Undocumented are easy targets for criminals

UNDOCUMENTED ARE EASY TARGETS FOR CRIMINALS

Miami Herald, The (FL) - Sunday, June 24, 2007

Author: ANA MENENDEZ amenendez@MiamiHerald.com


Now and then a phrase emerges that so perfectly captures a society's failures that only a criminal could have invented it. Behold "chico-hunting," the term born of our dehumanizing immigration policies.

Chico-hunting is what the thugs who preyed on undocumented migrants in Homestead called it when they robbed, beat and humiliated vulnerable workers.

The men, who were charged last week, were apparently counting on the reluctance of the undocumented to call police, Homestead Detective Antonio Aquino said.

Aquino sees some 200 similar robberies and assaults a year: "Then there are those that are not being reported because the atmosphere is so charged and they worked so hard to be here. They're not going to risk it."

Violent crime against migrants is the most heart-rending of the humiliations the undocumented endure, but it's probably not the most common. Few statistics are available, but those who work with migrants say wage theft -- rarely reported -- is far more rampant.

DEADBEAT EMPLOYERS

Every year, thousands of workers put in hours of hard labor -- usually in landscaping or construction -- only to be told at the end of the day that they won't get paid.

"They say, 'What are you going to do? You don't have papers,' " said one undocumented worker from Guatemala whom I spoke to last week. Out of fear of reprisals from his employer, he asked that his name not be used.

Workers like him had little recourse. Now one recent Harvard law school graduate is trying to bring a measure of justice to an inherently unjust system.

Jose Javier Rodriguez, a Miami -raised Cuban American, returned to the area last September to work with Florida Legal Services and We Count! to protect the rights of the undocumented.

"The kind of stigma that is pushed on these folks, the increasing anti-immigrant climate, puts more tools in the hands of people who would exploit them," said Rodriguez.

So far, he has filed five suits to force deadbeat employers to pay their workers. The unpaid wages are often so small that Rodriguez's lawsuits usually end up in small-claims court.

One such claim on behalf of three workers against Lawn Rescue Inc. was settled for an undisclosed amount in April, Rodriguez said.

In court records, one of the workers said he was owed $1,130; another said he was owed $3,626.20. One said he worked 18 days without pay.

Girogio Cesti, one of the defendants, could not be reached for comment -- most available numbers were either disconnected or connected to fax machines.

A few months ago We Count! quietly started a clinic to let workers know that, even if they're undocumented, the law protects them against predatory employers.

"If we publicized it, we'd be overwhelmed," said Jonathan Fried, the group's executive director.

RECENT ARRIVALS

The most likely victims are recent immigrants from Guatemala, many of whom speak indigenous languages and know Spanish only as a second language. Sometimes those taking advantage of them are immigrants themselves.

It's what happens when you classify human beings into "legal" and "illegal."

It's what you get when a society decides that the poor of the world have to "stand in line" for a place at the table. Indifference leads to exploitation and from there it's but a small moral leap for those who would turn the whole thing into sport.

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