There are an estimated 403,000 people living in conditions of modern slavery in the United States (GSI 2018). The US attracts migrants and refugees who are particularly at risk of vulnerability to human trafficking. Trafficking victims often responding to fraudulent offers of employment in the US migrate willingly and are subsequently subjected to conditions of involuntary servitude in industries such as forced labour and commercial sexual exploitation.
Miguel travelled from Mexico to the United States in search of work to support his family, including his sick son. Miguel along with five others paid for assistance to cross the boarder to the US and on to Florida where they were met by their ‘boss’ who informed them they would work to pay off their debts. Miguel tells of how he was forced to work under constant threats for little pay.
Well, I come from Mexico. So I was thinking to come, from Mexico, come here to the United States, because I was thinking to come here to work. We had some problems with sickness at home. So I decided to come, and I gathered together some money and even borrowed money, lent money, and I came here with some friends.
Then first I got together with one friend who had been here once before, and so we had gone together. And we first went to Arizona; we went there to Arizona, walking. We really had no idea where we were going or how to get there. We were just kind of walking in the direction of the house of the guy who gives a ride.
Well, I have one son, and he has cancer, and it costs a lot for the medicine and treatment. And the government helps out, but they can only give so much treatment, and it still costs a lot. I came because, I mean, the wages there are so low, and I’m not earning enough there. They only pay maybe $70 a week. Yeah. The wage is very low there; it’s maybe $46 to $60 for a whole week of work. So that’s when I thought if I could go to the United States and maybe earn $6 or $7 an hour, well then maybe in a whole day I can earn $48, $50 dollars. And with that, I could be earning in three or four days what I could earn … more than I can earn in a whole week, and then I can be sending that home to my family. That will help sustain the family and help pay for his sickness.
But it’s a really tough decision to think, to come to the United States, because you have to cross the desert, and I heard that they kill people there, people could even die. And it’s really difficult, but I can’t be like some guy who just doesn’t have enough money. And I have to come over to the United States and earn some money, earn enough to send to my family, and so for that reason I decided to go.
So I decided among friends, we decided together that we’d go, five or six of us because … it’s a lot more courageous … or we have more courage to go five or six together. And always in Mexico, we are going out together, five or six of us, and always in a larger group we have more strength to say, “Yeah, we’re gonna do this.”
So I decided with a little bit of money that I had that I would go, and I went to the border of Mexico and the United States. So I asked to borrow money in order just to get to the border, and I figured that when I would come here into the United States, I would work and pay off the debt. So, in the desert we spent about eight days there looking for the house of the guy who would give us a ride because the guide we had, he just left us, and it took eight days to get to the guy’s house with the ride. It wasn’t really much money that I borrowed, maybe 3,000 pesos; that here is maybe not much money—$300.
It took us 4 days to get to the border.
There’s no problem to get there to the border. We all went with friends, and we took a bus.
Yeah, I had to pay, but I didn’t have any money to pay. So that’s why we looked for a boss who might be from here who could send the money to the guy who would drive us, and then we could pay him back by working.
The name was Juan Rodriguez, who is the one who sent the money and arranged for us to come here, a whole group of us. Really, we didn’t know of him, but we just looked around and asked around for somebody who would give us a ride across and who we could work for, someone who could pay for our ride, and then we could pay them back. So supposedly you can find these people, and if you just ask around, people will know them, and so that’s what we did.
Well, really, it wasn’t a direct way to get to Florida, to get here. It wasn’t a quick way. We had to stop and wait, and there were places where we were just waiting, and then we had to get moving again and change.
Well, first, when we crossed over the border we had to wait around for ten days there in the desert of Arizona, to find someone to take us over. From the 21st of February to the 14th of March, which was the day that I arrived here in Florida. That was the time that it took to leave from Mexico, to get to the border, to cross the border, to wait around in Arizona, to get a ride, and then to come here.
When I arrived, I really didn’t think of anything. I didn’t expect anything and we all came, the same, same situation. We were traveling for three days, and we hadn’t eaten for three days, so we were hungry of three days, and we just came here like that.
