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The rape crisis among California’s farm workers

A woman struggling with the aftermath of rape and violence. (Image: DoiDam 10, via Shutterstock)

Ed’s Note: This is the third part in a series on California’s rape crisis centers.

Of all the state’s residents, California’s 265,000 female farm workers are among the most vulnerable when it comes to sexual assault and rape.

Farm worker survivors of sexual assault and those who are there to help them, California’s rape crisis centers, face many obstacles: Survivors’ lack of English proficiency, immigration status, nature of employment, fear of employer retaliation, and distrust of authorities.

These problems are further complicated by a failure to prosecute those accused of sexually assaulting or raping farm workers, criminal networks engaged in human trafficking and extortion, and a lack of reliable data on these crimes.

There are no statistics for the number of farm workers who have been sexually assaulted or raped, or how many cases have been reported to law enforcement.

In addition, the rape crisis centers have suffered for years from inadequate funding and a lack of public concern.

Nationwide, a significant number of women from all backgrounds have been sexually assaulted or raped – 20% according to an estimate by the Centers of Disease Control & Prevention. Of those women who have been sexually assaulted or raped, only 36% reported the crime to law enforcement.

There are no statistics for the number of farm workers who have been sexually assaulted or raped, or how many cases have been reported to law enforcement. Those interviewed for this story believe that the sexual assault and rape of farm worker women is significantly higher than the national average, while reporting of these crimes is much lower.

We have a greater – though still incomplete – understanding of the rate of sexual harassment of women at all workplaces.

A 2016 report by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) states that up “to 85% of women report having experienced sexual harassment in the workplace,” adding that up to 75% of sexual harassment goes unreported. A 2010 study by UC Santa Cruz’ Irma Morales Waugh found that 80% of all Mexican immigrant farm-working women had been sexually harassed at the job site. Note,  sexual harassment can be a precursor to assault.

The threat of deportation is often used by perpetrators as blackmail.

Waugh’s study also found that “twenty-four percent of women reporting sexual harassment also described experiences of sexual coercion, or on-the-job blackmail.” Sexual coercion and “on-the job blackmail” for sex is by various definitions sexual assault. Blackmail in these cases usually involves the threat of deportation, getting fired, loss of housing, and being ostracized (making it impossible to live in a tight-knit immigrant community).

Using Waugh’s findings, nearly 51,000 farm worker women have been sexually assaulted or raped through coercion or blackmail. Though this number does not include people “forcibly raped,” assaulted with “violent intent,” those who were drugged, or any number of situations that the law traditionally defines as sexual assault or rape, it is still high, especially when factored as a percentage of the farm worker population.

There are many factors that make California’s farm-working women vulnerable to sexual assault and rape and reluctant to contact law enforcement or rape crisis centers for help.

One obvious factor is immigration status.

According the National Agricultural Workers Survey (NAWS), 49% of US farm workers carry no immigration documentation. Twenty-two percent of the workers lack citizenship but are legal residents or possess a work visa. Still, with or without legal status, 71% of the farm worker population is subject to deportation. As noted, the threat of deportation is often used by perpetrators as blackmail.

Languages such as Mixteco, Zapoteco or Triqui, are spoken by  the 29% of California farm workers who come from the Mexican states of Oaxaca and Guerrero.

Additionally, rape crisis center directors, immigration attorneys and law enforcement officials have told Capitol Weekly that the Trump admiration’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy is a major driver of immigrants’ fear of deportation. Increased enforcement and Trump’s attempt to create a public charge rule has immigrants fearful that accessing any services will tip Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE) to their existence or make them ineligible for citizenship or a green card – this even when state laws prohibit law enforcement or service agencies cooperation with ICE and the courts have stalled the public charge rule.

A second factor is language.

Spanish is the first language for 71% of all farm workers nationwide, with only 29% stating that they could “speak English ‘well’.” In California, a person can navigate daily life only using Spanish; however that is not the case with languages such as Mixteco, Zapoteco or Triqui, languages spoken by the 29% of California farmworkers who come from the Mexican states of Oaxaca and Guerrero, where indigenous languages are the lingua franca.

