We all know what big press conferences look like announcing the arrest of human traffickers at the culmination of a years-long investigation.
The common rhetoric around these conferences are the lauding of law enforcement and prosecutors and inevitably addressing that victims were “rescued.”
It is difficult to fathom that some of those victims may have needed deliverance from the officers sworn to protect them – but that was the case in Arizona in 2018.
It certainly didn’t look like officers were involved in the sexual assault of human trafficking victims during a press conference in September of 2018 when Lon Weigand, deputy special agent in charge for Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) in Arizona, took the podium praising the efforts of agents and other law enforcement agencies that led to the arrest of nine people in a human trafficking investigation in Arizona.
However, almost two years later, those charges were dropped because officers were not allowed to testify in court, and investigative journalists discovered why.
HSI undercover officers were given approval by their supervisors to pay for sex acts from the human trafficking victims during this investigation.
Make no mistake, that is federally sanctioned sexual assault.
If you are curious if that egregious abuse facilitated the conviction of human traffickers, it didn’t. If you are curious if the victims are now safe, you will remain that way, because we don’t really know. Those victims cannot be located. Those victims were very likely retraumatized by this unconscionable investigation.
In the anti-human trafficking movement, survivors have often decried the practices of law enforcement, and rightfully so.
When the people who are designated to protect take the most marginalized people in our community and threaten and abuse them, we are left questioning where the justice really is in our justice system.
When many survivors talk about law enforcement, they tell stories of being forced to have sex with officers to avoid arrest.
The terror campaign that traffickers wage against victims to maintain control over them further drives those who need help into the shadows.
After all, traffickers also use threats of arrest and police brutality against victims to get what they want.
And when we consider that victims of human trafficking are disproportionately people of color or immigrants, the likelihood that they come forward for help is further reduced.
The current alarms blaring – and rightfully so – about how people of color are treated by law enforcement and the political environment in which ICE is encouraged to actively deport immigrants and detain them in inhumane conditions at our country’s southern border, result in people who desperately need help being terrified to reach out and get it, and quite frankly, they are not wrong to stay hidden in the shadows of abuse.
What choice do they really have?
It was with great and profound outrage, but with little surprise, that I came upon a news story about HSI undercover officers – a branch of ICE, by the way – paying for sex acts from people they had identified as victims of human trafficking, and that it was approved behavior by supervisors in the agency.
According to HSI’s Blue Campaign, “DHS (Department of Homeland Security) uses a victim-centered approach to combat human trafficking”.
Authorizing misogyny, the sexual objectification of women, sexual assault, and contributing to victimization and trauma of human trafficking victims is not a victim-centered approach.
As NC Stop Human Trafficking founder Pam Strickland put in several of her complaint letters to government agencies designed to keep officers accountable, that is “institutionalized exploitation.”
It was clear in the journalistic investigation of these crimes that the local law enforcement officers partnering with HSI were appalled. All the agencies, except for HSI, of course, have policies clearly prohibiting officers from having sexual encounters with people involved in investigations.
But as Clark Neily, vice president of criminal justice at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank said, “It is difficult to exaggerate the extent to which the law enforcement community collectively turns a blind eye when its members engage in misconduct.”
And while we can go through the laundry list of policy changes that could make law enforcement practices more humane to victims of crime, let’s begin with making sure our federal officers are held to the highest standards and ask that HSI policy clearly and explicitly forbid sexual activity of any kind with people of interest in an investigation.
We also need to ensure that HSI receives more oversight, which based on reports, is sorely lacking. I would encourage you to make your concerns known to the U.S. House Committee on Homeland Security, the elected oversight body for Homeland Security
My journey into anti-human trafficking work began in the fields of Eastern North Carolina. I had just gotten a new job at a newspaper. I wanted bylines. I wanted awards and accolades. I was the stereotypical hungry journalist.
I did not know, when a volunteer with the Farm Laborers Organizing Committee in Dudley, North Carolina, contacted me, what exactly to expect.
All I knew is that I was going to jump at the opportunity to tell the stories of men and women who were a mystery to me.
I was excited, but I could have never imagined what I would eventually learn.
I first met a man who came to the U.S. from Guatemala.
He mortgaged his home to paythe price to get to the United States for a job opportunity that became a nightmare.
Standing in front of a bright blue trailer in Seven Springs, his entire hand bandaged, he recounted his story. Translated by a FLOC volunteer, he said in a voice that was tired and a shaking, he wanted to return home, but he could not.
He said he could not work either because the machinery the workers were using to put in tobacco had taken off part of his finger and that injury would keep him out of work for weeks.
After that accident, he stood in a sweltering tobacco field for an hour waiting on the labor contractor to decide to get him medical attention.
The single-wide trailer he was living in was shared by eight other men. There was no air conditioner. There were not enough beds for eight men.
At the labor camp that looked like a trailer park, workers hid behind clothing hanging out to dry. They were scared. The men he lived with were not there because they were scared, too.
There was something in me that shook a little after visiting with him.