So when we arrived, we were in front of a shop. It was just a normal shop, and there was a big tree out front, and that’s where we arrived, fourteen of us. When we arrived, the driver, he said, “You wait here, I’m gonna look for the boss.” And he went off, and he went to look for a boss, but it seemed like he didn’t find it, but he came back, and he said, “Don’t move, you just stay here, but there’s no problem with any immigration or any border patrol. You just wait here.” And I was thinking, well, this is the first time I was here in the United States, and all the time we’re afraid of immigration and being caught. And so I didn’t know. I was afraid, and we’re just thinking to wait here and fear for the immigration.
So this guy was still looking for a boss, and I wanted to find some boss, and so I went to look for him, and I saw he’s always on the phone. Hard to get in touch with, talk to this guy ’cause he was always on the phone. Well, then he, then this guy came, and we saw that he was one of us, but we didn’t know him. It was a different guy, and I saw this guy in the group, and he was talking to the guy on the telephone, but I know he was part of us, the fourteen of us who came. And because of that, I didn’t think much of it; I thought, “He’s one of us, so okay.”
So this guy, he started talking to us, and he started coming right up to us and said, “Okay, okay, so we’re all here to work, right? You’re all here to work.”
And so we said, “Yeah, yeah, we’ve all come here to work.”
“So do you know how to? Are you ready to get to work?”
“Yeah, we don’t really have anything.”
“Did you pay for your ride to get here?”
“No, we didn’t have anything to pay for the ride here, so we’re ready to work.”
This was a boss guy. So that man telling us about the jobs, he was a brother of the Ramos family. That man who was talking to us about the jobs, he was of the Ramos family. So this guy said, “Well, [unintelligible] know any of you who got here? Do you have any money to pay me? And if so, here’s the telephone, you call them, you call the family members and tell them to pay me for the ride.” Well, so I knew I didn’t have any family here, and no one else had family here, and I thought, “Well, even still, I came here, and I have to work.”
“If I had family here,” I said, “I would have come with them; I wouldn’t have taken your ride with you, and I wouldn’t have had to owe any money. I wouldn’t have any money to be having to pay you. If I had family here, I would have come with them.”
So that’s when he gave the first threat to us. He said, “Look, if you want to work here, you’re gonna work here, and it’s hard work. You gotta work hard, you gotta be motivated, and you gotta cut oranges, and you have to harvest those oranges; you gotta use a big, heavy knife.” And he said to us that “if any of you want to work but not pay back the ride, if you, any of you, try to escape. …” That’s when he said, “If any of you assholes try to leave without paying back your ride, that’s when I’m gonna really fuck you up.”
So it was one of the Rodriguezes, and he said that we can now take something to eat, but whatever we took we would have to pay for that, too. That’s when Juan Rodriguez came, and he said, “Well, you can go and take stuff to eat but don’t take much and hurry up because we gotta get to work tomorrow.” That’s when we took some stuff, and that’s when he took us to a little ranch. I don’t know … it was like an apartment or so.
So that’s when we started to hear more threats. I was with a friend from the place where I came from, and he and I were together, and we were going to stay in a room together, and that’s when he asked about a television. He complained, “Well, there’s no TV here,” and that’s when Rodriguez, he said, “Well, shut up and don’t talk about any TV. This isn’t a place to watch TV. This is a place to work. And if you’re going to complain about it, we’re gonna throw your ass in the pond, where you’ll be dead”
We didn’t work for pay by the hour, We worked by the bucket. We had to cut oranges, and that’s how they paid us – per bucket.
It was something really big actually [shows with his hand]. It wasn’t really a bucket.
I had to fill up this container, and then we had to carry that over to this bath. It’s a large bin, and they would pour those [containers] into it. And every time we had to fill up one of these bathtub-size things at least ten times. And to fill up one of those, it took at least an hour. But then we had to fill up so much because there were so many, so many oranges, and we had to, of course, pick up only the really nice oranges. I was working from the morning to night. And because he took us to fields where there were trees, but there weren’t many oranges, and there wasn’t much to pick, we were in the field all from really early in the morning to really late at night. And for working for the price of about $7, and we could only fill maybe three or four tubs, and that would get us maybe $28.
And it was such a problem because they were taking from us not just the [payment for the] ride, but we had to pay rent and some taxes … or I don’t know … but they were taking it from our check. They charged us money for cashing the check. And it was all the same movement: to take us to the same shop, and we cashed the check there, and he charged us, and he could never take us to another bank. It was all the same thing.