Social isolation is the third factor.

Because they work in rural communities and are primarily immigrants, California farm workers often live among their own at the margins. This is especially true for the 66% of the workers who migrate from job site to job site. Migrant farm workers often travel in small communities, a practice which further increases isolation.

“Indigenous language speakers live in really, really, really small communities within really, really small communities.” — Lauren DaSilva

Indigenous Mexican workers exist in greater isolation than their Spanish-speaking brethren.

“These immigrants, largely from small towns, are not ‘mass society’ individuals who easily identify their fate with broad collective objectives of the larger society,” reports the Indigenous Farmworker Study  “Instead, their experience teaches them not to trust the outsider who has traditionally discriminated against them … this tendency is further reinforced by the localized nature of the dialects of the indigenous languages these small-town dwellers speak.”

Lauren DaSilva, deputy director of the Monterey County Rape Crisis Center, said, “Indigenous language speakers live in really, really, really small communities within really, really small communities. Many families don’t want to talk to the indigenous language interpreter because they feel, even if this is not the case, that the indigenous language interpreter is going to tell all their business to everyone else in the community, because the interpreter might be from the same community.”

Another major factor is gender.

Most farm workers who have been sexually assaulted or raped are women. Women make only 32% of all farm workers. The vast majority – if not all – supervisors are men. Agricultural contractors are men. And men dominate the ownership and/or management of farms and agricultural operations. Farm-working women are not only a minority in the workplace, they work for lower wages than their male coworkers, often in more labor-intensive and dangerous positions, further marginalizing them. Farm-working women exist in world where men dominate and dictate nearly all aspects of their employment.

Promotoras are peer educators who work within their community, in this case, to provide information on domestic violence, sexual assault, and human trafficking

Lastly, as OXFAM reports, agricultural operations are among the least regulated industry when it comes to labor rights. “Most workers in the agricultural industry work in a shadow economy that is excluded from major labor law protections. They receive no sick leave or vacation time, meaning they could lose their job if they miss work because of an injury or illness. They have no federal protection from retaliation by employers for labor organizing. Employers can fire them at will without having to document employee misconduct and few if any sexual harassment policies exist in most agricultural businesses. The few labor laws that do apply to farm workers are regularly violated.”

Still, some rape crisis centers and non-profits in agricultural country have developed unique ways to connect with and assist farm workers.

To better interact with the farm worker community, Community Solutions, a non-profit that serves South Santa Clara County and San Benito County, developed a promotora program. Promotoras are peer educators who work within their community, in this case, to provide information on domestic violence, sexual assault, and human trafficking, as well as resources to mitigate and combat such things. Promotoras also serve as a liaison between the farm worker community and Community Solutions.

According to Perla Flores, a Community Solutions’ program director, their promotoras are Spanish-speakers recruited from a pool of sexual assault and domestic violence survivors. Five of the ten promotoras also speak Triqui, a language indigenous to southern Mexico. Flores says that “To date (the promotoras) reached more than 500 individuals in Santa Clara and San Benito counties.” The outreach resulted in a doubling of “the number of domestic violence and sexual assault survivors seeking services.”

One of the Monterey County center’s specialties is working with child survivors of sexual abuse.

Community Services’ promotora program was initially started with a $25,000 grant from the San Benito Women’s Foundation and is currently being supported by federal grants administered by the state Office of Emergency Services. Even with this funding — totaling $70,000 cobbled together from multiple sources — the promotora program struggles with paying the promotoras a living wage.

The promotoras “are hardworking community members that have kids and other obligations. They have to figure out, ‘Can I afford to do this?’” Flores said.

In Monterey County, one of California’s most agriculturally rich regions, Monterey County Rape Crisis Center’s (MCRCC) Salinas office employs a mostly bi-lingual staff, including Spanish-speaking therapists. One of MCRCC’s specialties is working with child survivors of sexual abuse.

DaSilva says that their child advocacy program serves as an introduction to the county’s immigrant farm workers, as parents are much more willing to seek help for their children than themselves.

