, in a sign of these confusing demographic times, speaks fluent Spanish with a delightful Northern Ireland accent.
"I've heard things in confession that would make you cry."
McGrath ministers at the Our Lady of Guadalupe Mission in the heart of town, the only home some people here know.
The church secretary, Carolina Cardona, keeps a file drawer full of papers and notes documenting the stray workers dropped here by coyotes. She writes down the name of the volunteer who gives them shelter or drives them to the bus station, so they can move on to a town where they might know somebody.
Except for the church file, there is absolutely no official record of their existence in the U.S.A.
"Sometimes, they themselves don't even know where they are," the priest says. "They sleep in the woods, then knock on the door in the morning. We take care of them the best we can, but when they arrive, they are just totally lost."
"That's exactly right," says Joel Tyson, the former city mayor.
"When the Mexicans first get here, they're at the mercy of the crew leaders. The crew leader will have an awful place for him to stay, and the crew leader will transport him to his job. The crew leader will control his life.
'It's not a great deal different than it was back in slavery days...'
- Joel Tyson, former mayor
"In essence, it's not a great deal different than it was back in slavery days, or where you're an indentured servant."
Pretty much everybody associated with farm work knows the system. It's no secret, except when you go knocking on a farmer's door to ask him who is in his fields.
The Mexicans come here with a coyote; they owe that coyote a debt -- often as high, these days, as $1,500. If they cannot pay, a crew leader or contractor will step in and cover the debt for them, but of course there is a price.
Now the Mexican who is relieved of his debt to the coyote owes the crew leader. He must work off his debt.
If he is under the employ of an honest man, the buckets of fruit or vegetables he picks will be duly recorded, and his debt fairly subtracted, minus a sum to live on.
But if he works for a scoundrel -- well, that is another story altogether.
At the tail end of the last harvest season, in a small white house with sky-blue trim, a picker, Juve Ronquillo, sipped lemonade.
"It is a great pressure until you pay off your debt," he said. "Once you do, your life is better.
"But until then, you are an owned man."
'How, God, will I pay the rent?'
To take a tour of Fellsmere, knock on the church door or visit an outreach center and ask somebody to show you around.
That person will say, "OK, it will just take a minute," and they will mean it.
If your guide is Marta Gracia, a family support specialist for the Redlands Christian Migrant Association, she might sprinkle in some personal information on her tour.
"My daughter is 12. She says, 'Mom, I want to be like you.' I say, 'OK, you can be like me, a hard worker, a good person. But not my education. You need more.' She says, 'But how will we pay for my education?' And I tell her, 'Honey, I will find a way. I don't care if I have to go back to the fields and pick -- I will find a way.' "
Gracia's parents came from a small pueblo. "In 1967, there was a rumor that if you had a baby in the United States, your whole family could become legal.
"So my mother got pregnant in Mexico, then got a visa, like a shopping visa, and then she crossed the border and had me. Everybody in my town in Mexico was getting pregnant at that time, just so they could come to McAllen, Texas, and have children."
On your tour, you might also drop by Frank Clavelin's trailer park, notorious in these parts for its antique conditions (and that's putting it kindly).
The oldest trailer here is a 1954 aluminum traveler with a picture of Winnie the Pooh on the front window, and until recently, it was in full operation, housing the pickers who clean our trees. Rumor had it that as many as 16 or 17 people would sometimes pack Frank's bigger trailers, but, as the park manager fairly points out, the Mexicans sometimes arranged that themselves, "to cut down on the rent."
The city finally shut Frank's place down last December, an action that caused the 86-year-old war veteran a good deal of heartache, and some other people, too.
"It was a bit of a mixed blessing," McGrath says. "After it shut, a lot of people had nowhere to go."
Down the road a bit, you will find other families with other stories: the 13-year-old boy who took care of his three younger siblings when his mother was hospitalized and -- on the very same day -- his father tossed in jail. They were gone two weeks.
"Sometimes I would make macaroni and cheese for them," the boy, Francisco, said. "Sometimes rice and fried eggs.
Francisco did a good job, but still, when a parishioner from the mission stopped in, she found the youngest boy dehydrated.
You might also make the acquaintance of Martha Fuentes, a single mother of six who has teetered on the edge of homelessness for years. In season, she works at a Sun Ag Inc. packing house, and when the last season ended, the company printed a cheery message on her check: "We would like to express our thanks for a job well done."
She wondered: How, God, will I pay the rent.
Claudia Recendez knows what it is like to be homeless, too. A dental hygienist in Mexico, she and her husband crossed desperately after he lost his accounting job for exposing fraud involving a newspaper owner's son. "He was blackballed after that," she says. "He could not get a job."
Here is her worst memory.
To get across the border, she had to put her two children into the hands of another coyote. "This woman had documents that belonged to other children. She used those papers to get my children through.
"We were really worried to do that, but our desire to be here was so great, we took this risk."
Now everything is OK. Except her husband, Teodoro, is sick.
"Still, he must work to support us," she says. "Sometimes there are no good choices, just existing."
Good people ease the misery
There are plenty of good people here.
These good people will run to the grocery to buy soup and rice for the church food pantry when the lines are too long and the supply too short. They will sift through their closets to find thick, long-sleeved shirts in the crush of picking season so the workers can protect their arms.
They will buy a man a bicycle if he has no way to get to work, give him an odd job so he can eat, and purchase a phone card so he can call his wife in Mexico.
"How is the new baby?" he will say.
