Migrants not paid for work
Valley is hot spot for ‘modern-day slavery’ Workers who complain are threatened
McALLEN — Sandro Garcia Moreno feels trapped in the Rio Grande Valley. He hides in a small, linoleumfloored bedroom with the curtains drawn, his refuge from his former employers, who he says threatened to kill him.
He wants to find work to the north but fears he’ll be caught and deported. At night he lies alone in bed, swiping through cellphone photos of his wife and daughter, who fled back to Mexico for their own safety.
An undocumented, low-wage worker, Garcia Moreno won a federal labor complaint two years ago against Pollos Medina, a chain of three barbecue restaurants in Mission.
He and co-worker Jose Arciga Garcia won a $108,000 judgment when the restaurant was found in violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act, which entitles all workers, regardless of immigration status, to the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour and overtime pay.
Their case was one of thousands filed against employers in the Rio Grande Valley, a national hotbed for wage theft. In the past 10 years, the Labor Department has investigated more than 1,350 wage theft cases in the region, resulting in payments of more than $8.5 million in back pay, records show.
“As far as I know, it has been an epidemic in the Valley forever,” said Kathryn Youker, an attorney with Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid. “It just is sort of a facet of daily life down here.”
The Valley’s underground workforce of undocumented immigrants is a key component of the economy and a prime target of unscrupulous employers who pay less than the minimum
wage, deny overtime pay, threaten to turn complaining workers over to the Border Patrol and sometimes beat their employees, police reports and court records indicate.
Since the Labor Department began keeping public records in 1984, three of the five cities with the highest number of wage theft investigations are in Texas. And eight of the top 20 ZIP codes in the country with the most investigations are in South Texas. Five of them are in the Rio Grande Valley.
Violations are most pronounced in the service industry (including restaurants), agriculture and among domestic workers.
A native of Durango, Mexico, Garcia Moreno grilled chickens 12 to 15 hours a day, six days a week on a large black barrel grill in front of Pollos Medina.
“They started at 40 (dollars a day) and then lowered me to 30 because there were no sales and they were starting out,” Garcia Moreno said, “but once they began to sell more, they were going to give us less hours and higher wages. And no, it was the reverse, they gave us more hours and lower wages and more hard work.”
Workers at Pollos Medina weren’t given breaks, according to Garcia Moreno and court records. When time allowed, one chicken was split between four or five workers, and they were expected to eat on the job. On average, each worker made $2.50 to $3.50 an hour.
Pollos Medina, which since has closed, was owned by Blanca Medina, her husband, Francisco Garcia, and their son.
Garcia Moreno and other workers said Medina called her all-immigrant staff names like “muertos de hambre” (“worthless beggars”) or “marranetes” (“fat pigs”). Medina would scream at the workers, sometimes throwing trash at female employees and demanding they clean it up.
Garcia Moreno said Garcia bragged that he knew Mexican hit men and could “kill a man and get out of here.”
Francisco Garcia did not respond to requests for comment. Blanca Medina said in an interview that her family had been done a great injustice.
“Listen, we are Christian people and we are leaving it to God,” she said. “God is the one who knows. We know that it is an injustice but we do not want to touch the subject. We have a lawyer. He is the one in charge.”
When asked whether she paid her employees as little as $30 a day for 12 or more hours of work, Medina said, “it is a lie. Talk to the lawyer, he will explain. We can tell you nothing. God bless me.”
Their lawyer, Florencio Lopez, did not respond to requests for comment.
Garcia and his wife frequently threatened to call immigration and, for Garcia Moreno, when thoughts of protesting or leaving came to mind, memories of Garcia’s proclaimed Tamaulipas sica
rio (hit man) connections usually followed.
“That’s typical, those types of threats,” said Hector Guzman, director of Fuerza Del Valle Worker’s Center in Alamo, where Garcia Moreno first turned for help. “That’s a key factor in the whole anti-migrant sentiment, the xenophobia, the whole, ‘Oh, you are undocumented, you have no rights.’ That type of attitude feeds into the exploitation and low wages that we’re seeing in the Rio Grande Valley.”
“It’s a plantation mentality,” he said. “‘I have these workers that work for me, I can do whatever I want with them.’ ”
Two- to three-dozen workers a month turn to Fuerza Del Valle with exploitation claims. Most of them complain about wage theft, defined as an employer failing to pay workers the full wages to which they’re legally entitled. Some say they have been held against their will, beaten or sexually violated.
A 2017 report by the Economic Policy Institute found that, in the 10 most populous states, about 2.4 million workers lost $8 billion to minimum wage violations in 2016. The report found violations are most egregious in Texas and Pennsylvania, where the average victim is cheated out of more than 30 percent of his or her earned wages.
“It is not primarily an undocumented worker issue,” said Tsedeye Gebreselassie, a senior staff attorney at the National Employment Law Project. “But undocumented workers suffer from higher rates of wage theft than the workforce as a whole.”
