Yet Another Reason for Immigration Reform: Sexual Violence and Harassment Against Undocumented Farmworkers

On Behalf of | November 24, 2014 | Gender Discrimination, Harassment

President Obama’s announcement of executive action on immigration last week set off a chain of political chatter– “does the president have the authority?”; “how will Republicans respond?”; “what does this mean for 2016?” The politics of policy were front-and-center; the benefits of action pushed to the periphery.

So I wanted to devote this post to one of the many dangers facing America’s 11.7 million undocumented immigrants. Specifically, since I represent plaintiffs in discrimination lawsuits (and since I’m writing on an antidiscrimination blog), I wanted to home in on the pervasive problem of rape, sexual assault, and sexual harassment on America’s farms, where approximately 50 percent of workers are undocumented.

On October 22, 2014, just three weeks prior to the first rumblings of the President’s executive action, the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) filed a sexual harassment suit against a Maine farm called County Fair Farm. The EEOC, which enforces federal anti-discrimination laws, alleged that “female farmworkers were groped, repeatedly propositioned for sex and subjected to lewd comments about their bodies by their supervisors and male co-workers.” When the female farmworkers reported the misconduct to their employer, “County Fair Farm . . . failed to take any action to correct the hostile work environment.”

The allegations are not anomalous. Over the past fifteen years, the EEOC has filed a series of lawsuits like that against County Fair Farm, alleging pervasive rape, sexual assault, and sexual harassment on farms throughout the country. Recent exposés have sharpened the public’s attention to this longstanding problem.

A 2012 Human Rights Watch report describes the issue in detail. Of the 52 farmworkers interviewed for the report, “nearly all . . ., said they had experienced sexual violence or harassment or knew other workers who had.” The report explains, “[u]ncertain immigration status both increases [farm]worker vulnerability to exploitation and diminishes their willingness to interact with government officials.” Thus, “when immigrant farmworkers experience sexual violence and harassment, many choose not to report these abuses under either civil or criminal law.”

A power imbalance inheres in the employer-employee relationship. Anyone who’s ever had a boss—that’s just about all of us—knows it. This natural inequality facilitates abuse.  Regardless of employees’ immigration status, sexual harassment pervades the American workplace. The many harassment cases my firm has litigated against major corporations attests to this. The immigration status of undocumented American farmworkers only tips the scales further in favor of abusive supervisors and superiors. Immigration reform won’t equilibrate those scales, but it will nudge America’s farms, if only slightly, towards becoming safer, fairer workplaces for a large proportion of female farmworkers.