They will read to the elementary children struggling with English. They will tutor adults on the fine points of ordering from McDonald's (so as not to embarrass their all-American teens). They will even write grants to the wealthy John's Island Foundation so that the adult education center next to the church can purchase a bank of computers and several nights a week the town's poor migrant women can bend over them -- learning office skills.
The good people notice the misery here, and step in. And if they didn't?
"I cannot even describe to you how bad things would be," says Juan Rodriguez, a psychologist and English teacher who helps the Mexicans here.
"Everybody knows these people are here illegally, performing a job no one else will do. Yet look how they must live. There is no justice to it at all."
Pickers wade in pesticides
But training and oversight are lax.
By Christine Stapleton
Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Sunday, Dec. 7, 2003
Isabel Cruz remembers picking tomatoes, seeing the tractor and feeling a light breeze.
"We were separated from that tractor by only a ditch," Cruz recalled of that day in the Immokalee field last April. "You see the chemicals in the air, and there was a breeze and it brought it at us."
Three days later, the itching started: "My hands and neck and face -- wherever that liquid and air touched me." Then, her skin peeled off her hands and face. She felt sick. She lost 10 pounds. Her fingernails turned black. She had to quit her job.
"I couldn't mop because I couldn't hold the mop," said Cruz, a 34-year-old mother of four. "My husband had to do the cooking."
She went to the doctor, despite her husband's fears she would be deported. But she didn't file a complaint, and no one came to question her about what happened or to offer help.
"Part of the tragedy here is that people don't know who they work for and don't know where to start to go for a remedy," said Maria Vega, a Catholic Charities case worker. "They don't do anything because they are afraid."
Every year, one billion pounds of pesticides are applied to crops in the United States. Every day, farm workers like Cruz work beside machines that douse the crops with chemicals, then stick their hands through pesticide-coated plants to pick the fruits and vegetables that wind up on our tables.
Some of the pesticides are harmless. Others are known to cause cancer, spontaneous abortions and serious neurological disorders. One thing is certain: Florida growers -- who use more pesticides per acre than growers anywhere else in America -- are rarely fined when they break the rules.
'There are laws to protect farm workers but for almost every law, there is a loophole.'
- Lawyer Tania Galloni
Of 4,609 pesticide violations found by inspectors at the Florida Department of Agriculture in the last 10 years, only 7.6 percent resulted in fines. The rest received written reprimands or warnings.
When it comes to pesticides, the department has made its position clear. When the legislature had an opportunity this year to reenact a law that required growers to provide workers with precautionary information about dangerous pesticides, the department took no position. But in the political battle to extend the phase-out of methyl bromide -- a pesticide that can cause nerve damage -- the department has been on the front line, fighting for growers who want to keep using the fumigant.
The bulk of the violations are for failing to follow federal rules for training and notifying workers. When asked the last time they had been trained in using pesticides, 30 percent of farm workers surveyed in 1999 for the National Agricultural Workers survey said they had never been trained or not in the past five years.
Loophole in OSHA safeguards
"There are laws to protect farm workers but for almost every law, there is a loophole," said Tania Galloni, a lawyer for the Migrant Farmworker Justice Project. For example, OSHA safety standards apply only to farms that hire at least 10 workers. That covers about 471,600 farm workers nationwide but excludes an estimated 1 million who labor on small farms.
EPA weakens protection standards
Even when tougher laws are passed, they are often watered down later. In 1974, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency enacted the Worker Protection Standards. They required growers, regardless of the number of workers, to provide: training and information about pesticides used on crops; protective clothing; waiting periods for reentry into treated fields; hand-washing facilities in the field.
But in 1996, EPA amended the standards. Now workers who had never received pesticide training could work five days in the fields without any information about the dangers. The new standards also reduced the number of days that growers must provide water for hand-washing (one gallon for every worker) from one month to one week for certain pesticides.
A year after the new standards, Celeste Murphy-Green, then a doctoral candidate at Florida Atlantic University, surveyed farm workers in Palm Beach and Indian River counties. She asked if they knew when the fields had been last sprayed. Eighty-six percent didn't know. Nearly 20 percent said they often worked in the fields when pesticides were sprayed. Eighteen percent said there was no water to wash off the pesticides.
Two years after EPA relaxed the standards, skin rashes reported by field workers began to climb. In 1998, the rate was about 11 cases per 10,000 workers. By 2001, the rate jumped to nearly 27 cases per 10,000 workers, among the highest for any occupation, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Advocates admit that part of the problem lies with the farm workers. Most are reluctant to miss a day of work and go to a doctor. Many can't read, and most don't know they have rights.
The Vazquez family
Accident demolishes family's promising start
The Vazquez family was new to this country and still struggling to pay off a hefty coyote's debt when they found a beat-up trailer to rent in Indian River County. The young women in the family, Silvia and her sister-in-law, Evelia, took jobs in a citrus packing house.
The men, Cruz Vazquez, 49, and his son, Guillermo, found construction work. This spring, they hopped in a labor van to ride to a site. It was full of other men, as labor vans often are.
The van had a blow-out on Interstate 95 near Fort Pierce, Silvia said. "The passengers were ejected, and everybody was taken to different hospitals. They flew (Cruz) by helicopter to St. Mary's (in West Palm Beach). The head injury was bad. He was in a coma. He hurt his leg and arm."
Vazquez eventually recovered enough to return to Toluca, Mexico, where he has a wife and children. He had lost much of his memory.
"I really imagined life here would be something different," said Silvia, who returned home, too. She has children there, and, in the end, she could not stand the thought that they had little to eat, while she, here, had so much.
