Fields of fear for Colorado illegal farm laborers
The Denver Post
Denver, CO Colorado
DENVER, Colorado ” They lived in squalor ” ratty tile floors, holes in the walls, mold, disgusting bathrooms, unsafe water ” and worked jobs that left them bone-weary.
They were migrant farmworkers, Mexicans who slipped into the country illegally and found work in the fields of northern Colorado, and from the outside, their lives looked typical for people living on society’s fringes.
But in a fenced-in compound on the edge of the Weld County town of Hudson, the five men lived in fear ” not of the authorities, who could kick them out of the United States, but of the man who arranged to smuggle them into America, who gave them a place to live and found them jobs and who signed their paychecks, but who they said carried a gun to keep them in line.
They eventually banded together, filing a federal lawsuit against Moises and Maria Rodriguez, the agricultural contractors who brought them to America and forced them to live as virtual prisoners as they worked off their debts.
A federal judge in Denver recently awarded them $7.8 million in what immigration experts described as the largest judgment of its kind in the country.
That ruling came after the contractors offered no defense to charges that they deducted smuggling fees, rent and cleaning charges from the workers’ paychecks and used the threat of violence to make sure the men complied.
Caught up in the suit was one of Colorado’s best-known organic farmers. Andy Grant of Grant Family Farms denied that he knew anything about the way the men were being treated, but settled for $10,000 ” $2,000 for each worker.
For Grant, the suit was a kick in the gut ” an “affront” to a man who grew up playing with the children of Mexican farm workers, who pays above minimum wage, who describes himself as having “an absolute commitment to social justice for workers.”
But the implications of the suit go far beyond Grant.
The size of the judgment ” more than $1.5 million for each worker stunned Denver attorney David Simmons, who specializes in immigration issues.
He called it “unprecedented.”
And Texas immigration attorney Dan Kowalski, who runs Bender’s Immigration Bulletin, said he had not seen a case like it.
“I’m sure it’s at the top,” he said of the judgment. “I haven’t heard of anything bigger than that.”
Moises Rodriguez was well known in the farm fields of northern Colorado. He was a “contractor” ” a businessman who could supply a crew when a farmer needed to plant a field, or weed it, or harvest it. The farmers paid Rodriguez a lump sum to cover the wages, insurance and taxes for the workers, and he would, in turn, cut it into individual paychecks. His wife, Maria Rodriguez, handled the books. The Rodriguezes provided documents to farmers that purported to show that all their employees were legal workers.
The arrangement is common in farming.
But Rodriguez was much more than just a contractor, according to a sheaf of documents filed as part of the lawsuit and a criminal investigation conducted by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. They detail an elaborate system for smuggling workers into the United States.
For those workers, the stories begin in Mexico, where they all heard the same instructions ” to find their way to a hotel, to ask for a mysterious man.
For some, it was El Girasol in Agua Prieta, and a man named El Radio. For others, it was room No. 19 at the Hotel San Carlos in the town of Palomas and a man named Gerardo. A smuggler ” a “coyote” ” would lead the men out into the desert, where they would walk for days, crossing the border into Arizona.
North of the town of Douglas, the coyote would place a call on a cell phone, and a little later a pickup with a camper shell on the back, or a van, would arrive. Then men would pile in for a ride to a safe house in Phoenix.
The next step of the journey would involve a long, cramped ride in the back of a pickup to Denver. In some cases, Rodriguez himself would do the driving.
From there, the journey would continue to a fenced-in compound on a 9.14-acre tract on Hudson’s northeast edge. There sat the two barracks-like apartment buildings ” 20 units in all ” separated by a small, filthy bathhouse.
Moises and Maria Rodriguez lived in town, in an 1,100-square-foot house at 657 Birch St. From the front stoop, they could look to the east, across the Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railway tracks, and see the compound. Their son, Javier Rodriguez, lived in a mobile home near the old apartment buildings, which had originally been constructed by a pickle company for its field workers.
