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Potato slaves The cost of an H-2A visa in Texas

By PATRICIA CLAREMBAUX & ALMUDENA TORAL
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Workers at a potato processing plant in Texas face abuse by their employers but choose to stay silent out of fear of losing their H-2A visas. Most are unaware they’re even victims of forced labor, or that the fees they’re required to pay to their supervisors for a visa are illegal. They don’t trust the authorities either, and fear retaliation for speaking out. It’s a reality faced by some 36,000 people a year in this border state.

This project was supported by The International Women’s Media Foundation and The Carter Center.

Pablo suffered through countless hardships to avoid losing his temporary work visa and job at a potato plant in Dalhart, in the Texas Panhandle. One day, he said his boss, Xavier López Palacios, hit him so hard in the leg that he was left with a limp. On others, Pablo was pressured repeatedly to work faster.

Palacios, who was in charge of the warehouse until June, also shouted insults at Pablo and threatened to call immigration agents to deport him; under strict orders, Pablo worked up to 22 continuous hours. Once he was so tired that he accidentally fractured his hand. In spite of the doctor's orders, López Palacios —who has denied the aforementioned accusations—wouldn’t allow Pablo to rest, he said.

Pablo’s name has been changed and some of his personal details were omitted to guarantee his and his family’s safety, and to avoid retaliation.

Pablo’s situation is not unique. Each year, thousands of Mexican and Central American immigrants experience forced labor in the United States. According to the International Labour Organization, this can be understood as work that is “performed involuntarily and under the menace of any penalty.” It refers to situations in which “persons are coerced to work through the use of violence or intimidation, or by more subtle means such as manipulated debt, retention of identity papers or threats of denunciation to immigration authorities.” It’s considered a modern form of slavery.

Almudena Toral/Univision

A study conducted by the University of Texas at Austin estimated that in 2016 there were approximately 36,970 immigrants across the state working in conditions similar to those Pablo has faced. Through illegal means, such as collecting fees, operators deducted more than $94 million from workers’ checks and salaries, the study said.

According to the report, the number of victims is likely much higher, but the majority of those affected don’t speak out. They suffer in silence, afraid of being turned over to authorities who could mount a case against them and order their return to the poverty and danger of their home countries.

These workers live in fear, as if they had no rights—all because their work visas are granted by an abusive employer.

"I never knew what I’d have to go through to earn money," Pablo says. "We endure everything: mistreatment, insults, all for the well-being of ourselves and our families. And it’s not even to live super well; just to provide a little bit more for our families."

Dalhart is a small city of just over 8,000 residents. The largest share of the population is white, followed by Hispanics.

More than 80% of voters here cast ballots for Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election.

Almudena Toral/Univision

United States

Arizona

Oklahoma

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Dalhart

Texas

San Antonio

Mexico

United States

Oklahoma

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North Carolina

New

Mexico

Arizona

United States

Dalhart

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San Antonio

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United States

Dalhart has few streets, and most are empty. There are more laundromats and motels than restaurants; there’s a single supermarket and a main avenue, Railroad Street, where the majority of the town’s activity takes place. It has a McDonalds, a Dairy Queen, a Wendy’s and a Sonic drive-in.

At the edge of town, the landscape transforms into endless plains, reached only by dirt roads.

At the end of one of those dirt roads, about a half-hour drive from town, sits the 37,500 acres of land owned by Larsen Farms, one of the largest potato producers in the United States, founded in 1966. The farm supplies potatoes to a large chunk of the country, with sales of between four and five million bags a year to retailers like Walmart.

This is where Pablo works alongside some 300 others each year in the months between March and October, when land is prepared and planted. Like him, more than 70% of his colleagues are Mexicans brought by the company with temporary H-2A visas. They are the core workforce of the company.

The rest of the employees are Hondurans, Guatemalans and Mexicans who live in Dalhart. Many of them are undocumented and use fake social security numbers to get work.
Some are teenagers.

Victims by gender

in the US

Between August 1, 2014

and July 31, 2015, the

National Human Trafficking Resource Center helpline identified 282 H-2A visa workers who were potential victims of trafficking and labor exploitation.

Women 2.48%

Men 97.16%

Countries of origin

of the victims

Mexico

Guatemala

Peru

South Africa

Source: Labor Trafficking in the USA, Polaris Project

Victims by gender in the US

Between August 1, 2014 and July 31, 2015, the National Human Trafficking Resource Center helpline identified 282 H-2A visa workers who were potential victims of trafficking and labor exploitation.