“Often times kids come through the intake and mom or dad, who are there for the intake, reveals that they are also a survivor…it’s often of the first time that they are talking about childhood sexual abuse that they experienced twenty, thirty years ago,” DaSilva said.

Rape crisis centers in some areas of California’s farm belt struggle to connect with their farm workers.

A big issue for MCRCC is that demand keeps growing while funding is at a standstill. According to DaSilva, MCRCC “always has a waiting list” for services, which taxes the “resources that we have.”

In the 2018-19 fiscal year, when the state bumped its general fund contribution to rape crisis programs from $45,000 to $5 million, MCRCC was able to hire a “language person” to assist Mexican workers who speak primarily indigenous language. In the current 2019-20 fiscal year, when the general fund contribution for all of California’s 84 rape crisis programs dropped back to $45,000, that position was eliminated.

The nature of Central Coast agriculture helps the area’s rape crisis centers succeed in connecting with farm workers.

Unlike other areas of California, Central Coast crops are grown all 12 months of the year. Berries, artichokes, greens, tomatoes, and other ground crops are grown and harvested year-round, ensuring long-term employment for workers, who are able to establish roots in the area. Stability not only leads to trust with organizations such as MCRCC and Community Services, it also allows for these organizations to establish programs that connect with the community and guarantee continuity of care for those seeking help.

Rape crisis centers elsewhere in California’s farm belt struggle to connect with their farm workers.

The migratory nature of the Valley’s farm workforce makes rape crisis centers’ attempts at outreach difficult.

Central Valley and Wine Country agriculture tends to be seasonal. In Wine Country, the grape harvest – when labor demand is at its peak – lasts from early August to early November. Though some workers are retained for pruning and crop maintenance, it is a small work force that rarely works more than 10 months a year.

Wine Country counties of Sonoma and Lake are home to many orchards and, as with the vineyards, work is seasonal – that is,. when the area is not on fire. Over the past decade, Wine Country has experienced a half-dozen major wildfires. Coincidentally, California’s fire season dovetails with the grape harvest, a situation which has made agricultural work unstable.

The Central Valley employs 57% of the state’s farm workers. The bulk of these workers tend to and harvest fruit and nut orchards, as well as row crops. Most of the area’s seasonal farm workers arrive in the spring and stay on through the summer harvest. Those with experience in vineyards and orchards will stick around for the grape and nut harvest, but the rest move on to the San Diego area, Arizona, or some other area with a late-year harvest.

Again, the migratory nature of the Valley’s farm workforce makes rape crisis centers’ attempts at outreach difficult.

While rape crisis centers in Wine Country participate in health fairs that target farm workers, little goes on in the Valley, where rape crisis programs in the state’s poorest counties are already taxed by high demand and lack of funding. However, Central Valley and Wine Country rape crisis centers are getting an assist from farm worker advocacy groups.

State funding for the rape crisis centers is coordinated through the Office of Emergency Services.

One organization working to help rape crisis centers connect with farm workers is Organización en California de Líderes Campesinas, or, as it is commonly referred to, Líderes Campesinas.

For over 30 years, Lideres Campesinas – an organization founded by California farm worker women – has organized farm worker women. Because many Lideres Campesinsas activists are farm workers themselves and have access to the fields, they are valuable in making the connection between farm workers and those outside that community.

In 2012, Lideres Campesinas advocated for and got a statewide Farm Worker Women’s Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence (FW) Program.

Some of the FW Program’s goals are to provide “outreach and education on sexual assault and domestic violence to…farm worker women,” “training to agencies addressing sexual assault and domestic violence in the farm worker community,” and “coordinate and collaborate with Rape Crisis Centers…in all chapter areas.”

For providing these services, Lideres Campesinsas receives a $270,000 federal Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) grant administered by the California Office of Emergency Services. 

Until recently, the FW Program’s goal to “coordinate and collaborate with Rape Crisis Centers” was left up to Lideres Campesinsas.

In the 2019-20 fiscal year, in order to receive state and federal funds, OES required rape crisis centers to create a memorandum of understanding with Lideras Campesinas if there is a chapter operating in their “service areas/county.” OES’s new mandate is not funded, a fact confirmed by several rape crisis center directors and CEOs.