-- Christine Evans
Accident demolishes family's promising start
The boy came from Guatemala, crossed through Mexico, then Texas. He caught a ride to Florida and found work in the pepper fields. A man called Don Juan paid him in envelopes of cash. No pay stubs.
Then came the accident in Clewiston. He got bounced from a farm truck; the tires ran over his legs. He lost consciousness and was taken to a hospital.
"I kept waiting for somebody from the company to come help me."
Nobody did. At 15 or 16 -- he never marked his birth year -- Mario Lopez-Diaz was alone in America, injured and unable to send money home. When a friend introduced him to lawyers for the Migrant Farmworker Justice Project, he was startled to find out he had rights. The project filed suit against Pero Family Farms, the Delray Beach grower who employed the contractor who employed the boy.
Instead of engaging in a court fight, president Peter Pero promised to overhaul the hiring and handling of laborers. Today, his state-of-the-art operation uses electronic timekeeping and sophisticated technology to count the buckets workers pick. Most significantly, Pero no longer allows contractors to handle payroll. And when workers get paid, the company name is on their checks.
Lopez-Diaz, still recovering, took a job in landscaping, and now, as he considers his place in Florida farming history, he feels proud: "I helped change something."
-- Christine Evans
Lightning preys on men in fields
Cesar Pascual kept his eye on the sky as he cut string to tie tomato plants in an Immokalee field this April.
A thunderstorm was approaching, but the contractor wouldn't let him or the other 12 workers leave.
"We were sharpening the machetes and we could see the storm getting closer, " Pascual said. "It was clearly bringing lightning."
The storm moved overhead, but Ramiro Rodriguez still refused to order the workers back on the bus. Then lightning struck.
"We saw a lot of light," Pascual said. "The light exploded. When we became aware again, we were on the ground. It burned me all down my left leg. Another guy, it broke his eardrum."
But the worst hit was Gilberto Dominguez Acosta, 42, who was killed.
"I was about 2 meters from the guy who died," recalled Pascual. "His hat, his shirt and his pants were all ripped open. Even his boots. His boots were split open in three places. Others tried to help him, but his body was already loose, his eyes closed and he was dead."
-- John Lantigua
Sudden death in an unheated trailer
It was very cold in Immokalee the night little Pablo died.
The baby's 22-year-old mother, Apolonia Jimenez, didn't have money or space for a crib. So Pablo slept with her in the tiny room of an unheated trailer that she shared with six other people.
Early in the evening of Jan. 15, Pablo cried a lot. "I think it was colic," Jimenez said. "Later he felt better, and he went to bed with me."
The temperature dropped. According to the Florida Weather Service, it fell to 38 degrees.
"I covered him with a blanket and then with more blankets," Jimenez said.
"I woke up at 2 a.m. He was quiet," she said. "At 4 a.m., I woke up again. I covered him some more. He didn't wake up the way he usually did during the night.
"Finally about 6 a.m. I tried to wake him up. I said, 'Pablito, get up.' I took the covers off him and picked him up. He was pale and stiff and very cold. I realized... I prayed to God. I said, 'I'll do anything if he lives, God.' But it was too late." Pablo was pronounced dead in the morning.
The death was ruled sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).
-- John Lantigua
A 'coyote' since he was 13
Manuel Osorio is a coyote. Three hundred crossings. A few jail terms. Plus, the bumps on his head.
"La migra," he says, leaning his skinny frame back in his tiny house in Tecoman, Mexico. "They caught me 20 times. The next day, I always cross back."
That's his job. He took it when he was 13. His papi, a traveling farm laborer, did not earn enough to feed nine children, so Manuel, a responsible boy who could not read or write, took a bus to the border and studied like a graduate student.
Now Florida's fields are filled with the fruits of his labor -- friends, relatives and strangers he helped cross. "God bless Manuel," his sister-in-law in Fellsmere says. "He is a very good man."
And a busy one. Up in Tijuana, they know his number. "The people call for my services. They say, 'Please, please, Manuel.' "
He obliges, mostly. Except... his mami thinks it's too dangerous. She is 60, a widow, crying still for the poor Mexicans who suffocated in the tractor-trailer in Victoria, Texas.
"I tell him, 'Manuel, please stay put. No more coyote for you.' "
Manuel Osorio is a good son, and that is why you will find him these days at the local cement factory. It is a fine job, but not for itchy feet.
"I hear the border calling," he says, flashing a grin, "and I cannot say I will not do it again."
-- Christine Evans
Expected to die alone in desert
Gilberto Lugo stumbled onto Arizona's State Road 86 one day last April after walking by himself for hours. His coyote had left him behind because he couldn't keep up
"There were 20 of us, but the others were young," said Lugo, 59.
"They abandoned me at 6 a.m. I have blisters on my feet and couldn't climb the hills. I thought I would die on the way."
All Lugo carried when the Border Patrol rescued him was a plastic bag full of crumbled white bread. The officers gave him water, which he gulped as he sat on the side of the highway. There was salt dried on his face from perspiration, and a raw blister covered the entire ball of his foot.
"I have never suffered so much in my life," said Lugo, who had hoped to find work in Phoenix so he could send money home to his wife and school-age children in the state of Sinaloa, Mexico.
Now all he wanted was to head back home.
"I'll never try to do this again."
-- John Lantigua
Youngest daughter died in her arms
Esperanza Vazquez carried just 5 liters of water for herself and her four children when they sneaked across the Arizona desert border in February 2001.
Her "coyote" had promised it would be a short hike.
"He told us it would be only one night's walking, so we only took 1 liter of water for each us," said Vazquez, 33. "We finished it in the first hours, but it turned out to be days."