Countries of origin

of the victims

Women 2.48%

Mexico

Guatemala

Peru

South Africa

Men 97.16%

Source: Labor Trafficking in the USA, Polaris Project

More than a dozen people interviewed by Univision Noticias between November and July—with and without visas—say they suffer or suffered abuse at the hands of the supervisors at the company. Its president, Blaine Larsen, an American who lives between California and Idaho, admitted to Univision that he had heard such complaints for years, but was never able to verify them.

Since Univision began reporting this story, federal authorities have made multiple arrests, implicating supervisors at Larsen Farms including José Ramón Huaracha Escamilla on crimes including fraud in foreign labor contracting and conspiracy to commit fraud in foreign labor contracting. Palacios was also detained, accused of fraud and misuse of visas, permits and other documents.

Pablo first came to Larsen Farms on the recommendation of an acquaintance. "He asked if there was an opportunity for me,” he says. “That’s how a lot of workers got jobs: people who were already working there sought out opportunities for them."

Another company supervisor charged Pablo more than $1,000, alleging that it was a kind of "fee" for the visa. "We are going to lend you a hand," Pablo recalls being told by José Ramón Huaracha Escamilla over the phone before traveling to the United States.

In return, Pablo had to pay in secret. "Do you want the job or not?" he remembers being asked.

He accepted. “Who would say no to the opportunity to come work here? Everyone knows people are charged for visas, we just stay quiet about it.”

Once he was working in Dalhart, Pablo says that he was forced to hand over part of his check to José Ramón Huaracha every two weeks. Another portion went to Mexico to support his wife and children; he also paid a monthly “quota” of hundreds of dollars to a criminal in Mexico so that he wouldn’t harm his family.

Workers sort potatoes at Larsen Farms. Almudena Toral/Univision

Many workers come from areas dominated by drug cartels and also pay additional fees to protect their relatives in Mexico.

José Ramón Huaracha is the brother of Antonio Huaracha, who since December 2015 has been the general manager of Larsen Farms in Dalhart. In 2011, Blaine Larsen himself transferred the brothers from the Idaho headquarters to Texas to establish and operate the new plant.

Other members of the Huaracha family also work for the company: their father is a tractor driver and three more siblings work for the company; one is in charge of the trucks, another is an operator and sometimes works the land and a third performs support and monitoring functions in the field.

Rebecca Guerra, Larsen's former human resources manager, says that a culture of "corruption" and "favoritism" imposed by the Huaracha family prevails at Larsen Farms. They decide who is hired and who receives privileged treatment. "You have to have the last name Huaracha to be accepted or you have to be well known to them in order to be someone," she claims.

imagen familia Antonio (second to the left) and José Ramón Huaracha (first to the right) in a family photo. Source: anonymous.

Guerra’s position allowed her to communicate constantly with employees. She says she spoke with at least five workers who had H-2A visas and were accepted into the company on the same terms as Pablo. In all cases, payment was made to the same supervisor, José Ramón Huaracha, in amounts between $1,500 and $4,000.

Guerra explains that she met with employees outside the company for fear of retaliation, who told her how the visa payment scheme worked: "They begged me not to tell anyone," she says. “I wanted to report it, but I was scared, thinking that [José Ramón] would punish or threaten me. So I never said anything."

She says she also reported abuse to Antonio Huaracha, but that the complaints were ignored. "They didn’t want to listen, they always had an excuse."

Almudena Toral/Univision

In April 2020, Univision informed the company in writing of the allegations against José Ramón Huaracha collected during eight months of investigation and employee interviews, and requested an interview. A week after learning of the allegations, Larsen traveled to the Dalhart processor and contacted Univision.

"Ramón resigned, he is no longer with the company," Blaine Larsen said during a telephone interview on April 23, 2020, adding that he was “shocked” to learn the details of the accusations against one of his Dalhart supervisors.

He explained that José Ramón Huaracha had resigned four days earlier, on April 19, after denying the allegations. "If I can prove it, I will sue Ramón," Larsen said.