For a while it was fine. There was nobody threatening us or trying to beat us or anything. But then there was this time where there was this guy, he was just talking about going. And we saw him go toward the Cash and Carry Supermarket there, and they saw him, and now you heard [one of them] outside of our apartment talking on the telephone, saying, “Oh, we’re gonna get that motherfucker. We’re gonna get him. We’re gonna grab him, and we’re gonna throw him into the pond with the alligators and kill him.”
So I was inside the house, and my friend, he was just laying there drinking, and when I heard that, when I heard them say that outside, that’s when I went up to listen and hear, and I said, “Whoa! Wow! He’s talking so tough.”
So we were about eight of us and, you know, in a group in a house, and we were talking about this. And we said, “Oh, those words are serious. And he means what he says. And who was that guy? Who was saying that? Was it the boss? No. It wasn’t the boss. It was another guy. It was a guy who’s watching us. And you know, I noticed that they have cell phones.” And this is what we discussed. And we decide that we knew that when these guys talk about throwing someone out or catching them and killing them, we know those words are serious because that’s how they work.
So we talked about it. There was one guy who drives a little tractor, and we asked him about it, if he knows anything. And he said he overheard about one guy who was threatened, saying [things] like, “We’re gonna really fuck up your mother.” And that means that those words and the words themselves have the meaning that we know that they can really, like, hit us hard. They can kill us. They can shoot us with a gun. Hit us with a bullet. All these things.
So we started talking to each other: “What can we do?” And we decided we are right now not earning anything. It’s a misery wage, what we’re earning—450 pesos [about U.S.$35] is what it would be in Mexico, is what we’re earning here. It’s the same wage, and it’s a misery.
So we thought we put it together. We are earning this low wage, and then we always had these threats and all around us. We heard it wasn’t just this one guy. We heard with the cellular phone—there were more of them, and they were everywhere, and they were watching us. There were something like forty guys who were working for Ramos, and they were there watching us.
So there’s a group of four of us, and we tend to be working in the same place in the fields. And so we started to take notice of this one tractor driver here. And so there was this one guy who came in. We noticed he was new, and he came in some fifteen days after we arrived. So we called him “new,” but he was actually an older guy, maybe forty-seven years old. But he came later than us, and he seemed to be threatened more. He was always tired, and he was always threatened by them.
And so that guy, he said he wanted to rest, sit down and take a rest, and he asked one of the guys watching if he could just take one day off and just take one rest. He was so tired, and he [the man watching] says, “Hey, we don’t want any fucking assholes to be resting here. This is a place of work, and if you want to go rest you can get the hell out of here.” So that really made me feel so sad to see this old man: he’s so tired, and he just wants to rest, and he’s being forced to work.
And it was around that time when there were a couple of people—they arrived, they came in. And one was a Mexican; his name was Lucas Benitez. The other was an American; her name was Laura Germino. And so when they came in, they asked us, “Well, how are y’all doing here? What’s the situation like here?” And none of us wanted to say because what we thought was that maybe they’re spies of the same boss. So what I thought is … ’cause, well first of all, you know, I’ve walked in the city. I know the streets. And so what I thought was maybe I’m not gonna see them. Then maybe they’re not working for the boss. Maybe they’re somebody else. And so I know that if I react right away too tough, maybe that would get me into trouble, maybe that would get me more threats, but I know to think of things differently and check out the situation. So in Mexico there is always someone like this who learns what the, like, the parental education, what you learn from your parents, and so you know to kind of lay low and assess the situation because otherwise maybe you end up dead.
And so there was another group, a group apart from us; they were there from before we arrived. Anyway, we started to talk out to them. They started to tell us, “We’re here working. We’re here getting these threats. They’re not paying us these wages. We don’t have any papers, and we’re here working, and all these conditions. …” So they started to open up to them [Benitez and Germino]. They were saying things like, “I’ve been here for six months,” or “They’ve been paying me, but it’s not even enough to pay for the ride that I have to pay for, and I’ve been working here for years.”
So when they were here, I didn’t say anything to them. I didn’t say anything to Lucas. I didn’t say anything to Laura. I didn’t say anything to them because I didn’t really trust them. But I did say one thing, and I said, “Well, you can give me your card.”
Okay, so I was the only one who took the card. And I had it, and the other guys with me, the four companions, they were saying, “Oh, well, maybe we should go. We should go to them.” And I said, “No, why don’t you calm down?” and “We can’t. We can’t just do that.”
