Interstate 5 runs down the middle of California’s San Joaquin Valley for hundreds of miles. On either side are dusty rows of almond, peach and orange trees. In the summer, the ground is tan and dry. Telephone poles measure out the time for passing cars, their sagging power lines scalloping out to a vanishing point on the horizon. Somewhere almost halfway from San Francisco to Los Angeles is a town called Huron.
This is where Carla (not her real name) used to work, shaking almonds from the trees at harvest time for $8 an hour. This is also where she was raped by her foreman. But as a Mexican immigrant with no papers, she was afraid to tell anyone.
It’s a common tale. Some 630,000 of the 3 million migrant farm laborers in the United States are women, and at least 60 percent are undocumented. Most are subject to sexual abuse but fear deportation if they speak up. The reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), which expired almost a year and a half ago, would have helped change that. But after being held hostage by House Republicans who wanted fewer protections for women, it died in the 112th Congress. The next class of legislators will have to start from scratch on a new bill. Meanwhile, women are waiting.
A 2010 survey by Irma Morales Waugh of the University of California, Santa Cruz, reported that 80 percent of female farmworkers interviewed had been subject to sexual assault or harassment. A recent Human Rights Watch report found that sexual abuse of female farmworkers is so common that many see it as “an unavoidable condition of agricultural work.” And a mid-1990s study by the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission concluded that among California crop workers, “hundreds, if not thousands, of women had to have sex with supervisors to get or keep jobs and/or put up with a constant barrage of grabbing and touching and propositions for sex.” The female laborers, or campesinas, called one company’s crops the “field of panties,” since so many women had been raped there by their overseers.
The women are stuck, because even though the same labor laws that forbid workplace harassment for legal residents also technically cover undocumented workers, enforcement is spotty and laborers seldom know their rights. Female crop workers make an average of $11,250 a year. “They don’t want to lose their job,” said Amparo Yebra, a senior caseworker at Westside Family Preservation Services Network, a community group in Huron that provides social services to migrant laborers.
The Senate passed a version of VAWA in April that would have expanded escape routes for these women. The bill would have increased the number of special U-visas, which give temporary legal status to undocumented immigrants who are victims of sexual assault or domestic violence, and who are willing to cooperate with an investigation.
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When the foreman drove Carla home for the first time, it was raining. She piled into his truck with other workers. He stopped at a gas station to drop everyone else off, but told Carla he’d give her a lift all the way back to her place. Instead, he took her out into a field and raped her.
There’s so much space out there in the flat fields, sounds don’t travel much. Sometimes there’s a background noise: an unseen bird chirping, or power lines buzzing, or a giant eighteen-wheeler groaning by, mud flaps beating.
Over the next couple of months, he raped her five or six more times, and she became pregnant. She was 22. When she started to show, the women working alongside her asked who the father was, and told her to go to the Westside community group. Carla went because they gave out free food. At Westside, her caseworker Yebra, who knew all about U-visas, called the police and helped Carla through the ensuing investigation, which concluded with the arrest and deportation of her assailant back to Mexico. About eight months later, in 2010, Carla got a temporary work permit.
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In 2012, the number of U-visas issued by the Department of Homeland Security hit its annual 10,000 limit a month before the end of the fiscal year—for the third year in a row. The Senate version of VAWA would have made up to 5,000 rollover visas from previous years available annually to undocumented women. The bill included additional safeguards for immigrants, and new provisions for Native American women and LGBT victims of sexual abuse as well.
But in the version of the bill that passed the House in May, Republicans stripped out the new protections for these three vulnerable groups, slamming them as politically driven. They also scaled back the law’s existing protections for women—for example, removing the chance for immigrants with U-visas to become eligible for permanent residency after their temporary visas expire. The House bill would also have required a stricter standard of proof for asylum, and would have broken with current confidentiality laws to allow the government to interview the abuser about the applicant.
Over the nearly two decades of its existence, VAWA has been renewed perfunctorily every five years, each time adding new protections to keep it up-to-date with changes in the population and the recommendations of law enforcement and advocates. “[The reauthorization] was supposed to be a yawner,” said Wisconsin Democratic Representative Gwen Moore, a fierce proponent of the Senate version of the bill. Meghan Rhoad, a women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch, says the dispute over the bill this year between the two chambers “creates a really disturbing precedent, interjecting uncertainty for programs that provide really essential services for victims of sexual violence.”
At the eleventh hour, at the very end of the lame-duck Congress, the House and Senate were still squabbling over how to draw up a compromise bill. House Republicans had relented on the immigrant and LGBT sections, but majority leader Eric Cantor dug in his heels over the Native American provision, which would have expanded tribal courts’ jurisdiction over domestic violence offenses committed on reservations against Native women by non-Native men.
Action on the reauthorization awaits the new Congress. “It’s a shame to start all over again,” Moore said.
Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the Democratic co-sponsor of the Senate bill, said Congress’s failure to act simply means more people suffering. “I still have nightmares from the domestic violence crime scenes I saw as a prosecutor in Vermont,” he said in a statement in December. “The thought that our inaction could lead to more such scenes is tragic.”
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Carla has a baby now. She says she wants to go to school and learn English. And “she knows her rights,” Yebra says. “Women who are sexually abused are told they are good for nothing…. But they are an important person. The women are very important.”