The men lived two, three or four to an apartment. A videotape of the units, filmed by federal agents executing a search warrant, shows floors with broken and missing tiles, walls with holes in them, splotches of mold and red signs hanging above the sinks, warning that the water wasn’t safe to drink.
And the men apparently contributed to the mess ” the video shows trash strewn about, dirty dishes and open cans of food on the broken- down counters.
Each day during the growing season, the men piled into an old school bus and rode to a farm field, then put in 12 hours planting, or weeding, or harvesting vegetables.
In the summer of 2004, Grant hired Rodriguez to bring in a crew to work some of his 2,000 acres. Among that crew were the five men.
It was hard work, which they expected. But according to the lawsuit, the reality went far beyond that.
It was a veritable prison, the workers alleged, a place where Rodriguez held them in a form of debt bondage. For example, Rodriguez contended that each man owed him money for smuggling them into the U.S. ” he put the price somewhere between $1,100 and $1,300.
He charged them $100 a month for rent, $96 a month for a transportation fee, and money for bathroom cleaning ” even though most of the toilets didn’t work and the one that did was filthy. He charged them Social Security taxes but didn’t turn that money over to the federal government.
Split shoes, swollen feet
Sister Molly Munoz, a nun who also works as an advocate for migrant farmworkers, visited the Hudson compound regularly.
“They were in very poor conditions,” Munoz said. “When the high winds came, the apartments would sway. There were no screens on the windows and they had rashes all over their arms.”
Munoz held Mass for the men in the front yard of the camp just inside the fence that surrounded the barracks. She brought them toothpaste and they quietly told her about their plight, how they had crossed the border with only a knapsack. She saw their swollen feet and their tennis shoes, split apart after endless hours in the fields.
“It’s very tough work,” she said.
She also saw something else: Terror among the men.
“They were desperate to talk and they could not talk,” she said.
By then, the men had also begun telling their story to Patricia Medige, an attorney for Colorado Legal Services. The nonprofit organization is devoted to providing legal help to the indigent.
In a videotaped interview conducted by Medige in the fall of 2004, one of the men tried to explain the fear he felt. On one hand, he said, Moises Rodriguez did not beat or threaten him. But he described how powerless he felt, given the money Rodriguez demanded, and how scared he felt after hearing his boss had tracked down one man in North Carolina.
“We wanted to leave,” the man said in Spanish, “but he said we couldn’t leave ’til we paid.”
The fruits and vegetables that sit on grocery shelves come from a variety of sources ” conventional farms and organic operations like Grant’s. Some of the produce is grown in Colorado, some in other parts of the country, some even outside the United States.
Almost all of it, at some point in the process or another, involves manual labor.
For grocers, monitoring the labor conditions of farm workers is a difficult proposition.
“Part of our core values is to care about not just the products we sell but people who help make these products,” said Libba Letton, spokeswoman for Whole Foods.
Letton said the company relies on government agencies to monitor labor laws.
“We do as much as we reasonably can do other than growing and harvesting with your very own hands,” she said.
King Soopers spokesman Trail Daugherty said if the grocery chain’s management learned of unethical practices by a supplier, it would reconsider doing business with the company.
“Since we are a grocery retailer, we depend upon the Department of Labor to keep us current on their findings of human-rights violations,” he said.
The government was keeping tabs on Moises Rodriguez.
In 2004, inspectors from the Colorado Department of Labor concluded that Rodriguez’s camp in Hudson was not livable, and they denied his application to be a crew leader who provides housing to migrant farmworkers.
“One of the outreach workers with the Adams County Workforce Center inspected the property and found it improper for habitation and told him at that time that the housing was inhabitable and he would not be allowed to be a crew leader providing housing,” said Bill Thoennes, spokesman for the Department of Labor. “She said at some point she suspected that he was ignoring that information and was simply bringing in people and housing them anyway.”
The state notified the federal Department of Labor, and Rodriguez was denied a permit to be a crew leader. Then his wife, Maria Rodriguez, applied to become a crew leader.
