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Luis Gutierrez: Exploitation is the “Ugly Sin” of Immigration

Democrat Luis Gutierrez is a U.S. Representative for Illinois’ Fourth Congressional District. The sexual exploitation of migrant farm workers is the “ugly sin” of a broken immigration system, he told FRONTLINE. “As many times as I’ve raised the issue in America, I don’t think immigration has ever been looked at through the eyes of women,” he said. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on May 21, 2013.

So you know we’ve been working on a story about sexual harassment and sexual assault on female farmworkers across the country. And you’ve had some experience with this. Maybe you could tell us how you became familiar — I mean, Chicago, last I saw it, didn’t have a lot of agricultural activity going on.

The raid in Postville, [Iowa,] was such a huge event — helicopters, massive enforcement — on a meatpacking plant there. … And there were literally hundreds of undocumented workers that were swept up. …

I took my colleagues from the Congress of the United States to Postville. … We left at 4:00 in the morning so that we could get to Postville at 8:00, 8:30 in the morning.

I met the children who had been working at the plant alongside of their mothers that were 14, 15 year olds. I met men without fingers and one literally with his right arm almost gone from the elbow down. It had been lost while working. Of course, he had no recourse to anyone because he was illegally in the country.

But I’ve got to tell you, the women and their stories about the sexual exploitation: “I need to change my shift because my daughter needs to go to the doctor”; there’s a demand of sex. “I’ll call immigration”; there’s a demand of sex. “I need more hours”; there’s a demand of sex.

And then the government compounded the situation of exploitation of these women by branding them, by placing ankle bracelets on them for the whole town to see them. So they were wearing the scarlet letter. And then came the men of the town, who looked at them as future prey also. And the humiliation that they endured. They had lost their husbands. You wouldn’t want to be with children with no future and nowhere to go.

So talking to them, I talked to my colleagues about it. And as many times as I’ve raised the issue in America, I don’t think immigration has ever been looked at through the eyes of women and what it means for women, because if people were actually to understand the vulnerability that undocumented women are subjected to, the exploitation that they’re subjected to because they are so vulnerable, right? One phone call and you might not see your children again and you’ll be deported. You might lose a job; you might lose the roof over your head.

“I don’t think immigration has ever been looked at through the eyes of women and what it means for women.”

But it wasn’t only there. I remember meeting with farmworkers, with the United Farm Workers. We went to Salinas, [Calif.], and we went to a church, and we had a wonderful gathering. And after the gathering, we went to kind of a recreational center right next to the church so that we could have a conversation, and I could begin to learn more about the day-to-day life experiences of the farmworkers.

And I asked one of the women, did she always wear pants? Because I noticed they all wore pants. And they told me: “We wear pants because we’re so ashamed of our knees, because of the effect of kneeling to pick garlic year in and year out and the impact it has. It’s pretty ugly.” But one of them said to me, “But worse than that is the sexual exploitation we’re submitted to.”

And it’s very hard for them to tell me. It’s very hard for me to receive the information. But it could be a meatpacking plant in Postville, Iowa, or it could be garlic pickers, those that are undocumented. And there are men that prey upon women every day in the legal framework of our workplace. I want you take it one moment and take it outside of that legal framework, where one phone call means you’re gone.

You took your colleagues with you?

I did.

What was their reaction?

I have to say that they came back more committed and more focused on getting comprehensive immigration reform passed. I can tell you that every time there was a meeting subsequent to that, they were very reliable partners.

Part of the debate in Washington, D.C., around immigration reform is about this or that or the other thing, right, about Democrats and Republicans and who’s going to get — and I keep trying to stress to people that one of the fundamental reasons we have to get comprehensive immigration reform, one of them is so we can stop the daily, routine rape of women in the workplace.

I remember once giving a speech and saying, “I can’t wait for comprehensive immigration reform so that the women can receive their legalization document and they can pick up the phone and dial 911 and the criminals can begin to go to jail.” With comprehensive immigration reform, you will begin to hear the stories of the brutality that they’ve been subjected to.

One of the people we interviewed for this story is [United Farm Workers co-founder] Dolores Huerta. She says this is an epidemic in the field. What’s your assessment?

Everywhere I’ve gone, and it doesn’t matter which meatpacking plant I’ve been at or where I’ve met women — I’ve met them in Washington state; they pick apples. I’ve been to Oregon. You don’t have to go far. Go 30 minutes away in Orlando from Disney, and you’re going to find migrant workers out in the orchard fields, and they will tell you the same story. …

Representatives of agribusiness, labor contracts, their associations, say to us, “Yes, there’s sexual harassment in our industry, but it’s no different than the rest of America.” And what we find is there are no surveys; there is no information; there are no statistics. So what evidence do you have?