She carried her youngest daughter, also named Esperanza, because the child suffered from asthma.
"She said, 'Mama, I'm thirsty.' But I didn't have even saliva to give her," recalls Vazquez. "She said, 'Mama I don't feel well.' I said, 'Hold me tight, hold me tight,' and she held me so tight. I told her it was close, but I was wrong and no one had water to give her."
About the middle of the second day, the child died in Vazquez's arms. It isn't clear whether the death was caused purely by the heat or a complication of the asthma.
"I didn't tell anyone," she recalled. "I carried her for another day and half. I knew if I told anyone, they would make me leave her behind. I covered her with a blanket over my shoulder and just walked. My arms grew stiff, frozen in position."
On the third day her daughter Maura, 15, tried to wake her little sister, who she thought was sleeping. She moved her arms, her legs and when the child didn't wake, she grew hysterical.
"Then everybody knew," said Vazquez.
The coyote abandoned the group right there. The others stayed with Vazquez and helped her bury her child in a shallow unmarked grave scraped out of the ground with sticks. They said a prayer.
"It wasn't much of a service, but it was something," she said.
Eventually they were caught and sent back to Mexico, but later she crossed again, this time with plenty of water for all of them. Today, she lives in a trailer in Lakeland with her surviving children and does agricultural and domestic work. She has advice for others who are thinking of crossing the desert.
"I pray to God that they don't come."
-- John Lantigua
Sexually abused by her 'coyote'
Carla (not her real name) didn't have money for a "coyote" to take her to the United States. So the 20-year-old from Honduras found a smuggler who would let her pay later.
"I swam across the river into Texas along with five people from Ecuador," she said. Then the coyote broke his promise.
"He said I owed him money right then," she said.
"He said he liked me and that I would live with him for a time. I told him I didn't want to do that, but he took me to a town near Brownsville, to a trailer where there were only white people around."
Carla says the coyote sexually abused her for three months. He threatened to turn her into immigration authorities if she tried to leave.
By the time he got tired of her and kicked her out, Carla was pregnant. She made her way to San Antonio and had her baby there.
Since then, she has married and had three other children. They all live in Wimauma, where she works in a plant nursery.
-- John Lantigua
Left in woods after van crashed in ditch
Adileni Rosales was smuggled across the Rio Grande River into Texas in 2001 when she was 15 years old.
"The water came up to our armpits, and it was very cold," said Rosales, now 17. "We ran across two roads all bent over. If we saw a car coming, we threw ourselves to the ground."
She and seven others, including an older cousin, made it to a safe house near the border. Eventually, they were loaded into a van for the trip cross-country to the East Coast.
"A woman was driving and two men were with her, with us lying in the back," Rosales recalls. "She lost control of the van and ran it right into a ditch. We were thrown forward, but we weren't badly hurt. The woman and the other two men left us there alone. They said to hide in the woods and they would be back for us. That was the late afternoon, but it got dark. We thought they would come back, but after a time we knew they wouldn't. "Around dawn, some of the guys with us started trying to get the van out of the ditch. They did. Then they got it started, and we drove it all the way to Florida. We had $100 among all of us. The driver was named Alex. He spoke a little English. We made it. But I was scared when they left us in the woods and it was night."
Rosales, who comes from the state of Guerrero in Mexico, now lives in Tallahassee.
Sex slavery, rape await defenseless
Among migrant women, many sexual assault victims never report it. Immigration might get called.
By Jane Daughterty and Christine Evans
Palm Beach Post Staff Writers
Sunday, Dec. 7, 2003
LAKE WORTH -- She was still a newlywed when the attack came.
Her supervisor cornered the Guatemalan teenager in a remote field in south Palm Beach County and demanded sex.
The police report is vivid: The man tied her hands behind her back. Stuffed a handkerchief in her mouth to stifle the screams. Forced her to the ground. Pinned her arms. Pulled his pants down. Began yanking at her belt.
He was still fumbling with the stubborn belt when three other women walked up. He pulled his pants up and fled.
Lying there, dirty, embarrassed, terrified, she shook and wept over a scene that would never leave her.
It is a story repeated day after day in the fields of Florida. But, if you can believe the migrants and their advocates, most victims never report it. They fear the police. Immigration might get called, and you know where that might lead.
The case of the Lake Worth woman was unusual because she and her husband mustered the courage to call the cops.
Sheriff's Detective Travis Cardinal tried to help, but the victim spoke an obscure Guatemalan language. He took her to Sister Rachel Sena, a Dominican nun working with Guatemalan migrants.
Sister Rachel remembers a frightened teenager who lived in a rented house in Lake Worth.
"We could see she was in shock. We could see she had been traumatized. The sheriff wanted so much to follow through on the case, but we could not find a true translator in Chuj. All of us were very, very sad about it. Soon after, the lady moved," she said.
"I remember somebody working with the Guatemalan Maya Center mentioned to me that this is so common. She said, 'Oh, Sister, if you only knew how common.' "
Still, the detective tried. He looked for the suspect, but he had disappeared after being fired. Then he discovered that the young woman had been fired, too.
"What I found so disturbing was that she was terminated for being a victim. I was just dumbfounded. What benefit do they have to report a crime?"
But it could have been worse. She could have been kidnapped and turned into a sex slave.
For women attempting to flee the poverty of their homelands, rape and forced prostitution loom large on the list of threats they face in their quest to find work in the United States.