Almudena Toral/Univision

In an April 24 interview with Univision, José Ramón Huaracha explained that beginning in 2017 he oversaw the lists of people who came to work for the company from Mexico under the H-2A visa program, and he was also the farm and field operations manager. He recorded the names of people “recommended” by managers or other employees: “To those who gave me names, I would say: 'If this person isn’t good or performs poorly, are you willing to lose your job?’ Many agreed, others backed out.”

Later, José Ramón Huaracha would speak to applicants over the phone, asking them if they had the skills to do the job well. He would tell them: “I trust your word, but we’ll see if you can earn your keep or not,” he said.

He denied detailing the terms of the hire or asking for extra payment to include a worker in the list of H-2A workers for the season, declaring to Univision: "That is a lie."

Almudena Toral/Univision

On the contrary, he said that there were times when the applicants themselves offered him money. “The people of Mexico have offered [me] a lot of money,” he said. “There are people who came to speak to me and offered me the same amount they’d paid a coyote to bring them to the U.S. I never took money, I never charged anyone."

Amid accusations from employees and former employees that point to him as being at the forefront of the sale of visas at Larsen Farms, José Ramón Huaracha resigned in a handwritten letter to the human resources department. He said he did not save a copy of the letter: "I said I was resigning because they were speaking unjustly about me and because I wanted to be with my family."

That same day, he visited the homes of a number of Larsen Farms workers with two other supervisors, including one of his brothers, to inform them of his resignation. According to various sources, he made one last threat: "If you speak, it won’t go well for you.”

José Ramón Huaracha denied that he intimidated or threatened employees that day. “I spoke to people and told them clearly: 'I am going to stop working with Larsen, and I’m leaving Larsen because of these reasons and this is not true,’” he said. "I told them: 'I am leaving, you have to work hard to keep your jobs, because I’m not going to be there anymore.’”

In early May 2020, the Justice Department contacted Univision regarding charges being filed by the agency against José Ramón Huaracha. On July 21, a criminal complaint against him was made public. He was accused of fraud in the hiring of foreign workers and conspiracy to commit fraud from February 2018 until at least June 2020. An arrest warrant was issued against him and he was arrested that day.

Almudena Toral/Univision

The document explains that special agents in charge of the investigation—from the Labor Department—interviewed seven employees and former employees of the company between May 27 and June 18 who described a “pay to play” scheme used by José Ramón Huaracha to collect between $1,000 and $1,500 from each worker to be included in the list of those hired with H-2A visas.

“Huaracha, his family members in Mexico and other surrogates of his choosing approached prospective H-2A recruits in Mexico and current H-2A workers on the job at Larsen Farms to tell them that they would need to pay Huaracha to get their names placed on a list Huaracha controlled that was used by Larsen Farms to obtain names of workers for the purpose of sponsoring them for H-2A visas the next farming season,” the complaint reads. It also states that the only workers who did not have to pay the fees were members of Huaracha’s family.

Part of the first page of the criminal complaint against José Ramón Huaracha.

Erin Nealy Cox, U.S. attorney for the United States District Court for the Northern District of Texas, told Univision that Huaracha later pressed workers to "keep the $1,000+ payments secret, both from Larsen Farms and from federal law enforcement," which "violated the laws surrounding the H-2A program."

Guerra, the former human resources manager, was among those interviewed by investigators from the Labor Department. According to the complaint, she told them she believed Huaracha charged half the fee when workers were still in Mexico and the rest once they were brought to the United States with their visas.

One of the workers who spoke to investigators explained that he was aware he would have to pay $1,500 to José Ramón Huaracha because he knew the person who collected the money on Huaracha’s behalf. He displayed text messages in which he discussed payments with another person. He said that he and other H-2A workers discussed the fees they had to pay to work at Larsen Farms while they were in a hotel in Mexico waiting to travel to the United States.

Aerial view of the Larsen Farms potato processor.Almudena Toral/Univision

Other employees said they and several family members paid between $1,000 and $1,200 to be included on the supervisor's list. One of them, identified as H-2A worker No.4 in the criminal complaint, was contacted directly by José Ramón Huaracha to discuss the job opportunity and the “understanding that [the worker] would be ‘helping’ José Ramón Huaracha by making a $1,000 payment to him.”

The Polaris Project, which runs the National Human Trafficking Hotline and shares the data with the federal government, has learned in interviews with immigrants who work at a number of companies that fees charged for visas can be as high as $5,000. The organization has evidence that the practice is used in sectors including hotels, restaurants and domestic work.