The personal testimony of those women that I’ve met with, the tears in their eyes, the anguish in their face, the humiliation. I have fortunately been able to develop a special relationship, given my leadership on this issue. People tell me things that they might not otherwise share.

And I’m happy I have that information, because it keeps me focused and strong. But it’s also a burden to know it. And I know that my daughters and my wife are never subjected to the kind of brutality and sexual exploitation that these women have described to me and that they have suffered and endured. It’s just not happening.

You went to Postville?

I did.

ICE was the lead government agency — Immigration and Customs Enforcement — that rounded people up.

It was.

And we were told that in that mass deportation, they deported both victims and perpetrators. So we asked ICE, “Did you question the people that you removed, when you do a removal, about the conditions in the workplace?” And the answer is no. It’s on their list. It’s number 17 in their priorities for questioning. But they basically said it’s not a priority for them.

It isn’t a priority. All one has to do is visit the fields. It doesn’t matter which field it is. Some fields are better than other. Whether it’s grapes or cabbage or onions or garlic or oranges or apples, visit the fields, and you will see children alongside of their parents harvesting crops. That’s happening in America. That’s not a secret.

I mean, the great thing about America is the following: We have a country where fewer people get hurt and fewer people die as they go to work. We’re doing better. We’re safeguarding the workforce.

“It’s part of the ugly sin of our broken immigration system, the exploitation that exists.”

But when you set aside immigrants and Latinos, what do you find? More of them die, and more of them are hurt. It’s all part of the general exploitation of this underclass that we have in America that are called the illegals, the undocumented workers. Yes, the ones that hit the fields every day doing the work — it’s backbreaking, ugly work, and they do it. So do you really believe that if in so many cases child labor laws are not enforced, regular laws of protection of workers and safety are not enforced, do you really believe that men are not going to prey on the vulnerable women?

It’s part of the ugly sin of our broken immigration system, the exploitation that exists.

In most of the cases that we’ve looked at, from Washington state to Florida, from California to Iowa, the accused perpetrators are Hispanic. And so we have growers and farmers and labor contractors saying, “Look, this is a problem in their community.”

I find it to be outrageous. In other words, you run a company which is profitable to you, you take those profits, you put them in your pocket, and you don’t watch out for the safety, for the dignity, for the respect — you’re a co-conspirator. You’re just as guilty as them. If I see a violation of the law, and I remain silent, then what am I if not an accomplice? They know and they allow this culture to be created and to exist.

So let’s not make it a “the color of your skin” thing. Men can be evil and men can be exploitive regardless of the color of their skin. It happens all over the world. The correct thing to do is to stand up and put an end to it.

I remember one of their attorneys saying: “You’re painting us with a broad brush. You’re prejudiced from your position of being an urban liberal, and in fact it’s getting better in the fields. There [is] sexual harassment training going on, but you shouldn’t assume that it’s going on everywhere.”

Look, you can say that my experience of the information that [I've gotten during] my travels throughout the United States are simply anecdotal. But when the same information repeats itself, whether it’s in Salinas or in Oregon, whether it’s in, quite honestly, Alabama — Alabama. I mean, because people think, well, they must be out in some orchard fields in California. Could be Alabama, could be Mississippi, could be Georgia, could be North or South Carolina. The stories I’ve heard are the same. And you know something? I learned a long time ago that when it comes to these situations, believe the women. Believe the women. Don’t double-down with those that have exploited them by not believing the women.

One of the things that we found was that the only government agency that seems to have focused [on this issue] at all, and that’s over the last 18 years, is the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission [EEOC]. We couldn’t find really any other government agency that had a program or anything related to this. Why is that?

I ask myself the same question. I thought things would get better when we finally had a Latina with an immigrant background heading up the Department of Labor for the last four years. I know she tried, but it really didn’t get better.

I believe it doesn’t get better because no one really wants to grapple with the overriding issue of our broken immigration system. And this is part and parcel of that. Every time I bring up an issue and I say, “Well, you know, the deportations, the lack of health care, the work conditions, the sexual exploitation,” the response is always, “We’ll take care of that when we get around to comprehensive immigration reform.”

But when we’re talking about — I use the term sexual harassment –

I think sexual harassment would ill-define what is going on among undocumented women that are preyed upon by their supervisors, their foremen, by men in general [whom] they have to live among. I mean, it’s not a touch on the shoulder; it’s not a glance. It is rape, by any definition.

OK. Rape is a felony in every state, as is at least sexual harassment in every state. Why have we found even when there’s been a finding , or even admission by a company that something happened with their supervisor, we find almost no prosecutions?

You find no prosecution because too many times in America, we look at them and we simply title them as illegals. And as illegals, they have no rights, and they have no protection. That’s why how it is we refer to them is so important, because we take away their humanity, huh? We take away their personhood when we refer to them in legalistic terms of illegal. So they’re illegal aliens, these foreign things that aren’t supposed to be here, so what rights do they have anyway?