The danger has become so widespread that the U.S. Department of Justice issued a report in August calling trafficking in sexual slaves, including children, forced prostitution and slave labor "a heinous international crime and human rights abuse." The report estimated that 18,000 to 20,000 people a year "are trafficked annually into the U.S." to be enslaved in "commercial sexual exploitation such as prostitution and pornography or labor exploitation."
In South Florida, human rights attorney Maria Jose Fletcher has represented dozens of immigrant victims of sexual slavery and rape through the nonprofit Florida Immigration and Advocacy Center in Miami.
"We've been working on trafficking cases since 1997," said Fletcher. "Many of these cases are heartbreaking because they are so brutal, so inhuman... I have seen girls as young as 14 who were repeatedly raped by the men smuggling them into the U.S. to force them into prostitution."
Prosecuting traffickers in sexual slavery can be difficult, even under the 2000 Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA), which provided tougher penalties under federal law, Fletcher said.
"It's very difficult for them to stand up for themselves," Fletcher said of the female victims, often rural teenagers with little formal education. "They are afraid because they are in the country illegally. They are afraid because the rapes often destroy the last vestiges of their self-esteem."
This was the case with the young woman that social worker Maria Vega met in Immokalee.
Vega, who works for Catholic Charities, said the girl was "still a teenager when she was brought across into Texas by a coyote. She said he kidnapped her, had sex with her every day for two or three weeks, then beat her up and threw her out.
"She ended up in a hospital and was so badly beaten the doctors were forced to remove her womb. They asked her if she wanted to be sent back to her hometown in Mexico. She said, 'No. I can't lie to some man and tell him I can have children. There's no sense going home. I'm not good for anything back there anymore.' "
Life for black laborers improved after a heartbreaking CBS report on the Glades, but ...
Load of 'Shame' has shifted
By Christine Evans
Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Sunday, Dec. 7, 2003
BELLE GLADE -- Long before the face of the harvest was brown, it was black.
In the old days, the migrant stream that flowed from Florida up through the Carolinas to Virginia and back again depended upon the stoop labor of America's poorest blacks, and some whites, too.
Theirs was a strikingly hard existence, filled with long days of uncomfortable travel, heavy labor and feather-light pay. The movable workers who picked the feast rode in truck beds, jammed together like cattle -- maybe worse than cattle -- and often entire families went without food and babies without milk. Children went without shelter, all so the migrants could move from place to place to pick the vegetables that landed on everybody else's dinner tables.
This was the migration.
Its genesis was Belle Glade, Fla.
Life here in the last half a century has changed greatly, at least for farm workers who carry citizenship papers. But to understand how things are now, you need to understand how things were then.
And for that, you need to meet a sweet-faced boy of 9 named Jerome King, who -- quite without willing it -- helped to educate a nation.
"I'm just a kid, and these white folks come to the house, start interviewing me," a grown-up King says today.
The camera crews "just caught everybody off guard."
He is 52, the father of two teenage sons.
He lives in nearby South Bay, in a pleasant house where the walls and tables are lined with plaques marking his boys' academic achievements.
"Not to brag," he says. "But they're both terrific students."
It is 1960, the day after Thanksgiving, and CBS airs what is destined to become a classic: Harvest of Shame, a documentary on the tumultuous lives of migrant workers.
Telling the story for the cameras is esteemed journalist Edward R. Murrow, who is perpetually seen smoking a cigarette as he narrates and interviews.
CBS producer David Lowe found Jerome in his tin shack at the local housing authority's Okeechobee camp.
If pictures do not lie, it was not a pretty place.
Jerome's mom, Allean King, 29, was picking beans the morning CBS came -- and she was picking beans the next.
Out in the fields, she turned a dignified face to the camera and stated her wages for the day.
It cost $2 to feed her family, and 85 cents to put the children in day care, and that explained why Jerome was home taking care of his three baby sisters on the day the camera crews arrived unannounced.
He was supposed to give his sisters lunch, but what?
The camera panned to a deep pot, and at the bottom were some black-eyed peas. Maybe that.
Jerome had a little hole in his foot that day, from a nail he stepped on at the washhouse.
His mattress had a hole in it, too, and when the TV people pressed him, he allowed as how the rats had put it there.
That one comment gave the small boy no end of grief.
Today he will not stand by it.
"I don't think it was the rats that made a hole like that," the grown Jerome King says. "Maybe they did, but I really don't think so.
"There were a lot of people living in that house, and I think it got torn up."
But that was then.
If you want to know one of the most obvious ways Belle Glade has changed, visit the Okeechobee Center today. House after neat little house, with nice green yards.
The homes are strictly for farm workers. You can ask them out of earshot of any landlords, and they will tell you it is a fine place to live, all things considered.
"I don't know how they did it," King says. "But they totally changed that place over."
Much like Belle Glade -- or parts of it, for the inner-city slum is still an example of some of the worst housing and living conditions in America -- Jerome King raised himself up.
His line of work?
He travels around with his cookware, signs on in the cornfields with regular bosses, makes sure to get himself back to Florida for the start of school.
"I've been at it 40 years," he says. "Once you get used to it, it's like a walk in the park."
That might be an optimistic view, but those who know the history of this place note the improvement, which is not to say there isn't room for more. Things have changed "quite a bit," says Hog Jones, 76, from his perch on his breezy front porch. "Of course, some changes develop too slow, in my opinion. It was Jim Crow around here for years."
"We've seen progress -- but not enough," agrees Lois Monroe of the Farmworker Coordinating Council, which helps workers here stay afloat in hard times.
