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Trapped on Wisconsin farms: The hidden plight of trafficked workers

Photo by Gregory Conniff for Wisconsin Examiner

by Ruth Conniff, Wisconsin Examiner
March 14, 2024

Coming to Wisconsin was “a dream” for M. Paredes, a stocky 48-year-old with a warm smile, who grew up in a rural village in the Mexican state of Veracruz. In early 2000 he crossed the border and journeyed north to work on a dairy farm.

Paredes came seeking a way to support his family. At home he barely earned enough to feed his wife and young son harvesting corn and cutting sugar cane with a machete.

“You come here and you say, ‘Wow!’” he said in a recent interview. “And the pay! Although the pay isn’t much, with the difference between dollars and pesos — it’s huge!”

Cows walk from a barn after being milked on a farm near Cambridge, Wisconsin. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Paredes loved his first job, for a veterinarian in Hillsboro who owned his own dairy farm and who taught Paredes to diagnose and treat sick animals. “He was a great teacher and treated me essentially as a veterinarian’s apprentice,” Paredes said. 

But a few years after he arrived, Paredes’ dream turned into a nightmare. 

Lured to work for a new employer by false promises that Paredes could gain legal immigration status and become a homeowner if he switched jobs, he found himself trapped. Instead of the opportunities he’d been promised, Paredes encountered physical and verbal abuse and threats that he would be deported if he didn’t work around the clock. After a bad accident, his employer’s insistence that he work through the injury left him permanently disabled.

Details of his story are gathered here from interviews with Paredes and his lawyer and the documents they submitted to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in his successful application for protected status as a victim of labor trafficking. While his immigration status is now protected, the Examiner agreed to withhold Paredes’ full name because he fears retribution from the farmer who abused him.

In Wisconsin, and around the country, immigrant rights advocates and law enforcement agencies have been stepping up efforts to bring labor trafficking cases to light, forcing the issue into public consciousness. 

A year ago, a coalition of Wisconsin advocates and state law enforcement officials announced a joint effort to investigate and prosecute these cases, in which employers and contractors use force, fraud and coercion to make workers stay in jobs they are desperate to escape.

‘We’ve just scratched the surface’

Mariana Rodriguez, Director of UMOS Latina Resource Center

“There’s a lot of money being gained from these cheap workers. … and they can be easily disposed of,” said Mariana Rodriguez, director of the United Migrant Opportunity Services (UMOS) Latina Resource Center. UMOS has provided services to immigrant workers in Wisconsin for more than 50 years. In February 2023, the group, together with the Wisconsin Department of Justice, won a $5.1 million grant from the Howard G. Buffett Foundation for a collaborative effort to eradicate labor trafficking — “this most heinous crime.” The grant funds two labor trafficking agents at DOJ as well as community education and outreach by UMOS, the Department of Workforce Development and the Women’s Community Center in Wausau. 

Rodriguez has tried for years to get law enforcement to focus on labor trafficking. But ever since 2005, when then-President George W. Bush promoted an initiative to combat human trafficking, which the administration called “a new form of slavery,” the focus has been on women and children who are victims of sex trafficking — not the immigrant laborers working in the shadows on Wisconsin farms, restaurants and factories. As a result of this federal focus, human trafficking became synonymous with prostitution — a top concern for faith-based groups and many lawmakers. A bipartisan task force on human trafficking in the Wisconsin Legislature recently wrapped up its work by releasing a slate of bills that focus primarily on combating sex trafficking. 

Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul at a press conference announcing a $5.1 million grant to fight labor trafficking | Wisconsin Examiner photo

But labor trafficking may actually account for a larger share of human trafficking. 

“I think it’s big. I really do,” said Rodriguez of the amount of labor trafficking in Wisconsin. “I think we’ve just scratched the surface.”

While Rodriguez said UMOS has helped more than 100 victims including workers on farms, in restaurants and in meat processing plants, neither her organization nor the Department of Justice could provide an estimate of the total number of victims of labor trafficking in Wisconsin. Nor could they talk about open cases, which take many years to investigate and work their way through the court system. Part of the grant from the Buffet foundation is funding the development of a system for  tracking tips and cases in the state. 

