(AP Photo/Luis M. Alvarez)
Interstate 5 runs down the middle of California’s San Joaquin Valley for hundreds of miles. On either side are dusty rows of almond, peach and orange trees. In the summer, the ground is tan and dry. Telephone poles measure out the time for passing cars, their sagging power lines scalloping out to a vanishing point on the horizon. Somewhere almost halfway from San Francisco to Los Angeles is a town called Huron.
This is where Carla (not her real name) used to work, shaking almonds from the trees at harvest time for $8 an hour. This is also where she was raped by her foreman. But as a Mexican immigrant with no papers, she was afraid to tell anyone.
It’s a common tale. Some 630,000 of the 3 million migrant farm laborers in the United States are women, and at least 60 percent are undocumented. Most are subject to sexual abuse but fear deportation if they speak up. The reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), which expired almost a year and a half ago, would have helped change that. But after being held hostage by House Republicans who wanted fewer protections for women, it died in the 112th Congress. The next class of legislators will have to start from scratch on a new bill. Meanwhile, women are waiting.
A 2010 survey by Irma Morales Waugh of the University of California, Santa Cruz, reported that 80 percent of female farmworkers interviewed had been subject to sexual assault or harassment. A recent Human Rights Watch report found that sexual abuse of female farmworkers is so common that many see it as “an unavoidable condition of agricultural work.” And a mid-1990s study by the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission concluded that among California crop workers, “hundreds, if not thousands, of women had to have sex with supervisors to get or keep jobs and/or put up with a constant barrage of grabbing and touching and propositions for sex.” The female laborers, or campesinas, called one company’s crops the “field of panties,” since so many women had been raped there by their overseers.
The women are stuck, because even though the same labor laws that forbid workplace harassment for legal residents also technically cover undocumented workers, enforcement is spotty and laborers seldom know their rights. Female crop workers make an average of $11,250 a year. “They don’t want to lose their job,” said Amparo Yebra, a senior caseworker at Westside Family Preservation Services Network, a community group in Huron that provides social services to migrant laborers.
The Senate passed a version of VAWA in April that would have expanded escape routes for these women. The bill would have increased the number of special U-visas, which give temporary legal status to undocumented immigrants who are victims of sexual assault or domestic violence, and who are willing to cooperate with an investigation.
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When the foreman drove Carla home for the first time, it was raining. She piled into his truck with other workers. He stopped at a gas station to drop everyone else off, but told Carla he’d give her a lift all the way back to her place. Instead, he took her out into a field and raped her.