One of the big employers here, A. Duda & Sons, a farming conglomerate based in Oviedo, has set an industry standard by providing workers with a wide array of benefits, including housing and a day care center, run by a nonprofit group, on company land. The subject of unfavorable press attention in the 1970s, Duda now has the reputation of being a superior place to work. Unlike many growers, the company says it limits its use of labor contractors.
"We deal directly with our workers," says Drew Duda, a fourth-generation family member and a company vice president. The arrangement, he says, is one where "everybody benefits," since workers come away with an improved situation and Duda is assured a more stable work force.
A big company like Duda can offer workers benefits some smaller companies wouldn't dream of. For many farm workers, the problems of yesteryear exist today. Day after day, migrant workers troop into Monroe's office to tell her of their difficulties. She can relate. Her parents picked in the fields, back when CBS came to town.
"My mom and her sister made sure they were never in those pictures. Camera crews came, they ran and hid."
It was the Harvest of Shame after all.
Nowadays, Monroe says, it is the foreign-born workers -- Mexicans and Haitians -- who draw the shortest straw.
"Some don't know who they're working for, or what they're making. Some can't read. I try to teach them how to read their paychecks, but it's hard. A lady came in yesterday, and she had all her checks for 2002.
"She made $2,124.40 for the year.
"I said, 'How do you live on that?' She said she does the best she can."
Some people would say 9-year-old Jerome King performed a public service by educating America about the plight of migrant workers.
King would not say that himself. "I don't know what America thinks," he says.
"I just know what Jerome thinks."
What he thinks is this:
Today, the migrant worker's life can be a decent one, if conditions are right.
It is a hard life for the parents of school-age children.
It is a hard life for anybody who wants to stay in one place.
It is a hard life for anybody who cannot handle grueling physical labor.
Jerome King is raising his two boys up to do something different.
The stoop labor? The endless travel in the backs of rickety vans?
The hunger and uncertainty?
There is a new, brown set of hands to put up with that.
Still harvesting shame
By Michael Browning
Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Sunday, Dec. 7, 2003
It comes down to this: We can consent to be the distant overseers of farm workers who toil in a modern, faint, smudged carbon copy of slavery.
Or we can await the day when tomatoes, lettuce and celery jump out of the ground and walk, the day when oranges and grapefruit fly off the tree, all making straight for the supermarket.
Or we can pay a penny more for a half-gallon of orange juice -- that penny to go into the picker's pocket -- and fork over a similar small markup on vegetables, for the same reason, in the name of mere justice.
In a series today through Tuesday, The Palm Beach Post examines the plight of America's migrant workers, now and throughout Florida history. It is a moral problem that involves everyone who eats vegetables or drinks the most famous and recognizable thing Florida makes: orange juice.
It is just as well to admit at the outset that the problem is well-nigh insoluble, and that we are part of it. As long as we hunger for cheap produce and thirst for cheap OJ, that economic pressure will translate into a constant, quiet oppression of hundreds of thousands of farm workers. Five modern-day slavery cases prosecuted in recent years by the U.S. government have a Florida connection. The Post has discovered two new cases in which men and women say they were locked up while employed in Florida tomato fields.
We are complicit. We are accessories before the fact. We are part of the big squeeze.
In a sense, all who work are slaves to Adam's curse. We must earn our bread by the sweat of our brows.
Where does slavery end? Where do obligation and necessity begin? It is helpful to look at Florida A&M University Professor Larry Eugene Rivers' magisterial overview, Slavery in Florida: Territorial Days to Emancipation, and see the genuine article.
Slavery and slaves shaped Florida to a startling extent. The oldest photograph in the Florida Archives depicts an old female slave named Mauma Mollie, who came from Africa and died in Jefferson County in 1857. Her young white masters loved her so much they decided to immortalize her in that silvery image.
The very name of our state river, the Suwannee, may be African in origin -- named in Bantu nsub-wanyi, "my house, my home" -- Dr. Rivers says. Tabby-walled slave cabins still can be visited at the Zephaniah Kingsley Plantation state park, north of Jacksonville.
In 1865, when the Civil War ended, there were approximately 61,000 slaves in Florida who were suddenly, legally free. They represented 48 percent of the entire state population.
The law, but not the fact
Yet while slavery ended in law, the institution lingered in virtual fact, shading itself into varying degrees of economic subservience that endure to this day, across race, across ethnic lines. Brutal county sheriffs farmed out convicts as free labor to sawmills and turpentine distillers in North Florida. The Standard Oil mogul, Henry Flagler, was sued for peonage while building his railway to Key West in the early years of the last century. The government dropped the charges, eventually, but a certain odor lingers about the case.
During World War II, 245 German prisoners of war were put to work chopping sugar cane in the Glades. They were paid 80 cents a day. One, Karl Behrens, so hated the work that it drove him to madness and suicide. He escaped from the Clewiston POW camp in January 1945 and hanged himself from a tree.
An International Red Cross worker, Guy Metraux, described the Clewiston enclave as "the worst camp in America," where daytime temperatures reached 103 degrees.
Slaves, Dr. Rivers shows, were a source of wealth and status, worth up to $1,100 apiece, about as much as a new luxury car costs today, allowing for inflation. Dr. Rivers recounts the reminiscences of George Gillett Keen, a poor white allowed into the company of some slaveowners on a hunting trip during in the 1840s in North Florida:
"When the day's hunt was over, supper eaten and all seated around the fire, the subject of farming was introduced. One would say, 'I've got the best overseer I ever had'; another would say, 'My overseer is a worthless fellow'; a third would say, 'I am pretty well satisfied with my overseer,' and so on.