The Polaris report Labor Trafficking in the U.S.: A Closer Look at Temporary Work Visas explains that fees are paid to recruiters, employers or direct supervisors for two reasons: to cover the expenses of obtaining a visa or simply as a requirement for employment.

High-Risk labor

trafficking segments*

Community size

Victimization rate

Estimated victims

Migrant

farmworkers

132,034

28%

36,970

Cleaning

services

233,610

36%

84,100

Kitchen

workers

190,390

32%

60,925

Construction

101,250

35%

35,438

Landscaping

worker

63,050

27%

17,024

Source: Human Trafficking by the Numbers, University of Texas, 2016

High-Risk labor trafficking segments*

Community size

Victimization rate

Estimated victims

Kitchen

workers

190,390

32%

60,925

Migrant

farmworkers

132,034

28%

36,970

Cleaning

services

233,610

36%

84,100

Landscaping

worker

63,050

27%

17,024

Construction

101,250

35%

35,438

Source: Human Trafficking by the Numbers, University of Texas, 2016

It details the abuses and fraud that immigrants experience starting from the moment they are offered a job—with promises that fade once they arrive in the field: “Workers were given misinformation about wages, schedules, associated fees, living conditions, and benefits.”

According to the Department of Homeland Security, collecting these fees is illegal and costs must be assumed entirely by the employer: “A petitioner, agent, facilitator, recruiter, or similar employment service is prohibited from collecting a job placement fee or other compensation (either direct or indirect) at any time from an H-2A worker as a condition of employment.”

Pablo was surprised to learn that this fee was illegal; he thought it was just part of the deal. By 2020, he said that José Ramón Huaracha had increased his fee to more than $1,500. Other immigrants owed $1,800 or more, depending on the duration of their visas. "I don’t think there’s anyone who comes here without paying something," he says.

This isn’t the first time that Antonio Huaracha and Blaine Larsen have heard about the practice of charging for H-2A visas at Larsen Farms.

In a February 2020 interview, Antonio Huaracha acknowledged that he had heard of supervisors asking workers to pay "quotas" under the table in order to get a temporary permit.

"We put a person [in Mexico] … to take care of getting people together, writing down their names, lists, telephone numbers and all that information,” he said. “We needed someone to coordinate all of that."

Antonio Huaracha, the general manager of Larsen Farms in Dalhart, at the company's warehouse. Almudena Toral/Univision

"Then people began to complain: ‘No, they’re charging us for this, that and the other,’" he recalls. “The problem has always been there but I can’t control that. It’s something we tried to avoid, but I don't know.”

While manager of the plant in Dalhart for five years, he said that he always asked his highest-ranking employees—including supervisors, such as his brother José Ramón Huaracha—not to charge workers fees. "’Apart from the fact that it’s not right, we’re just going to create conflict and it’s not going to end well for you,’" he said he warned them. "I didn’t think we were charging, but as I said before, I’m not sure."

Huaracha said that’s ultimately why he stopped the practice of having recruiters and allowed other employees to recommend people to their supervisors.

Almudena Toral/Univision

Hired workers come from Sinaloa, Sonora, Zacatecas, Jalisco, Veracruz, Michoacán and Guanajuato, where Antonio is from. He traveled to the United States when he was 20 years old after being recommended by cousins who were already at the Idaho potato processor; like José Ramón Huaracha, he also came undocumented to work and help his family in Mexico.

"Anyone who comes pays," explains this Mexican worker who used to work at Larsen Farms and prefers to stay anonymous for fear of retaliation. "You pay the manager here." Although he was undocumented while working at Larsen, he has friends who held an H-2A visa and says everyone had to pay José Ramón Huaracha. If they didn’t, they weren’t brought back to work the following season.

Almudena Toral/Univision

Antonio Huaracha acknowledged in a telephone interview in April 2020 that he had begun to pay closer attention to the rumors about his brother over the previous six months. “We have brought people here, to human resources, to ask them if they participated in this type of deal, if they were charged to work. Until now we haven’t had luck with anyone."

The company's president, Blaine Larsen, also heard similar comments "possibly three to six years ago." Then they resurfaced this spring. Recently, he tried to confirm the rumors among employees: at least two people spoke to him about the matter, but no one presented evidence and therefore he didn’t believe them. "I have a hard time determining who is lying and who is telling the truth."