According to the Pew Research Center, of the hundred largest U.S. metro areas, the McAllen/Edinburg/Mission area has the highest number of undocumented immigrants per capita in the nation, accounting for 10.2 percent of the population of more than 806,000 residents.
Wage theft often is an early symptom of the more severe problem of labor trafficking, a form of modern-day slavery where workers are forced or coerced to perform labor or services.
More than 230,000 labor-trafficking victims are estimated to reside in Texas, a 2016 University of Texas study found.
“It’s very common for employers to threaten to call immigration,” said Rosa San Luis, a community organizer with Fuerza Del Valle, “especially when workers try to reclaim unpaid wages. ‘If you raise your voice, I will take you to Border Patrol. I know where you live.’ ”
“People who arrive in the Valley and can’t get beyond the checkpoints are just stuck here,” Youker said, referring to Border Patrol checkpoints on highways north of the border. “I think a lot of employers realize that and have set the wages so low.”
“The oppression and the fear, they are one, because we are undocumented,” said San Luis. “We live in a military zone. We are invisible to the system.”
Garcia Moreno’s take: “It is a prison here.”
‘We had no life’
Garcia Moreno had been working at Pollos Medina for less than a month when Medina and Garcia asked his wife, Gloria Hernandez, to start cleaning their house every day. Soon, Medina insisted that, after the housework was done, Hernandez had to pull a full evening shift at Pollos Medina.
“That’s when the whole problem started,” Garcia Moreno said.
Their day would begin around 6:30 or 7 a.m., rising to prepare breakfast for their 7-year-old daughter and take her to school. By 9 a.m., Garcia Moreno was at Pollos Medina and Hernandez was cleaning.
In the early afternoon, he would pick up their daughter at school and take her to the restau- rant, where they would remain until around 10 or 11 p.m.
“We had no life,” Garcia Moreno said. “They gave us a day of rest, it was a Tuesday or a Monday, but there was nothing we could do with the salary they gave us.”
One day in September 2014, Medina asked Garcia Moreno to stay late and work a private party. “They were going to give me $15 to work from 11 to 2 in the morning,” he said.
Garcia Moreno agreed. He thought it would be easy. When the time came, he saw the party was to be huge with dozens of chickens to prepare and cook.
“No,” he said. “I’m not going to stay.”
Voices were raised. Medina spat insults. Garcia Moreno stood his ground. Francisco Garcia picked up a shovel. He approached from behind and, according to court records and the accounts of both Hernandez and Garcia Moreno, struck him across the back, then again, and again. He collapsed. He said the blows kept coming and he could hear his wife and daughter pleading.
“They thought he was their property,” Guzman said. “‘How dare you not want to work?’”
After the beating, Garcia Moreno fled with his daughter. Hernandez stayed to work the shift.
Garcia Moreno quit but Hernandez stayed. The family needed the money. In turn, she became the focal point for Garcia and Medina’s rage. They frequently threatened to send the police to arrest and deport her husband if he didn’t come back to work.
Francisco Garcia was a friend of Alton Police Chief Enrique Sotelo, who frequently came to Pollos Medina and ate privately with Garcia, Hernandez said. They posted the photos of a hunting trip together on Facebook. Sotelo was fired from the police force last year amid an investigation of sexual harassment.
About a month after Garcia Moreno quit, he was followed home by an Alton police officer, cited for failure to use a turn signal and arrested in front of his daughter as she got off the school bus. As an undocumented resident, he did not have a valid driver’s license. Arrested in front of his house, he begged the officer to call his wife to come pick up their daughter.
He was fined $443, almost twice his former salary of $225 a week at Pollos Medina. Moreno was followed home again on Feb. 8 by an Alton police officer, cited for failure to use a turn signal and arrested for failure to provide a driver’s license. This time, he was held overnight.
“When my wife called, they lied and told her I’d been turned over to ICE,” he said. Hernandez called Carlos Moctezuma Garcia, an immigration lawyer, who brokered Moreno’s release the following morning.
Moctezuma Garcia contacted Guzman at Fuerza Del Valle, who asked Pollos Medina employees it they could corroborate Garcia Moreno’s accusations of low wages.
When 20 employees showed up, Guzman, Moctezuma Garcia and Efrén Olivares of the Texas Civil Rights Project began building a wage theft case.
“I remember that they all were very scared,” Guzman said.
Slowly, that number dwindled to five, then two employees — Garcia Moreno and Arciga. Hernandez did not sign on to the case. She did, however, quit her job at Pollos Medina. Arciga could not be reached for comment.
On April 14, 2015, officer Joby Garza of the Mission Police De-
Immigrant Sandro Garcia Moreno uses a hose to wash off after work at a restaurant. In 2016, he and a co-worker won a wage theft settlement against another eatery. Most of it wasn’t paid.
Garcia Moreno’s wage case was one of thousands that have been filed against employers in the Rio Grande Valley. One lawyer says wage theft is “a facet of daily life down here.”
By living at an eatery where he worked, Sandro Garcia Moreno was able to save money to support his wife and daughter in Mexico.
Garcia Moreno looks at photographs of his daughter on his smartphone.