"I would sit there like a bump on a log. You bet I never wanted anything worse in my life than I wanted a plantation of niggers so I could talk about my overseer... I wanted niggers. How to get them was the question."
Owners were captive, too
By 1830, there were 954 slaveholders in Florida. By 1860, there were 1,150. The average number of slaves per household during the 1850s was nine. The "peculiar institution," as slavery was gently called in those days, was on the rise, not on the decline in Florida, when the Union victory put an abrupt stop to it in 1865.
The wealthiest slaveowner was John Finlayson in Leon County, with 185 slaves. Four out of five people in Jackson, Gadsden, Leon, Jefferson and Madison counties were slaves.
Slavery wasn't a one-way street. It ensnared owners, too, in a strange web of codependency. Slaves subverted their masters, allured their masters, outfoxed their masters, killed their masters: 22 slaves were executed in antebellum Florida for murder, usually that of an overseer or slaveholder. An overseer in Madison County named M.D. Griffin was axed to death by slaves, furious at his cruelty. Three of them were hanged, another nine others pardoned.
A Duval County female slave named Celia was hanged for stabbing her master and father, Jacob Bryan, who was pestering her for sex. Bryan fathered eight children by his slave mistress, Sarah. And the executor of his will, Isaiah Hart, after whom the Hart Bridge in Jacksonville is named, acknowledged that Bryan's mulatto children were the "only family which he made." Hart, too, owned slaves.
Adversity schooled the slaves in piety. Often, slaves would steal away into the woods to pray, and one, Amanda McCray, quoted by Dr. Rivers, recalled a clearing in the woods near her plantation where there was a "praying ground." Here, she said, "the grass never had a chancet ter grow for the troubled knees that kept it crushed down."
If you grow it, they will come
"At the close of the Civil War, the number of Negroes in South Florida was limited; in some areas there was none. This was due, primarily, to the absence of large crops to harvest," write Alfred Jackson Hanna and Kathryn Abbey Hanna in their 1948 book, Lake Okeechobee, Wellspring of the Everglades. There were about a million migrant workers in the U.S. that year. The crops would come. The pickers would follow.
"After slavery ended in 1865, blacks are quasi-free," Professor Rivers said. "From 1865-1900, the newly freed blacks moved from some of the plantations to the towns. They worked for the railroads.
"But they had no economic base. They were free in name only. Some of them actually stayed on the plantation. At Pebble Hill, north of Tallahassee, there are still descendants of slaves living on the property today. When CNN's Ted Turner bought his big plantation, Avalon, in Jefferson County in the early 1990s, he found descendants of slaves still living in shacks on the property with no electricity, just kerosene lanterns."
Though slavery had been legally abolished, Black Codes were enacted to enforce segregation and ensure white privilege. The first session of the postwar legislature passed a vagrants-and-vagabonds law that empowered sheriffs to "take necessary steps to bring such offenders to punishment."
Once locked up, the convicts could be hired out "to any person who will take him or her for the shortest time and pay the fine, forfeiture and penalty imposed and cost of prosecution." Peonage became an accepted feature of imprisonment.
There is evidence that even the governor of Florida, George F. Drew, used convict labor at his sawmill in Ellaville in Madison County. Before the practice was outlawed in 1923, thousands of prisoners were put brutally to work carving out roads, planting and harvesting crops, hammering railroad ties, under harsh conditions. They were ferried to work in steel cages on wheels and could be whipped or shot for insubordination or attempted escape.
Once the railroads were built, however, a job vacuum opened up. Agriculture filled it.
For thousands of years, layers of rotting plants had accumulated under water, year after year, charged with the energy of suns that had shone before the pyramids of Egypt had been built, forming beds of fertile, night-black muck up to 12 feet deep in a wide apron around the lower lip of Lake Okeechobee. It was some of the richest land on the planet.
But a very two-tiered society developed atop this earth. Immigrants from as far away as Finland, Latvia and Czechoslovakia came to farm. Workers from as near as Georgia came to pick the crops. They were paid by the row, by the basket of beans.
"Scant attention was paid to them," wrote the Hannas. "They bedded down along the canals, on the edge of the canebrake or in the squalid slums of little towns dotting the shore. They were diseased, ignorant, dirty and malnourished. All in all, they constituted a sad commentary on the much-advertised American way of life. During the hurricanes of 1926 and 1928, these poor wretches, most of them colored, contributed a major percentage to the tolls of killed, injured and destitute. Few farmers regarded the migrants as their responsibility."
The 1930 Census enumerates a house-by-house head count of workers at Clewiston, Pahokee, Canal Point, Chosen and Shawano. Field laborers are counted, their occupation given as "sugar plantation," people who are from Georgia and South Carolina and who are renting living space for $1 to $1.50 a month.
In April 1940, Ernie Pyle, who would become legendary as a newspaper correspondent in World War II, visited Belle Glade and was appalled at the squalor he saw. Apart from U.S. Sugar, nobody seemed to give a damn how field workers lived.
"I'm glad I'm not a sociologist, for I wouldn't know what to make of life in the Everglades," Pyle wrote. "At one end is cleanliness, steady pay, good houses, good schools, and decency. But that is all wrong, you see, for a big rich company is doing it. It is insidious -- the workers are coerced with comforts, deluded and exploited under the guise of good living. It is terrible, and we must do away with it and get back to individual freedom.
"And twenty miles away, we have individual freedom. We have filthy shacks, piece work, and a lack of sanitation that borders on depravity. We have your little landlord pocketing his exorbitant rent for pigpens filled with humans. We have a floating population the police classify as 'the scum of the earth,' and the health department shudders to think about. We have, in short, a Florida version of The Grapes of Wrath."