A few weeks later, I visited a camp in Wilson County where I met a man who had gotten to the U.S. with the help of a coyote. He traveled on foot across Mexico for five days and nights.
He had worked in Florida and New Jersey as a migrant farmworker when I met him, but said his living conditions in North Carolina were by far the worst.
At the time of our talk, he was living in a cement facility with open bathrooms and sleeping quarters. He showed me his “paystubs” made out of scraps of paper. They made little sense to me, partially because the handwriting was illegible and scrawling and partly because whatever deductions were marked were nonsensical.
It was a clear indication that he wasn’t getting paid what he was promised.
He was kind and offered me tomatillos, which I remember so vividly because in the midst of his wretched circumstances, he gave me something he should have kept for himself.
When I drove home that day, I cried.
I also remember talking in the FLOC office to a DACA recipient who is a second-generation farmworker and activist. She was sexually assaulted in the fields as a teenager. She told me something had to change, that women who were farmworkers were treated horribly.
At the time she was young, and my heart filled with this anger that I couldn’t quite name, all I knew was someone had to do something.
I had made up my mind.
I was going to write this story. I was telling everyone about this injustice, and I thought, surely once people understood this profound abuse and exploitation on the soil of the land of the free, that maybe there would be a spark of change.
That is why I became a journalist to begin with, to tell the truth about the world and inspire people to change the injustices and embrace humanity.
I was naive.
When I turned in my first draft of the story, it was eviscerated. Comments like, “They knew what they signed up for,” and “How do you know this what they said, you don’t know Spanish,” were the go-tos from leadership.
The story was killed and then purged from the server files.
At the time I was outraged, and though I have lost my files and notes from that summer in 2014, I recount their stories from an imperfect memory.
I could recount to you my outrage at the time, but there is no need. I didn’t begin working in anti-human trafficking advocacy until 2018, so now that I am in advocacy, I have the luxury of taking what I learned from them and my colleagues in the field to tell the story of exploitation in the fields of North Carolina.
The agricultural industry is booming in North Carolina. North Carolina is the leading producer of tobacco, poultry and sweet potatoes. North Carolina ranks second in the nation for hogs, trout, turkeys and Christmas tree production. All of this contributes a little less than $15 billion to the state’s economy, according to the North Carolina Cooperative Extension.
This is not something that anyone would find astounding. North Carolina was built on agriculture. One only needs to open a history book to see the impact of agriculture on this state and the whole of the south.
But with the booming industry that feeds our state’s economy and literally puts affordable food on our tables, there is a dark side.
That dark side, operating in the open, for the most part, is labor trafficking and labor exploitation in the fields and on the farms in this state.
This is not an indictment on farmers or the agricultural industry.
It is important to note that most agricultural employers are not exploiting or trafficking their workers. It is the vulnerabilities inherent in the migrant farm work profession that lend themselves to a population that is easier for traffickers to manipulate. It is also important to understand that, in many cases, it isn’t the grower who is the trafficker, but rather the labor contractor.
A labor contractor is what could be interpreted as the middle manager, supplying the grower with the necessary work force to complete harvest times.
According to “Labor Trafficking – What Local Governments Need to Know,” written by Margaret Henderson, UNC-Chapel Hill School of Government, and Nancy Hagan, UNC-Chapel Hill School of Social Work, “the circumstances of migrant farm work involve vulnerabilities that traffickers can exploit at any point in the labor chain. Agricultural laborers are not eligible for overtime per the Fair Labor Standards Act, and excessive work hours, as well as wage and hour violations, are common conditions of employment for them. The work is labor-intensive and typically relies on unskilled foreign-born labor.”
That characterization is true. The migrant farmworker from Mexico who gave me the tomatillos offered up his “pay stub” which was handwritten on a scrap piece of paper, showing pay “deductions” he did not understand and hours far less than he had worked.
The two men I referenced were undocumented workers.
These workers are threatened with deportations – which could be detrimental – their families are threatened or they are threatened.
The worker from Guatemala could not return home because of the heavy yoke of debt bondage. He mortgaged his home, if he returned, he would have no way to pay that mortgage and he and his family would become homeless.
In “Indicators of Labor Trafficking Among North Carolina Migrant Farmworkers,” personal stories the researchers were able to include:
“[A] 53-year-old Mexican worker reported that he had crossed the border approximately 20 times. Despite his experiences, the contractor who transported him from Florida to North Carolina this year forced him to pay all of his labor earnings for several weeks. Workers often refer to these types of exploitation as a ‘trata de blancas’ which is a colloquialism meaning the contractors are like pimps.”
“A 30-year-old man from Nayarit, Mexico reported that he was promised $9.75 an hour to work in tobacco but when he arrived in North Carolina, the only work available was in sweet potatoes for 45¢ a bucket.”
“Workers are aware of their vulnerability and one stated, “We do not complain because of our status. I have a big family to support and so, I’ll take anything because if I get deported my wife and children will have no one to support them.”
In the current political environment, the likelihood that an undocumented worker will come forward and ask for help is slim to none.