According to the criminal complaint, Larsen had asked his human resources managers to speak with some workers with H-2A visas: “Any of them willing to come forward with the truth about having to pay José Ramón Huaracha would be automatically asked back to work at Larsen in following seasons,” it reads. But no one talked. Human resources guessed that was due to fear.

Almudena Toral/Univision

"I would like to get to the bottom of this ... I have been investigating,” Larsen said. “I can give you names, like a woman who told me she had proof and never showed me evidence. And this was two years ago. The rumor has been there.”

But he says he doesn't understand why workers are so scared to denounce José Ramón Huaracha or the culture of fear in the company.

The potatoes sold at Walmart, United, HEB and other supermarkets may be packaged by Larsen Farms. Almudena Toral/Univision

"I can't believe Ramón went behind Antonio like that,” Larsen said, exonerating the general manager. “I think Ramón is dishonest and immoral, in my opinion. For me, Antonio and Ramón are like night and day.”

On several occasions, Larsen asked Univision to help him contact the sources cited in this report, promising there would be no retaliation against the workers.

"Things would change if someone showed me how to change them. I don't want to be the owner of a company that has all these accusations against it,” he said. “If people have to pay someone to be able to come work for me, if they are afraid in their workplace and cannot even go to the damn bathroom, what kind of deal is that? That’s not a workplace, it’s a prison.”

Almudena Toral/Univision

After José Ramón Huaracha resigned, Blaine Larsen formed a committee of supervisors and human resources managers to be in charge of selecting H-2A workers. That way, decisions wouldn’t be made by a single person anymore, he said.

Victims also include those who claim to have been subjected to methods of economic control, like being forced to pay debts for the cost of a visa to the United States, for example. Others had money taken out of their checks without explanation. Pablo says he experienced both at Larsen Farms, as did nine workers and former workers—including undocumented immigrants—that spoke to Univision Noticias.

Primary type of labor abuse

Information reported by people with different temporary work visas who were abused by their employers.

Wage and hour

34.18%

Others

13.89%

Contract

violation

26.42%

Wrongful

termination

15.52%

Hazardous, unsafe,

unsanitary working

conditions

10%

Source: Labor Trafficking in the USA, Polaris Project

Primary type of labor abuse

Information reported by people with different temporary work visas who were abused by their employers.

Others

13.89%

Wage

and hour

34.18%

Hazardous,

unsafe, unsanitary

working conditions

15.52%

Contract

violation

26.42%

Wrongful

termination

10%

Source: Labor Trafficking in the USA, Polaris Project

A lawsuit against the potato processor filed in December 2015 exposed some of those abuses. Company agents had promised—by word of mouth—to pay three workers, José Duarte, José Ruiz Esparza and Jorge Ruiz, $15 an hour for 40 hours of work per week and $22.50 for overtime.

In the end they were made to work as truck drivers, forced to work during lunch without pay and were not paid fully for time worked. “Defendant Larsen did not pay the plaintiffs even the $7.25 minimum wage or the promised overtime wage of $22.50 an hour,” the lawsuit explains.

When Jorge Ruiz threatened to sue the leader of his team, Luis Huaracha—also part of Antonio's family—, Huaracha yelled at him. A day later Ruiz was fired by his supervisor Sergio Madrid. The complaint stated that it was a retaliation.

A Guatemalan Larsen Farms worker at his home in late 2019. This worker is one of multiple employees and former employees who say their checks came incomplete. After having worked at Larsen Farms for many years, in late 2019, his supervisor told him to come just a few days a week. Several Guatemalans were fired because a new group of H-2A workers had arrived, they said. Almudena Toral/Univision

José Duarte was offered the same salary, but one day one of his supervisors took him to the field, 30 miles from the plant in Dalhart, and informed him they wouldn’t be paying him what they had offered. Instead, he would receive $10.50 an hour, a more than 40% reduction. He had to resign.

The company denied all such claims and the case was resolved with an agreement between the parties.

Outside of the lawsuit, Univision Noticias spoke with at least six people who claim that even bathroom breaks are limited to two per day. They also say that they receive warnings or are sent home without pay as punishment for drinking water during the day or wanting to rest when their shift is over, for receiving visitors that haven’t been authorized by the company or for refusing to comply with an order. Most of the interviewees implicated Xavier López Palacios, who ran the warehouse.