Living conditions at Belle Glade, Pahokee and Canal Point had become so disgraceful that the federal government stepped in and began constructing public housing for migrants.
Dr. William Weems, health officer of Palm Beach County, reported in 1940 that one man was raking in $2,000 a month in rents on dwellings that "should not have been allowed to exist." He found one room in a 14-room "filthy barracks" in which a family of six shared space with three male boarders. A bucket of water sold for $1.
World War II proved a boon to the Glades, which found itself transformed into the biggest Victory Garden in America. Labor was at a premium. By 1943, sugar labor was paid 40 cents an hour and "an energetic worker may earn up to $7.00 a day in a good season."
In 1946, across Florida, it was estimated that there were 62,341 migrant workers, mostly black, mostly from Georgia and Alabama. Nearly a third of them worked in Palm Beach County.
Under the bracero program, thousands of guest workers were brought into South Florida from Mexico and Jamaica. Originally, they were to stay only three years, but the program was extended to June 30, 1947. The U.S. government paid for transportation and medical care. The Jamaicans proved very popular with sugar-cane growers, and they gradually displaced American blacks from the cane fields.
Report tops 'Harvest of Shame'
A vivid snapshot of their life emerges in "On the Season: A Report of a Public Health Project Conducted Among Negro Migrant Agricultural Workers in Palm Beach County, Florida," compiled by my second cousin, Robert H. Browning, and Travis J. Northcutt Jr. for the Florida State Board of Health and published in 1961. While Edward R. Murrow's 1960 CBS documentary, Harvest of Shame, is far better-known today, the little state monograph is a far-better-researched work, the result of five years of on-the-ground research.
Mr. Browning, today retired, lives in Tallahassee and recalled how the study came about.
"It was really kind of a noble effort. It was funded by a grant from the U.S. Children's Bureau. There was a different attitude in government in those days. There was interest at the federal and state level in doing something to improve the health of these migrant workers. We seem to have gotten away from that now," he said.
Palm Beach County health director Carl Brumbach and state Rep. Emmett Roberts both got behind the study, and Mr. Browning recalled that the growers were extraordinarily cooperative. They had yet to get a black eye from Harvest of Shame. Crew bosses even attended night classes once a week, to learn basic health procedures.
"On The Season" was researched between 1956 and 1961, done in Belle Glade, which by then had a fixed population of 11,000. In those days, 15,000 to 20,000 migrants a year came to the county, more than half of them to Belle Glade, nearly half of them black. Some stayed "on season" for 15 to 20 years.
"They spend six to eight months in Florida, arriving in the fall and leaving in May... Workers gather in a loading zone between 6 a.m. and 7 a.m. and mill around the trucks, comparing prices being offered. At 7 a.m., a whistle blows and the migrants climb aboard the trucks they've chosen."
The whole process vaguely resembled a slave auction, except that the labor was auctioning itself to the highest bidder. Labor contractors chanted how sweet, rich and easy-to-pick their crops were, enticing the workers aboard trucks. The pickers were paid by the hamper.
In 1957, the average annual income of migrant farm workers was $859. They worked 131 days a year in farm and non-farm work. Housing was abysmal. Of 346 families interviewed, 198 (57.2 percent) were living in a single room, averaging 4.2 persons per room. More than half paid $6 to $10 a week for that room.
"The attitude of most migrants regarding their situation is one of resigned acceptance, that is, they neither strongly like nor dislike the circumstances under which they live and work. Most of the migrants simply see no alternative to following the harvest; considering their limited skills and education, this is realistic," the Browning-Northcutt report said.
During the 1960s, '70s and '80s, foreign labor gradually came to predominate in the Glades. Mexicans, Haitians and Guatemalans are the mainstays in the fields today. The Jamaican cane-cutters are all but gone. Last May, several thousand of them lost a lawsuit filed against the Sugar Cane Growers Cooperative of Florida charging that they were underpaid for their labor.
The cane-cutters may have sued themselves out of a job. Many have since gotten out of agriculture and into construction.
Mechanization makes inroads
Today, cane-harvesting is mostly mechanized. A $165,000 Cameco cane-cutter, a tall, yellow machine with what appear to be huge steel tusks at the front, each outfitted with spiral worm-gears, plows into a field, and the sight is apocalyptic.
The worm-gears stand the cane up straight and feed it back into a Y-shaped pair of jaws that lie flat, outspread on the undercarriage of the front of the machine. The straightened cane marches back to the saw-toothed cutting wheel that spins horizontally beneath the main body of the machine, very close to the ground.
The roar is deafening.
The scythed stalks then parade out, still tottering but upright, down a tall feeder mechanism and collapse flat on the ground in neat rows as the cutter moves along. This is a specialized machine that cuts cane only for planting, not harvesting.
As the yellow behemoth moves down the widening alley in the green cane field, bold cattle egrets flap and leap around the ground almost beneath its wheels, pecking up bugs squeezed from the earth. They have no fear whatever of the thundering engine or the wicked cutting wheel.
The machine doesn't sing spirituals. But it gets the job done.
Mechanized harvesting is moving into other areas of agriculture, too, and some predict that within 20 years, most fruit and vegetables will be picked by machine, not by hand.
But in the meantime, as long as our hunger and thirst for cheap produce and fruit and juice continue, the "Harvest of Shame" will go on. The estimated 500,000 migrant farm workers in the U.S., and the 45,000 who work in Palm Beach County, will go on stooping, planting and picking.