When a farm worker sexual assault survivor does pursue legal remedy, the action is most likely to happen in civil court rather than in a criminal proceeding.

Though Líderes Campesinas and the rape crisis centers work hard to connect farm workers with rape crisis services, there is still great difficulty obtaining justice for workers who have been raped or sexually assaulted. Workers are reluctant to engage with law enforcement, many believing that any contact with the law will bring them in contact with ICE. When survivors do come forth, prosecutors’ offices often must rely on survivors who are reluctant to testify and in cases in which there are no witnesses.

When a farm worker sexual assault survivor does pursue legal remedy, the action is most likely to happen in civil court rather than in a criminal proceeding.

From 1998 to 2013, Frontline reports that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) filed 41 cases in federal court against agricultural operations where a sexual assault or rape of farm workers had occurred. None of the accused perpetrators of the crimes in those cases wound up in criminal court.

Civil suits against employers of perpetrators are based on the notion that the employer – whether the person runs an agricultural operation or is a farm contractor – are responsible for providing safe working conditions for their employees.

The U-visa is a special visa for sexual assault and rape survivors (as well as other victims of violent crimes) who choose to cooperate with law enforcement.

State law also penalizes agricultural work contractors who do not provide training to prevent sexual harassment or who employ supervisors who have been cited for harassment.

But according to the state’s Department of Industrial Relations, which oversees and regulates the contractors, no contractor has been denied a permit to operate in California due to violating those requirements. 

In August, California Rural Legal Assistance won a $600,000 thousand settlement from Ramco Enterprises, one of the state’s biggest farm contractors. The plaintiff, a 17-year old packing shed worker “alleged that his supervisor verbally and physically harassed him at the workplace by making unwelcome sexual comments that escalated to unwanted touching that then culminated in sexual assault.”

When the California Department of Fair Employment & Housing sided with the 17-year old, Ramco decided to settle.

One of the keys to pursuing a criminal or civil action against an accused rapist and/or the company that they work for is the U-visa, a special visa for sexual assault and rape survivors (as well as other victims of violent crimes) who chose to cooperate with law enforcement. Once a survivor is issued a U-visa, they cannot be deported, and after three years the visa holder can apply for a green card and start their path to citizenship.

A Trump administration move to undermine the U-visa is that now when people are denied U-visas,  they are referred to an immigration court, where they can be subject to deportation.

The U-visa was created in 2000, with a 10,000-visa yearly cap. Up until about 2015, average wait time for a U-visa was one year. Now, according to Karen Schulz, managing attorney for the Step Forward Foundation, applications submitted in 2015 are still in limbo – four-and-a-half years and still waiting. Given that as of March 2017, there were 168,000 pending applications, for 10,000 visas, applicants could be waiting 17 years for approval. Even getting on the waiting list is a monumental task, one made difficult by the Trump administration’s understaffing the positions that process applications.

While being on the U-visa waiting list doesn’t offer a person protection form deportation, for years immigration judges would close immigration cases pending U-visa approval, prioritizing the crime victim’s needs and justice over deportation.

In May 2018, then-U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued an order that stripped immigration judges of this discretion.

Another Trump administration move to undermine the U-visa is that now when a person is denied a U-visa, he or she is referred to an immigration court, where they can be subject to deportation.

Trump’s changes in immigration policy combined with the many hard obstacles outlined above makes it difficult for rape crisis centers to assist undocumented farm workers who have been sexually assaulted or raped. Rape crisis centers also contend with severe increases in demand while trying to piece together funding from multiple sources, including the state general fund which has all the characteristics of a yo-yo.

Yet, despite the all the challenges California’s rape crisis centers face, they continue to provide services to sexual assault and rape survivors.

“We’re going to make certain that survivors of sexual assault have the services they need,” Tanis Crosby, the CEO of YWCA-Silicon Valley, told CBSN-Bay Area.

Ed’s Note:
Click here and here to see the first two parts of the series.

 


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