Mi­grants not paid for work

Val­ley is hot spot for ‘mod­ern-day slav­ery’ Work­ers who com­plain are threat­ened

San Antonio Express-News (Sunday) - - Front Page - By Luke Whyte

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-

Pho­tos by Jerry Lara / Staff pho­tog­ra­pher

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.”

Pho­tos by Jerry Lara / Staff pho­tog­ra­pher

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.

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