But law enforcement agencies all say to us, “Anyone who’s in the United States physically, we have to enforce the law; we have to protect them.” It doesn’t matter what their status is.

Let me tell you what happens every day from a practical point of view. A woman is being abused. She’s being sexually exploited. She may be being beaten. And the next-door neighbor, her friend, who’s undocumented, dials 911. Time and time again, the perpetrator of the crime doesn’t get prosecuted, yet the two women who are undocumented get processed for deportation from the United States of America. And that doesn’t happen one time a week; it happens all the time.

The fact is that our federal government has deported more people in the last four years and has a dragnet across this country that tells people: “Be afraid. Do not call the police, or you will disappear from your family’s life.”

I mean, let’s recognize something: Fourteen hundred people are deported every day from the United States of America. And it is unprecedented. What do you believe the community feels about law enforcement and about government when we are raising millions of children in America whose memory of their childhood, of this present moment, is going to be, “I feared the government was going to take my mom or dad away from me”?

“Believe the women. Don’t double-down with those that have exploited them by not believing the women.”

And it is real, and it is part of their daily lives to show up to a classroom and have your classmate missing, to go to church and find a family missing, to go to the playground and not have the same people show up at the soccer game.

I mean, let’s realize it. The government has decided that it is going to use the harshest hand it can in terms of deportations. And it began under Bush, but let me just say Democrats have not fared any better. Look at all it took so that we would not deport the youth, the DREAMers, as we call them, [taken from the DREAM Act (Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors)]. Remember that? They came here as children, and what did it take? It took a whole community to raise their voices just to protect them.

Look, understand something. There is fear and real terror in the immigrant community. This past week I said, “Honey, let’s go in — ” It’s a Chinese grocery store. “We can walk in, look around; we’ll be out in 15, 20 minutes.” And so we walked in. It wasn’t 15, 20 minutes, because even in the Chinese grocery store, all the butchers were Mexican, all the people placing the food in the aisles, all the people sweeping and stocking, all the people. And I have an incredible — how would I say this? It’s an opportunity and a privilege, right, that they trust me.

So about a dozen of them gathered for a moment in one of the corridors leading to the cold storage room in the back, and they told me: “Please, Luis, just get us our papers. We don’t care what kind of papers they are, as long as they keep us safe from deportation.” That’s what they want. They want papers. They didn’t say, “And make sure I’m a citizen, and make sure I get health care, and make sure I get minimum wage, and make sure –” “Just get me papers so I’m not deported.” That’s what’s on the mind of millions of undocumented workers.

Now, imagine you’re a woman. Are you going to go home and tell your husband what just happened to you? Do we really think that’s what happens in America?

And we were talking about earlier what happened to Anita Hill, [currently an attorney and professor who testified during Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas' confirmation hearings in 1991 that Thomas harassed her while he was her supervisor at both the U.S. Department of Education and the EEOC]. Now, what do you think happens to an undocumented woman when a woman of [Hill's] stature and her education and her background is so vilified? They didn’t believe her. Why are you going to believe the illegal woman?

The FBI, when we contacted them, gave us a statement and basically said, “We’re interested in human trafficking, issues like that; this is not in our jurisdiction.” And basically every other agency in the federal government that had any kind of, we thought, interest in this from a criminal point of view says the same thing.

Look. I’m not an expert on this issue, but I have to believe that the —

The legal issue?

I’m not an expert on the legal issue. And I can’t be the only one that’s traveled through America. I cannot believe that Janet Napolitano, the head of Homeland Security, that the Justice Department, that the federal government doesn’t know this is going on. It’s not like some secret that was revealed exclusively to me. It is pervasive wherever I’ve gone across this country. They know about it.

But the enforcement is there. But recognize, the number one crime prosecuted by the federal government is illegal re-entry to the United States. It’s not kidnapping; it’s not counterfeiting; it’s not drugs. It’s illegal re-entry. All of our enforcement has been designed to do one thing: to cause panic and terror and to deport people and to separate families. And in that context, you must understand the inability of these women to access law enforcement.

So what are we to understand when local law enforcement says to us, “Well, nobody reported the crime to us?,” or, “The EEOC didn’t tell us. What are we supposed to do?” And by the way, sexual assault and rape are very difficult crimes to prosecute. They have a very low rate of conviction.

Look, here’s what I can tell you. It is such a stain on the workforce of America that I just suggest that the next time you’re drinking that Chardonnay, remember who may have picked those grapes, and that lettuce, tomato you’re having with strawberry on the side, remember, because unfortunately, we’re all participants in our own consumption of the brutality in the workforce that these women confront. It’s happening. And I simply suggest, believe the women. They’re telling the truth.

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