“An inspection was done later and it was found to be inhabitable again,” Thoennes said of the property.
U.S. Department of Labor inspectors conducted another investigation and learned that many of the people working for Rodriguez were not in the country legally, and immigration officials were notified.
Medige, the attorney working for the five men, helped convince them to cooperate with federal investigators even though it could mean deportation.
“What is the price tag on your freedom?” Medige asked. “They just decided in the course of the season to take a stand. We kept meeting with them and they would not stand for it. . . . They said, ‘We are not going to let this happen to somebody else.’ “
In the fall of 2004, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents began surveillance on the camp.
They documented dozens of men living there in cramped, filthy conditions. But they also saw the men coming and going in their own cars, and talking on telephones.
A grand jury indicted Moises and Maria Rodriguez and their son, Javier Rodriguez, on charges of harboring and transporting illegal immigrants. Federal authorities seized the property and more than $128,000 in cash. When they searched the two mobile homes near the barracks, they found two pistols and ammunition.
In 2006, Moises and Maria Rodriguez each served nearly a year in jail and were then deported to Mexico. Javier Rodriguez ” an American citizen ” also pleaded guilty in the case and was sentenced to home detention. Family members who answered the door at his apartment in Brighton said he did not want to be interviewed for this story.
But while the workers told investigators they were being mistreated and were being held against their will ” at least psychologically ” federal prosecutors did not pursue charges of involuntary servitude against the Rodriguezes.
The reason was simple: The surveillance tapes showed the workers coming and going, and it would have been difficult to convince a jury that they couldn’t have escaped.
“We have a higher burden of proof in the criminal matter than in the civil matter, and we would have to prove that beyond a reasonable doubt,” said Jeffrey Dorschner, spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Denver.
For their cooperation, the men were granted temporary visas allowing them to stay in the United States ” but they were told they could be deported once the case was concluded.
In April 2006, Medige, the legal services lawyer, filed a civil lawsuit against Moises and Maria Rodriguez and against Andy Grant and Grant Family Farms. The suit alleged violations of the Agricultural Worker Protection Act and the Fair Labor Standards Act by Moises and Maria Rodriguez. They asserted that Grant should have known how the workers were being treated and, therefore, condoned it.
U.S. District Judge Lewis Babcock allowed the men to withhold their identities because they feared retribution. Each was given the name “John Doe” and a Roman numeral.
Grant, who took his farm into bankruptcy reorganization after years of drought and other problems wreaked financial havoc on his operation, reached a settlement, and the suit against him was dismissed.
Judge Babcock ultimately entered a default judgment against Moises and Maria Rodriguez. Then, on April 14, he awarded more than $1.5 million to each of the five men for numerous violations of federal law.
At an auction conducted by the federal government, the town of Hudson bought the land where the compound sat. The winning bid was $37,000.
In late April, mud clogged the driveway leading to the barracks and weeds overgrew the camp. Portions of a chain link fence that once surrounded the compound were down or missing.
The apartments looked as if someone left in a hurry: Shirts hung in a closet, an uncooked bag of beans lay on top of a stove, and a television set, its screen smashed, sat on a chair.
Many windows and doors were missing. Signs remained above the kitchen sinks in some units, warning that the water was not safe to drink.
Photographs of some of the migrants’ children were left in a half-empty album on the kitchen counter.
Town manager Joe Racine said the town had to demolish the rickety old barracks. Racine said the company hired to clear the land said it would be easier ” and cheaper ” if the barracks were burned down, and so on May 2, local firefighters torched them.
They ” and two ramshackle mobile homes on the property ” went up quickly.
Ultimately, the land will be home to Hudson’s public works department, and more playing fields in an extension of the city’s park.
Of the men who filed the lawsuit, Medige remains protective. Some have returned to Mexico, but others remain in Colorado, working in the fields.
They still fear retribution from Moises Rodriguez, she said, even though he’s no longer in the U.S.