An H-2A visa enables workers from another country to come to the United States for a limited time to work in agriculture. This visa is tied to a certain grower or labor contractor. As the worker’s legal status hinges on staying with the employer who holds the visa, when working conditions become exploitative and abusive, the worker is left with a choice.
They could jump the visa and become undocumented and ineligible to work in the U.S. during the next agricultural season or they can remain in the exploitative or trafficking situation.
According to the U.S. Department of State, in 2017, there were 161,583 H-2A visas issued in the U.S.
North Carolina is one of the top 10 states in the nation that uses the guest worker visa program.
Hagan, who also works with Project NO REST, said, “Most of the exploitation that rises to the level of human trafficking occurs by farm labor contractors. Farm labor contractors are seeing North Carolina as fertile ground. The companies that are operating here are quite large. Their reach is broad.”
In “Indicators of Labor Trafficking Among North Carolina Migrant Farmworkers,” personal stories the researchers were able to include:
“One respondent reported that the workers’ movements were restricted and that the grower did not allow them to ‘leave and do recreational things (clubs, drink, etc.) which might put [the workers] in danger. [The workers] were disciplined after one incident.’ Another worker said his, ‘contract states we cannot leave for recreation. They take us to grocery store on Sundays.’”
“A prime example of just how little oversight there is in the administration of guest worker visa programs is the case of one North Carolina labor broker, Craig Eury.
Until 2016, 24 Eury was listed on public documents as a director for both the North Carolina Growers Association (NCGA), a cooperative of nonprofits that helps farms in North Carolina recruit workers through the H-2A program, and the International Labor Management Corporation (ILMC), an agricultural labor recruitment business that helps clients find and bring foreign workers through the H-2A and H-2B programs.
In 2015, Eury was sentenced to 13 months in prison after pleading guilty to conspiracy to obstruct a government function and conspiracy to defraud the United States, according to published reports.
“International Labor Management was ordered in December to pay $1.12 million for defrauding the federal government by bringing guest workers to the United States for one job and sending them to another,” The Fayetteville Observer reported.
Additionally, according to the paper, “Eury pleaded guilty to the two charges in June.
He also had been charged with three counts of encouraging illegal aliens to enter the country, one count of fraudulently obtaining visas, 34 counts of money laundering, six counts of mail fraud, and four counts of wire fraud. Those charges were dropped under a plea agreement.”
Despite all of this, Eury and his associated companies still have not been barred by the U.S. Department of Labor from recruiting within the guest worker program as of March 2018.
Hagan has dedicated years in the service of improving farmworkers’ lives in North Carolina.
As part of the Project NO REST awareness work, in conjunction with Capital Broadcasting, Hagan said there was a PSA produced that focuses specifically on labor trafficking in farm work.
“Project NO REST created a 30 second PSA that was shown at Capital Broadcasting one of the vignettes involved an actor called Jorge,” Hagan said.
“A longer video was produced in Spanish and tells the story of Jorge and that he is exploited by the contractor. Project NO REST has also produced materials and pamphlets to distribute that are easy to read handouts [for farmworkers].”
Kathy Nuñez, case manager with Project FIGHT, said farmworker outreach is paramount in curbing this issue.
“Last year, we partnered with NC Farmworker Project to build [rapport] with farmworkers. We gave them information about human trafficking and gave them the number to call in case they need food, clothing or housing,” Nuñez said.
“We reached about 800 farmworkers last year. They had no idea that they had an option to not have to live the way they were living. Of course, there are other variables and they do have rights as H2A workers. They had no idea that they didn’t have to turn in their passports.”
Hagan has also done a lot of outreach work around farmworkers and the NC Growers Association. She has gone to Vass, N.C., where H2A farmworkers first touchdown on the soil of North Carolina to offer information to workers about their rights before they are taken to their respective properties.
Hagan hopes to see continued awareness around labor trafficking and people across the state working together to improve farm worker conditions.
“I hope to see continued and increasing awareness around the people who grow our food, tend our crops, harvest and grow our crops,” Hagan said.
“Pretty much anywhere in the state that isn’t urban people are living near farmworkers. It is important that we stop seeing people as other, but see each other as ‘we.’ Let’s look at our commonalities across faith communities, in health clinics, even shoppers at Walmart, say hello to those workers and acknowledge the humanity of everyone. Human trafficking dehumanizes people and creates them into commodities, and as individuals, we can push against it.”
The NC Farmworker Institute is a full day of education geared around the issues that farmworkers face. You can go to the institute, learn and network with organizations and advocates working to improve the conditions for farmworkers in North Carolina.
“The Farmwokers Institute is really for anyone and geared to people working with farmworkers,” Nuñez said.
Nuñez said farm workers are an integral part of the institute, and partnering is a key way to address farmworker needs. Interpretation will be available.
NC Field is a 501(c)3 nonprofit and one of its programs, Give Food a Face, needs support from advocates like you! The “Give Food a Face” campaign focuses on raising public awareness about the injustices behind the industrial agricultural system.
Give Food a Face focuses on raising public awareness about the injustices behind the industrial agricultural system.