Lured by an employer’s false promises

More than 10,000 undocumented immigrant workers perform an estimated 70% of the labor on Wisconsin dairy farms, according to an April 2023 survey by the School for Workers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Despite increasingly hostile national political rhetoric about immigrants, Wisconsin farmers are heavily dependent on this unauthorized workforce. Without them, the whole dairy industry would collapse overnight. State and national farm lobby groups have pushed for a change in U.S. law to create a visa program for year-round, low-skilled farm workers on dairies. Under the current system, only seasonal agricultural workers and those with special technical skills can qualify for visas, which is why most of Wisconsin’s dairy workers are undocumented.

A few years after he arrived in Wisconsin, Paredes was happily working with the veterinarian in Hillsboro and had brought up his wife and son to join him. In 2006, his employer brought him to the World Dairy Expo in Madison, where he was introduced to a farmer from a different part of the state by an acquaintance who praised Paredes’ skill and work ethic. “That same day [the farmer] asked me to work for him. I said, ‘no thanks,’ and that I was happy with my job.”  

But the farmer kept calling and promising to protect him so he “would not have any trouble with immigration or the police,” Paredes said.

“The way that he talked about my immigration status, honestly, gave me more fear than I had before,” Paredes said. Over a period of a few months, the farmer continued to call, promising he would get Paredes documents so he could live and work legally in the U.S., and that he and his family could live in their own house on the farm and eventually own it. 

Finally, Paredes agreed. “I fell for the lie that I would be safer,” he said. In 2007, Paredes and his family moved into a house on the farm, which the farmer promised they’d own after Paredes had worked there for 20 years. 

The couple had two more children, but Paredes said he barely got to see them. He was working  12 to 15 hour shifts six or seven days a week, and if he asked for a day off, he said the farmer “would remind me that I was working towards immigration papers and homeownership.” He was on call 24 hours a day, and often told to cover other workers’ shifts when they couldn’t work. Slowly, the promises to protect Paredes turned into threats if he didn’t work around the clock.

He said the farmer told him, “You and your wife can be deported and the government will come take your kids and put them in an orphanage.”

 “I felt trapped,” Paredes said. He lived like that for a decade.

“That’s how the years passed,” Paredes said. “He went from being nice to being mean to being a monster. And that’s when I had the accident.”

Photo by Gregory Conniff for Wisconsin Examiner

A fall, and brain damage

At 5 p.m. on a Friday in mid-November 2016, Paredes had been working since 2 a.m. and was finishing his 15-hour shift when the farmer called him and told him to shut the curtains on the barn. Paredes was scheduled to help with a fish fry at his church at 6 and wanted to leave, but, he said, the farmer told him, “You’ve gotta do what you’ve gotta do and get it done.”

A co-worker helped Paredes by driving a skid steer — a sort of compact bulldozer — to the barn and used it to lift Paredes in a basket attached to the front of the machine so he could reach the curtains. As he was leaning out to close one of the curtains, Paredes lost his balance and fell to the ground, landing on his head. When he came to, a co-worker was standing over him asking if he was OK. Confused, Paredes got up and hurried to his church. Another member of the congregation, a doctor, noticed that he was acting strange and called Paredes’ wife to pick him up and get him to the hospital. 

Before the accident, he wanted to keep me working for him with false promises, but after the accident he told me, ‘Now you are worthless. You are three-legged’ — because I walked with a cane — ‘and dumb.’

– M. Paredes

Paredes was diagnosed with a severe concussion and traumatic brain injury. The injury caused confusion, severe headaches and trouble concentrating. He had difficulty recognizing people and forming new memories. His balance was so bad that he needed a cane to walk.

Paredes’ doctor put him on bed rest and told him if he didn’t refrain from working for several weeks and restrict his hours to part-time for several months after that he risked permanent brain damage. 

But a couple of weeks after he came home from the hospital, Paredes said the farmer came round yelling at him to get up and get back to work. “He said I was exaggerating,” Paredes said. Despite his doctor’s orders, Paredes went back to work, afraid of his boss’s threats to have him deported.