Larsen Farms' largest H-2A worker housing complex, where Pablo lives, is tucked in the middle of the field among trees and potato warehouses, a 20-minute drive from the company's headquarters. This makes it difficult for workers to walk to the nearest town and seek help.

Almudena Toral/Univision

Several employees with H-2A visas say they are observed by informants, who report their comings and goings to company bosses. Some have received warnings as a result.

José Ramón Huaracha denied that claim. He says that he went to visit those in his care once a month: "Every time they reported that someone didn’t come to do the cleaning ... I went and spoke with that person [so] that they would get to work, to do what they had to do."

Pablo says that they take a Larsen bus to shop at the closest Walmart, more than an hour from their homes. If they don't return on the same school bus, they’re punished.

Two school buses used by Larsen Farms to take H-2A workers to the market are parked outside the Dumas Walmart on a Sunday morning. Almudena Toral/Univision

That vehicle is essentially the only means they have to leave home on any given weekend.

The president of the company said he was "surprised" to learn of such abuses against employees and said he couldn’t believe his supervisors acted in this way.

Palacios was fired in June. Larsen explained that several workers singled him out for sexual harassment and said he forced workers to give him money. In an interview in late April, the former supervisor denied these allegations to Univision: "That is totally false," he said.

On July 21, López Palacios was arrested and the U.S. Government charged him with fraud and misuse of visas, permits and other documents. The criminal complaint explained that he was using a false ID and social security number; his real name is Gregorio Fernando López Martínez. He is now in the custody of Immigration and Custom Enforcement in Amarillo, Texas.

“Lopez Martinez admitted that he had presented [the documents] for employment at the business, that he knew they were counterfeit, and that he received them from a friend,” the complaint reads.

There are no anti-trafficking activists or non-governmental organizations in Dalhart to assist immigrants. There aren’t any pro bono law offices where workers can have a simple consultation. The closest such help is in Amarillo, an hour and a half drive south. But almost no one knows who to call or where to go, and if they did, they don't have the time to make the trip.

They also don't trust the police or the sheriff.

Almudena Toral/Univision

The Buffett-McCain Institute to Combat Modern Slavery is one of two organizations beginning to delve into labor trafficking in the Texas Panhandle. A team of four people go directly to the homes and workplaces of farm employees to explain workers’ rights and listen to their concerns. Not everyone opens the door, though.

Gonzalo Martínez de Vedia, program manager of the organization, explains that the chances of a complaint for labor trafficking ending in favor of the victim are slim.

In the Texas Panhandle, he says, local police "don't have the resources or the knowledge to understand that what is happening when someone reports that they were threatened or forced on the job is a federal crime."

Consequently, workers know that if they denounce, their exploiters will not be punished.

In practice, the victims' lack of trust is clearly evident in statistics from the Sheriff's Office in Dallam County, where Larsen Farms is located, and from the Dalhart Police. Both say they haven’t dealt with a single reported case of labor trafficking.

Sheriff Shane Stevenson says his office only deals with reports of theft in homes and businesses, or drug crimes.

When their four agents go out to patrol, day or night, they may take one or two calls on such issues; never for complaints of forced labor or labor trafficking.

"There is no evidence showing that there's any type of forced labor, at least in Dallam County," says Sheriff Stevenson.

Almudena Toral/Univision

"If somebody is the victim of a crime, we want to know about it. We're going to do everything we can to help [them]. If they are undocumented, we'll treat them like anybody else.”

But the office would need at least one of their agents to speak or understand Spanish, and the person who did resigned a few months ago.

If someone makes an accusation and in the process of investigating the case officers notice the accuser is undocumented, they may contact Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and send the case to federal authorities. At that point the immigrant could be at risk of deportation.

Dalhart Police Chief David Conner says the fact that foreigners don’t report crimes reflects the institution’s lack of credibility in the immigrant community.

Police Chief David Conner in his Dalhart office. Almudena Toral/Univision

"The undocumented workers need to learn to trust us," says Conner, although he acknowledges that there’s "a fine line because not only are we entrusted to enforce state law, we also have to abide by federal law."

If a person is a victim of labor trafficking and reports a crime, for example, the police will request documents to verify their identity. If the documents belong to another person, they can request more paperwork to verify the information. If the victim doesn’t provide that paperwork, the police can call immigration authorities to have the person prosecuted for false documentation.

Almudena Toral/Univision

Police may also call immigration authorities if the person is undocumented.