So I said the problem was that, you know, we’re working here. We don’t even have a minute to rest. These guys here who are so bad, the ones who are watching us so we were not able to rest, not even a single moment, from the 14th of March to the 14th of April. So from the 14th of March to the 14th of April, since we’ve been working here, we haven’t had a single day of rest. And even when it’s raining, we have to work. We have to work every Saturday, every Sunday. We don’t have a day off. And even though we were waiting for the rains, maybe we’re hoping that maybe it’ll be a day off, but then we still have to work, and we’re all wet, and it’s hard to work. So I said, “Yeah, and well, you know, we’re here to work and, you know, we’re afraid because these bosses keep threatening us, but we still got to endure all this stuff.”
So it happened that we never got any chance to rest. And it happened that it was this day, I think it was the 14th of April, it was maybe Holy Week actually, a week before Easter, and this happened. So we were talking about, well, maybe we can get out somehow. But we thought, “Well, we can’t do it too early. We can’t do it in the middle of the night [or] even in the morning because even if it’s in the morning, that’s when they start to get up really early to start working, and they could easily find us down the road. And if they find us, they’re sure to kill us.”
So we were thinking that we wanted to leave some one of these days, but we thought, “How could we do it? Because if we leave, even in the night, they get up so early in the morning, that’s when they get up to go to work; they’re sure to find us. If we have to run down the road, they’re sure to find us in the car, and when they find us they’re sure to kill us.” So that’s when I was saying to the companions, “Oh don’t. Just calm down. We don’t want any trouble, ’cause then I was thinking about my family, and that’s why I came here. I needed to send them money.” And then I said, “Well, you know, one day we’re going to have the opportunity, and that’s when we’re going to get the chance to call.”
So then it was Holy Week. It was before Easter, and that was the first day they came to tell us that we get some time to rest. And that’s when one of the tractor drivers, he said, “Oh come, I’ll take you over out somewhere else so you can rest there.” But I said, “No, me and my friends, we’re just going to go over to the shop over here.” So we went to the store to buy some things, and when we came back, we heard that the tractor driver, he was looking for us. He came back and asked about us. So that was, like, at ten in the morning, and I said, “This is the day we’ve got to leave because, you know, we’re working here, and we’re not earning anything, and then they keep threatening us. We’ve got to endure this.”
And I was really scared because it was that same day there were two people who disappeared. Yeah, that’s that same day they noticed, the bosses, they noticed that two people were missing, so they were alert to it. So we were talking about it, and I said, “Why don’t two of us try to go and two of you stay behind? Because we don’t want to make it seem like idiots going out, not knowing what we’re doing. We can look out for each other.” So then I said that if we go, two of us, we go, then the other two, you can give a shout out to the others if something happens, if, like, the Rodriguezes come. And because we’re all four of us, we’re all from the same place in Mexico.
So the two of the other guys went to make the phone call, and they called Laura, and they were talking about where they could meet us. And I believe there was this hotel across the street [where] they decided they could try to meet us.
And then at the same time, that’s when the son of Rodriguez, he came, and that’s when, man, I tell you he said a whole shitload of bad things. That’s when it was the brother of Rodriguez, he came in, and everyone knows that he’s the kind of guy, he’s got guns, and he was really … he came in, and he said, “I don’t want any of this shit going on. If I catch any of you motherfuckers messing around like this, I’m gonna kick all your asses.”
That’s when we were all scared. We were thinking, “Well, what can we do?” and I said, “I can’t take it. This is when I’ve got to go. We got to get over. Now is our time to leave. And I can’t take any of this slavery anymore.” This is where I was. Mad, but I was scared and surprised all at the same time.
So that’s when I got ready. I grabbed some scissors, you know, for cutting hair, and I stuck that in my boot. And I was talking, there was four of us, and I’m trying to convince them that, yeah, we’ve got to go now. “And you know what, though? If any of those Rodriguezes is coming, I’m going to stick those scissors right in his neck, and they’re going to have to call the police, and that’s it.”