“Before the accident, he wanted to keep me working for him with false promises, but after the accident he told me, ‘Now you are worthless. You are three-legged — because I walked with a cane — and dumb.”

Recounting what the farmer told him, Paredes’ eyes filled with tears.

“I know my wife said I shouldn’t talk like this, but it’s almost like he was right. Because now I’m not the same,” he said. 

When the farmer found out that Paredes had talked to a lawyer and was pursuing a workers compensation claim he threw Paredes and his family out of their house on the farm.

“He called the sheriff and had us all thrown out in the street — my wife and children. We had to leave running, and our stuff was left behind in the garbage. We had to ask for charity from the church. It was horrible to see my kids like that,” Paredes said.

With help from Legal Action of Wisconsin, Paredes submitted a sworn statement and medical records to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which granted him a T visa. The “T” stands for trafficking and the visa is a form of nonimmigrant status that enables human trafficking victims to remain in the U.S. for four years while pursuing credible claims against their employers, and eventually adjust their status to become lawful permanent residents.

Because his T visa was granted, Paredes can work legally. He got a series of jobs in landscaping and construction, but has not been able to keep steady work because of his forgetfulness and difficulty concentrating.

The first big bust on a Wisconsin farm

A lot of the labor trafficking cases UMOS has encountered involve workers who came to the U.S. on a legitimate work visa, but then were moved out of state by a trafficker so they lost their legal status. “A lot of how we uncover it starts with a complaint about not being paid,” said Rodriguez. “Debt bondage is a strong sign of trafficking,” she added. “A worker has to work off his food and housing. But he doesn’t understand how much he owes.”

UMOS also works with sex trafficking victims and victims of domestic violence, and advocates have used this experience to help train law enforcement officers in trauma-informed techniques for interviewing victims of labor trafficking. “Having an advocate in the room, things always go better,” Rodriguez said.

The workers were very controlled. They wouldn’t talk to us. Wouldn’t look at us. We thought, ‘Something is wrong.’

– Mariana Rodriguez, director of UMOS Latina Resource Center

Rodriguez was involved in the first big labor trafficking bust in Wisconsin, on the Borzynski Farm near Racine. Law enforcement officers raided the farm in 2017. A year ago, after a lengthy legal process, members of Saul Garcia & Sons, the contractors who ran the labor trafficking operation on the farm, were sentenced in federal court.

Saul Garcia and his family members were convicted of illegally transporting 22 men from Georgia to Wisconsin. All had come into the country legally on the H2A visa program, but the Garcias, who recruited them in Mexico, took away their visas and passports and gave them fake documents when they moved them out of state. Leaving Georgia made the workers’ visas void and rendered them vulnerable to deportation.

Immigrant farm workers harvest broccoli near the border town of near San Luis, south of Yuma, Arizona. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

Rodriguez and two staff members from the U.S. Department of Labor’s farmworkers program first encountered the men when they went on an outreach visit to offer the farmworkers vouchers for food. Rodriguez noticed that the motel where they were staying was stocked like a grocery store, with food, soap and toilet paper, “so workers didn’t have to go out. It was strange.”

“The workers were very controlled,” she recalled. “They wouldn’t talk to us. Wouldn’t look at us. We thought, ‘Something is wrong.’”

As seasonal agricultural workers, the men were supposed to have an H2A visa.

“One man was shaking, scared. When we asked to see his visa, he gave a fake document,” Rodriguez said. “Why would an H2A worker have a fake anything?”

“I asked him if maybe he had another document. The contractor got up and said, ‘I treat my workers well. I pay them well. This is over. Go to your rooms.’ And the guys had their heads down. They all got up and left.”

Rodriguez and her colleagues reported the incident to the Labor Department’s law enforcement staff, who pulled over a bus carrying all 22 men. UMOS helped find them temporary housing in Milwaukee, away from the traffickers. 

Eleven of the workers opted to stay in the U.S. to help with the prosecution of the Garcias. The rest chose to go home to Mexico.

One of the workers who stayed was Miguel Antonio López, from Puebla. 

“I was lost because I didn’t speak the language,” López said in an interview at the UMOS office. “We were there like little sheep. … We worked each day for 10 hours, Monday to Saturday.”

