Udall: Farm workers deserve access to American justice system
June 13, 2014
Colorado's farmers and ranchers — from peach growers on the Western Slope to livestock producers on the eastern plains — help feed our families and the world.
Like my ancestors, Colorado's farmers and ranchers came out West in search of a better future for themselves and their families, as do the thousands of hardworking migrant workers who work the fields and harvest the crops we eat today.
Unfortunately, our broken immigration system has forced many of these migrant workers into an unregulated, under-the-table shadow economy. Instead of working toward achieving the American Dream, some workers encounter extreme and dangerous working conditions, poverty, abuse and exploitation. Rape, sexual harassment, stalking and verbal abuse have become unspoken and unavoidable hazards for many migrant workers working in our fields and factories – especially for women.
Some unscrupulous employers use visas as leverage to keep migrant workers silent about abuses. And for the 1 in 2 farm workers who the USDA's Economic Research Service estimates are undocumented, the threat of deportation intensifies that culture of fear.
To learn more, I hosted a roundtable discussion in April on the sexual abuse and mistreatment of farm workers. I heard from advocates who described the problems facing the migrant farm worker community in Colorado.
I also heard stories of Colorado workers being subjected — for years — to lewd behavior by a supervisor. These women were repeatedly propositioned, physically groped and forced to endure sexually explicit comments during the workday.
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The abusers — who may include supervisors, employers and co-workers — leave workers with an untenable choice: Stay silent and allow the abuse to continue, or speak up and risk losing their livelihoods or being deported.
We cannot allow this problem to continue in Colorado's fields and factories. Farm workers live in America and produce American food, but many cannot access the American justice system.
With Coloradans by my side, I'm working toward a solution. I discussed this issue with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Colorado Legal Services and the Colorado Civil Rights Division during my recent roundtable. And I believe this is an area where we can make bipartisan progress despite gridlock in Washington.
First, we must raise awareness of the plight of Colorado's migrant laborers and help inform farm worker communities about the services already available to them through our state's committed advocacy organizations and volunteers.
Second, we need to ensure that current laws adequately provide for the people they are intended to safeguard, such as implementing the legal protections offered through the recently reauthorized Violence Against Women Act and training law enforcement on the U-visa process.
These are concrete steps I'll continue to champion even as I fight in Washington to pass comprehensive immigration reform that brings the millions of undocumented immigrants and migrant farm workers out of the shadows and provides an earned pathway to citizenship. Only by lifting the threat of deportation will we be able to drastically reduce the threat of abuse to exploited workers.
As the one-year anniversary of the U.S. Senate's passage of comprehensive immigration reform approaches at the end of June, the U.S. House of Representatives cannot bury its head in the sand about the damage caused by delaying immigration reform for farm workers, families, businesses and our economy.
We cannot allow abuse and exploitation in our country's fields and factories to remain an open secret. And we must take action to ensure that survivors of sexual violence, abuse and exploitation have access to justice. ❖