U.S. Immigrant Farm Workers Routinely Sexually Abused, Says Human Rights Watch

Patricia M., came to the U.S. from Mexico when she was 21-years-old, and got a job harvesting almonds. On her third day, the foreman was dropping off all the workers at the gas station, as he did at the end of every day, but he didn't let her out. He took Patricia to a remote field, where she says he tied her hands with her bandanna to the grip above the truck door, got on top of her, stripped her naked, and raped her.

There was no other job available, so Patricia says she kept working at the same farm, for the same foreman, who kept raping her. She let him, because she was afraid that if she didn't he would hurt her. She had no relatives in the U.S., and was afraid to tell her family in Mexico. When Patricia got pregnant, she sought help from a social service agency. Without them, she never would have filed a police report.

"I was afraid they would put me in jail," she said. "I was afraid [they'd] send me to Mexico because I was illegal."

Complain And You're Fired

Patricia is one of the 52 farm workers that Human Rights Watch interviewed for a new report released Wednesday. Almost all of them had experience sexual violence or harassment, or knew other workers who had.

One woman who had picked potatoes and onions in New York said her supervisor would touch all the women, and if they resisted, he would threaten to fire them or call immigration.

And that is why women who immigrate to the U.S. for seasonal farm work are so vulnerable, the report explains. Many of these women are unable to refuse or complain about sexual comments and touching, because the perpetrators are usually supervisors, foremen, contractors and company owners -- individuals who can retaliate easily by cutting back hours, denying breaks, or firing any woman who dares to say no.

If a woman is a guest worker, and loses her job, then she also loses her visa. Many of these women have no legal status in the U.S. at all, and so are scared that if they report the abuse they'll be deported, and lose the wages they were so desperate for that they were willing to leave their homes behind.

As the director of legal services at the National Immigration Justice Center, Mony Ruiz-Velasco has worked on hundreds of such cases. "I've never had a case where the abuser did not use his immigration status as a tool," she told the Daily Beast.

Many immigrant women simply don't know where to go. Rural communities don't often have rape crisis centers.

Getting Worse

It's impossible to know exactly how pervasive the problem of assault and rape among immigrant farmworkers really is, the report states. But 1 in 5 American women have been raped, according to a 2010 government survey of 9,000 women, so it could be much higher than that.

And these women almost never find justice through the law. This week, one of California's largest farm labor contractors agreed to pay $150,000 to vineyard workers who said they endured sexually explicit language and propositions from their supervisor, and were fired when they objected. It was the first sexual harassment suit ever filed against the company in its 45 years.

As police in certain states, like Arizona, get more involved in the typically federal job of immigration enforcement, unauthorized women have become more wary of any contact with the police, according to the report.

And while unauthorized workers do have broad workplace protections by law, "the U.S. government's interest in protecting unauthorized workers from abuse conflicts with its interest in deporting them," the reports says.

The Violence Against Women Act could provide some much-needed protections for these women, according to the report, by allowing more victims of sexual violence to get a special visa. But the reworked bill passed Wednesday not only removed that reform, but limited these visas to victims of crimes that are actively under investigation or are being prosecuted. If neither of those things are the case at a particular moment, the woman could be arrested.

If the bill became law, "it would be very, very hard for me to advise clients to apply for protection," said Ruiz-Velasco.

These immigrant victims suffer a similar trauma to all women who have suffered sexual assault and rape. But their vulnerability creates a unique kind of pain. Patricia's rapist, for example, was never prosecuted or sentenced, but deported. She's heard that he's trying to come back to see his child.

The experience will haunt Patricia for a long time. "I don't know what to tell my daughter when she gets older," she told Human Rights Watch.

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