López said he and the men he worked with were told to speak to no one, forced to work without water in the heat, cursed out for not working faster and threatened with deportation.

“The demands were more and more,” López said. Saul Garcia Jr., who was their overseer, “scolded us and treated us with no respect. He was crude.” 

Serious crime, light punishment

Morelia Blanco Rincón, lead anti-human trafficking advocate, UMOS Latina Resource Center, with Miguel Antonio López | Photo by Ruth Conniff

On Dec. 28 2022, after a years-long court process, Saul Garcia, Sr., Saul Garcia, Jr., Daniel Garcia and Consuelo Garcia were sentenced in federal court for the crime of human trafficking. The workers who stayed to see the process through were in the courtroom.

At the sentencing hearing, Judge Pamela Pepper, the chief U.S. district court judge for the eastern district of Wisconsin, praised the Garcias as pillars of their community, noting that she had received letters of support from their priest and the mayor of their town in Georgia, and describing them as successful business people who had pulled themselves up from poverty. They had written letters of apology, and promised to return to their main business, running their own farm, instead of illegally transporting agricultural workers.

“In many, many ways, the four people who sit in front of me represent the embodiment of the American dream,” Pepper said. “If you work hard and you value family and you value education, you can become anything. And I commend everyone for that.”

Saul Garcia Jr. and his father, Saul Garcia Sr. received sentences of 90 days in custody followed by two years of supervised release. Daniel and Consuelo Garcia got time served and one year of supervised release. When the defendants asked for a modification to the terms of their supervised release, so they could travel out of state for business, the judge granted it.

To López and the advocates who worked on the case, the judge’s words and the light punishment felt like a slap in the face. They’d waited years to get justice, but the Garcias were still in control.

“Saul Garcia Jr. that day in court, I remember his expression, his attitude — a person with authority. Power,” López recalled.

Neal Lofy, one of the Wisconsin Department of Justice’s two labor trafficking agents, worked on the case against the Garcias for six years, starting when he was an investigator with the Racine police department. He acknowledged that, for the victims, the result was disappointing.

“Keep in mind [that] . . . when we look at the penalties we were receiving in our early sex trafficking cases, they were minimal,” Lofy said. “Now, when we look at them, we see these rather lengthy sentences. We see people being held accountable by the criminal justice system. And all you can hope for is that the same push we made in awareness and education and training to get us to where we are in those investigations happens with labor trafficking. And the penalties, hopefully, will get to a point where they match the crime at hand.”

“The biggest problem is the lack of knowledge, the lack of understanding, the lack of awareness,” said Lofy, who used to work on sex trafficking cases. “And then just the isolation that’s involved in forced labor.”

“It’s more hidden, just by the nature of the work,” he said of farm workers who are in remote, rural areas, and restaurant workers who work behind the scenes in kitchens. As a result, he said, it’s hard to know how widespread the problem is. 

Of the labor trafficking victims he has worked with, Lofy said, “They’re here because they want to better their families, they want to better their home life — wherever home is.” That drive to earn money to help their families is the very thing that makes them vulnerable to exploitation. For Lofy, it’s gratifying to see formerly exploited workers like López, who now drives an Uber, working and achieving their goals.

Paredes, the injured dairy worker, hasn’t pursued a criminal case against his former employer because, he said, he doesn’t want to “poke the bear.” His boss often warned him that he knew all the local police, Paredes said, and police began pulling him over frequently after he filed his workers comp claim. The family was also intimidated when police came to ask questions about them at the church shelter after they were evicted from the farm. 

While he has received workers comp coverage for some of his medical treatments, as well as temporary disability payments, those payments have ended and Paredes is worried about how he and his wife will get by. 

“We just don’t want to believe it happens here. And it does,” said Lofy. “I think it’s hard for people to understand that. People are bought and sold for sex, and people are bought and sold to produce goods that are used throughout our daily lives.”

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Wisconsin Examiner is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Wisconsin Examiner maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Ruth Conniff for questions: info@wisconsinexaminer.com. Follow Wisconsin Examiner on Facebook and Twitter.

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