Guatemalan Immigrants Sue over Job Switch

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A group of 12 Guatemalans who came to the United States on work visas thought they had good jobs in North Carolina. Instead, they were whisked off to Connecticut to labor for as little as $2 an hour. Now they're suing their employer.


Plenty of people want to change immigration rules, and it's worth noting that immigrants are not always happy with the system either. A dozen Guatemalans are suing a labor contractor and a commercial nursery in Connecticut. The immigrants accuse the businesses of fraud and exploitation. Now these workers were brought to the U.S. legally, but critics say the temporary visa programs they signed up for is rife with abuse.

NPR's Jennifer Ludden reports.

JENNIFER LUDDEN: Marvin Toto(ph) thought he was coming to plant pine trees in North Carolina. He and 11 others flew from Guatemala to Greensboro last March.

MARVIN TOTO: (Speaking Foreign Language)

LUDDEN: A young Mexican man with Chinese eyes met us, Toto says. He told us, call me Chino. Then he squeezed us all into a white van and he drove and drove. For three days he drove.

Toto and the others were taken to Connecticut and turned over to a man named William Ferrero(ph) who said he was with the contractor, Pro Tree Forestry Services. He set them up in dingy apartment, took their passports, then took them to work at Imperial Nurseries in Granby, Connecticut. Toto says the men worked long days, often 13 hours or more. But according to the lawsuit, were only paid an average of two or three dollars an hour.

TOTO: (Speaking Foreign Language)

LUDDEN: Toto says the men had planned to send money home to their families, but ended up begging their families to wire them money just to eat. The men were also monitored, not even allowed to go to the store alone. Marvin Toto did manage to call his four brothers who were living in Providence, Rhode Island.

TOTO: (Speaking Foreign Language)

LUDDEN: They brought us a van full of food, he says. And they couldn't believe my situation. They said, how is it that you with visas are living like slaves, while we undocumented are better off?

Eventually, some of the men escaped and contacted a local Latino aid group. A business phone for Pro Tree Forestry contractor could not be found. A message left at the residence of a William Ferrero was not answered. As for Imperial Nurseries, a company representative would not speak on tape but said the employers were horrified at the allegations. He said the company paid the contractor enough to compensate the workers way above Connecticut's minimum wage and had no idea he was not doing so.

Nicole Hallett is a Yale law student and part of the legal team representing the Guatemalans. She's hoping for the power of publicity.

NICOLE HALLETT: Although this is an extreme case, abuse of this type happens to varying degrees all the time. And if it's more well known, then employers won't be able to use these tactics anymore.

LUDDEN: Well, yes and no, says Greg Schell of the Migrant Farmworkers Justice Project. Yes, he says, there's certainly widespread abuse when it comes to H2B visas.

GREG SCHELL: I have yet to find an H2B worker in my years of experience - and I've been representing guest workers either agricultural or otherwise for 28 years - I have yet to see an H2B worker that's been paid correctly.

LUDDEN: Schell says the program mandates wages higher than the prevailing rate and there's an agency to handle complaints. But unlike with other visa programs, the Department of Labor actually has no power to enforce these standards.

SCHELL: There is not the equivalent of the state trooper sitting behind the billboard so you don't speed. Here, there is no state trooper. And the fact that one person may be somehow got a speeding ticket does not mean that everybody on the highway is going to slow down.

Marvin Toto says he hopes the Guatemalan worker's lawsuit can make things better for his family. He's still in Connecticut and would at least like to recoup the thousands of dollars of debt he went into just to come to the U.S. legally.

Jennifer Ludden, NPR News.

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