That’s how victims often end up being the ones implicated by the justice system.

But Conner defends the practice, saying state law simply requires him to verify a person's identity and that failing to do so could have consequences: "I'm not going to lose my job."

For 20 years, Kirsta Melton worked as a prosecutor in San Antonio and until December as deputy criminal affairs officer in the Texas Attorney General's Office.

Almudena Toral/Univision

She challenges the police chief's position by explaining that when it comes to trafficking victims, federal and even state law has exceptions to protect these people and provide them with legal immigration status—a visa for victims of crime or human trafficking—while a case is resolved, a process that can take years.

“A person's status is irrelevant to me as a prosecutor if a crime is being committed in my jurisdiction and I know I can do something,” she says. “My job is to seek justice for that victim.”

She believes that the police officer's response demonstrates his inability to identify a crime "as incredibly serious" as human trafficking.

Almudena Toral/Univision

"I think they are interpreting the law incorrectly,” she says. “They don’t see a victim of trafficking but someone who entered the country illegally and that’s why they pass it along to the federal immigration system," she explains, pointing out that the issue came up constantly while she worked as a prosecutor.

Instead of punishing the victim, she says, police should try to obtain the greatest possible burden of evidence to determine if a crime was indeed committed, to be able to initiate an investigation, formulate a criminal or civil case and thus “get the trafficker off the streets” and prevent him or her from exploiting more people.

Pablo almost reported his supervisor’s abuse months back, but over time he changed his mind. Above all, he just wants to protect his job.

He has never discussed the issue, not even with his family. At the United States consulate in Mexico, where he got his visa stamped, he was given a paper with his rights and told that he could file a complaint. But he didn’t dare speak up when he returned the following year.

“If they find out I reported it I would lose my job, my opportunity,” he says. “I prefer to leave it at that. That’s why we prefer to put up with everything—the insults, mistreatment."

Almudena Toral/Univision

Katherine Porterfield, clinical psychologist with the Bellevue/New York University Program for Survivors of Torture, explains that those who are abused to the limit of trauma are "living in a condition of inescapable threat," from which the body reacts by blocking fearful memories and losing the ability to ask for help.

That’s why it’s so difficult for them to talk about what they experienced—or experience—during an investigation: “We can't really expect that people who've been through severe trauma will then be able to speak up and talk about it. Especially when they're still in a situation of ongoing threat.”

María Basualdo, a psychologist who specializes in treating Latino immigrants who are victims of crime and trauma in the United States, points out the tremendous vulnerability of the Central American and Mexican immigrant population, precisely because many have already been victims in their country of origin.

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That’s the case with Pablo. “The trauma is cumulative, there are different injuries in different places. Each trauma opens the previous trauma,” says Basualdo, pointing out that fear often produces paralysis. "If there is fear of reporting, there is abuse. If there is fear, there is trauma.”

Pablo says he feels trapped at Larsen without his own space or the freedom to move around. Still, the opportunity to earn a salary in dollars makes him think he would still pay a visa “fee” to come to the United States.

Since April 19, when José Ramón Huaracha resigned, Pablo and other employees stopped paying their biweekly fee. Pablo continued to live in fear of losing his job despite Huaracha's resignation and his arrest by federal agents, along with the arrest of Xavier López Palacios.

But he still hasn't dared speak to investigators at the Labor Department. There is only one way he’d talk about everything he’s been through: if authorities guarantee they will remove him from Larsen Farms and give him shelter and protection while he continues to work in the United States to support and protect his family.

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For now, activists who have tried to offer him help cannot guarantee these protections. So he has no other way to respond to the abuse except to work, in silence and resignation.

If you are suffering from any of the above situations and think you are a victim of labor trafficking, you can contact the Polaris Project helpline at any time by calling 1-888-373-7888.

A Univision Noticias Special
Reporting and production: Patricia Clarembaux and Almudena Toral
Text: Patricia Clarembaux
Photography and video: Almudena Toral
Graphics, illustration and animation: Mauricio Rodríguez Pons
Music and audio design: José Luis Osuna
Voice actor in the video: Onder Villalobos
Editing: Maye Primera
Digital Product: Hernán Cárdenas
Web design and development: Adriana Bermúdez and Juanje Gómez
Translation: Jessica Weiss
Special thanks: Santiago Marvez, Ronny Rojas and Patricia Vélez