So we were all really scared, and there was a car that came, but we said, “Okay, let’s just go. Let’s go make a phone call.” So yeah, we were scared, and another car came, and that car pulled up, and we were scared, but we went to make that phone call. And I said, “If that car … if they tell me to get into that car, well, I’m going to get in that car. I’m not scared. I’m going to get the hell out of here.” So when I saw that car, I saw Lucas in there, I knew that I had to jump in that car. So I just jumped in, and I was really afraid, but I knew that this was my chance to leave, and I knew. And as soon as I jumped in, he drove off. He drove in a big circle, really fast, coming around, and this is where I was afraid, but I knew that in Mexico, you know, we live … there’s a lot of violence. We live with that. But we still live in a free society there, and so if there is one right that we have there, then we must have those rights here, too.
So he [Benitez] brought us all the way here, and actually that was the first time I’ve been here in Immokalee. And so they were the ones who freed us. And so it was because of the Coalition [of Immokalee Workers] that they rescued us. And if it wasn’t for that, who knows what would’ve happened? Maybe we would have been killed. Or maybe we would have been left there and stranded and away from our families because we were stuck there. We had to pay for the ride, we had to pay for the rent, we had to pay for all those things, and we weren’t making anything.
Well, I felt like a slave from the moment that I arrived because we couldn’t pay for the ride and because we had to pay for that, and then they started to threaten us.
It was horrible. We were piled in the dorm of three beds piled on top of each other, six in a room, and for the person on top, they had to jump over all of us just to get to the floor. Well, they do it for business ’cause you know these guys have to work for them, and they’re not just going to have people to not work for them. They do it, well, they do it for a business. They can’t just have people who aren’t going to be working for them.
Well, my dream was to work like work in Mexico, but not with the same wage that I get in Mexico. But when you work, if you don’t like working with this guy, if I work with this guy, and you don’t like it, you can change and say, “I’m going to work with him [that other guy] because he’ll pay me better.” So that’s what I came here with that thought, thinking that I could just change jobs if I didn’t like it. So maybe I could earn 1,000 pesos [about U.S.$75]—well, maybe 1,000 pesos really isn’t that much money—if I could earn a little bit more somewhere else, I can do that, and so I came here thinking that.
Well now things are much different now. I’m working eight hours a day, but I’m working for a boss, he pays me, and I get to work eight hours—no more, no less. And now I’m working for my own will. I’m working. I know if I want a day off, that he’s going to give me a day off, and I know that if I want to work ten hours, I can work ten hours. But it’s not because I’m being forced to. Yeah, my wage right now—it’s really satisfying, but I want to go back to something.
Yeah, he’s doing really well now; he’s, my son, is doing really well now. He’s getting his medicines, and I send what I can. And well, you know, it’s still not a lot because the medicines cost a lot, but I send him what I can.
Well, what I thought was not really not much; I was thinking like a human being, you know, because I didn’t think badly of them [the traffickers]. But, you know, then I thought of my family, and I thought, well, I was thinking about my family, and I didn’t like what happened to me, but I thought they’re also people too, and they have their families. But at the same time, maybe they’re not thinking in their families like I’m thinking of my family. And I also thought with my reason, and I thought, “Well, whatever the law says, that’s the law and that’s that, and that’s what should happen.”
Yeah, yeah, I’m still afraid. And I’m afraid for my family, too, because, you know, here things happen, but you know I don’t speak English, so I don’t know the news. I can’t follow. And in ten years my passing maybe in Mexico something can still happen, and I’m still afraid for my family. And ten years, maybe they’re out of prison. Something can happen with all of the hate and all of the negative feelings they have for what happened.
I had to pay taxes, to change the check, I had to pay for the food, and, you know, it was like we had to take food from the shop, and then they would take money out of that as well from the check. And the wage, it was a misery wage. It was only like 100, 120 bucks for working the whole week. So it was almost nothing that was left after they took out everything. One day it was only 20 bucks. And what am I supposed to do with 20 bucks? How can I send that to someone when they charge money to send the money? So with that I don’t have anything.
I think the world should know that these things happen and that it’s really horrible. But it has to realize that these things are happening.
Well, what I really hope for is to see my family and to be with my family. And you know, it’s been four years since I’ve seen them, and I’m still here. But, you know, America is beautiful, but it’s not with my family. And it’s a scary thing, too, if you come here illegally, and then if you try to work, you could end up in the same situation as a slave. I have permission to work. That means I have permission to be here.”
Narrative provided by Laura T. Murphy in Survivors of Slavery: Modern-Day Slave Narratives