Four years ago, "Patricia M." was working in an almond orchard in California. She was 23 years old, had come from Mexico only two years earlier and had no family in the United States. She says the foreman "bothered" her at first, offering her food and drink and telling her he could get her work. This made Patricia uncomfortable, so she always refused. On the end of the third day, the foreman dropped all the other workers off, but he took her to a remote field and raped her.
Patricia told no one. She could not afford to leave the job, and he continued to rape her. She says, "I let him because I didn't want him to hit me. I didn't want to feel pain." She did not consider calling the police. "I was afraid they would put me in jail; I was afraid (they'd) send me to Mexico because I was illegal," Patricia said. "I felt very sad and very alone."
Patricia's story is not uncommon. As Human Rights Watch documents in our new report, "Cultivating Fear," hundreds of thousands of female farmworkers face a high risk of sexual violence and harassment as they grow, pick and pack food in the United States.
The exact prevalence is hard to determine, given the challenges of surveying a seasonal, migrant and often undocumented immigrant workforce, but nearly all of the workers we interviewed, as well as many of the advocates, government officials and other experts, confirmed what other studies have found: Workplace sexual violence and harassment are serious problems for agricultural workers. As one legal services attorney in California put it, it is a "recurring, day in and day out, significant problem. ... It's not a made-up issue, it's real."
Some women reported rape and other forms of coercive sexual conduct; many more reported unwanted touching, verbal abuse and exhibitionism, perpetrated by supervisors, employers, co-workers and others in positions of power. Abusers often are explicit about their power; one woman said her rapist reminded her she had the job because of him, another picked potatoes with a man who groped women's breasts and buttocks and threatened to fire them or call immigration if they resisted. Harassment often lasts for months, even years, and perpetrators often victimize multiple workers even after complaints are made to company management. Abusers know they can get away with it, because farmworker women and girls are unlikely to ever report them.
Like Patricia, most farmworkers do not see the police or other government officials as a source of help. At least 50 percent of farmworkers are undocumented immigrants; some experts believe the number is much higher. A serious, bipartisan proposal to reform immigration laws for farmworkers, popularly called AgJobs, was first introduced almost 10 years ago. It has gone nowhere since, enabling the agricultural industry to continue depending on a vulnerable, unauthorized workforce.
Rather than propose ways to protect these workers from abuses, some policymakers push anti-immigrant laws like Alabama's HB56 that do not even tolerate their presence in the country, as well as federal programs that involve local police in immigration enforcement, like Secure Communities. Everyone, regardless of immigration status, is entitled to protection from crimes, but many farmworkers fear that when they complain to the police, the first thing they will be asked is if they have immigration papers.
Federal labor enforcement agencies assert correctly that all workers, including unauthorized immigrants, are entitled to workplace rights, and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has brought lawsuits against growers and prioritized sexual harassment against immigrant female workers.
But the commission can take very few cases, and the process of filing a civil claim does not provide any automatic protection from deportation. One woman who reported being raped by a supervisor said she was deported while her lawsuit was pending. And while the EEOC and police have the power to certify applications for U visas, a temporary nonimmigrant visa for some victims who cooperate in investigations, even this limited protection has been attacked in Congress during the recent debate over reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act.
Patricia eventually met local advocates who encouraged her to report the rape to the police and helped her apply for a U visa, but she knows she could never have done so without their help.
Americans may disagree on the way forward for immigration reform, but our current mix of contradictory federal laws infused with harsh state and local anti-immigrant policies is not only dysfunctional - it is abusive. Protections like the U visa must be strengthened for now. Ultimately, Congress must act on comprehensive immigration reform to ensure that farmworkers can fully assert their rights to protection from abuse. When we eat what farmworkers produce, we must also work to ensure their safety.
Grace Meng is a researcher in the U.S. Program at Human Rights Watch and the author of "Cultivating Fear: The Vulnerability of Immigrant Farmworkers in the U.S. to Sexual Violence and Sexual Harassment." Twitter: @grace_meng. To comment, go to sfgate.com/chronicle/submissions/#1.