On May 16, Human Rights Watch (HRW) published a report detailing the results of interviews with over 160 farmworkers, police, attorneys, and other members of the agricultural industry about sexual violence and harassment endured by female migrant farmworkers. Women make up 630,000 of the approximately 3 million people who perform migrant and seasonal farm work and 50% of the U.S. agricultural workforce is undocumented. Lily Kuo describes how “nearly all of 52 farmworkers interviewed said they had suffered sexual violence or harassment or knew others who had.” The report found that people in positions of power, such as “foremen, supervisors, farm labor contractors, and company owners were abusing multiple women and often over long periods of time.”
HRW found that most women and girls who work in the agricultural industry and suffer abuse do not report it because they are undocumented and do not want to risk getting deported if they do. Even the relatively small percentage of workers with guest worker visas are unlikely to report abuse because they are dependent on their employers in order to keep their legal status.
While there are U visas, which provide temporary legal status to victims of certain serious crimes if they suffer substantial physical or mental abuse and if they cooperate with the investigation, Huffington Post reports that
even this limited protection could soon be eviscerated. As Congress debates the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, proposed provisions to strengthen the U visa have come under attack, while
Even if proposed provisions to strengthen U visas were passed there would still be significant obstacles to obtaining them, since “to apply for a U visa the victim must get a certification that he or she cooperated with a law enforcement investigation. But law enforcement officials vary widely in their willingness to certify victims, due to a mistaken belief that they are helping unauthorized immigrants ‘get green cards.’”
The HRW report, while detailing troubling realities of the abuse many migrant farmworkers face, does offer hope that their situations can be bettered; it lists ways to improve and expand victims’ access to justice. The report proposes, among other things, that the U.S. Congress pass the Senate version of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) reauthorization bill, enact immigration legislation that would reduce the incidence of serious abuse of immigrant workers’ rights, and that the exclusion of farmworkers from important laws providing labor protections like the National Labor Relations Act and the Fair Labor Standards Act be eliminated.
To learn more about this issue and what you can do to help, you can read the entire HRW report here. You can also watch a video that includes an interview with an HRW official as well as with farmworkers below.