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Migrant Justice

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What was there to do? Rafael sat on a box of two-liter sodas by the van's side door. Rosa opened her container and began to eat her soup as the van hurtled northward on I-95. At about 6:45 a.m., the van was traveling at 70 mph near the Northlake Boulevard exit, according to a Florida Highway Patrol report. The driver swerved hard into the right lane to avoid rear-ending a truck, Rosa says. Instead, the van barreled into the tail of a 1986 Toyota traveling in the right lane at about 55 mph.

Had there been seats in the van, the outcome might have been different. Had there been seatbelts. Had another woman been there that day, maybe Rosa wouldn't have been sitting in the front seat. Had she understood the meaning of Mama Felipa's words.

The force of the impact slammed Rosa into the windshield and dashboard. The men crammed behind her hurtled forward; hundreds of pounds of weight smashed into the back of her seat, ripping it from its moorings. She was crushed under the mass of men. "The people piled on top of her and she was on the bottom," Rafael remembers. While the others scrambled out of the van, Rosa remained inside, unable to move. "She was very wounded by the accident," Rafael says. The driver couldn't open the van's front doors. "I smell gasoline," Rosa heard someone say. "There is no one inside but Rosa," she heard another comment. Fearing the van might catch fire, the driver managed to lift Rosa from the wreckage and hoist her through the driver's window.

An ambulance rushed two of the workers, Rosa and David Matias, to Palm Beach Gardens Medical Center. The driver couldn't produce a license or proof of insurance. The van had a Tennessee tag.

The bill for that day's treatment and several followup visits was more than $10,000. Like many illiterate and illegal migrant farm workers in the United States, Rosa did not know her rights. She didn't know that as an employee of M. Sanchez & Son, which also had hired the driver, she was entitled to medical care through workers' compensation insurance. Indeed, she didn't know there was such a thing as workers' compensation.

Nor could she have known she would become party to a federal lawsuit of David-and-Goliath proportions against her employers. In November, Rosa joined seven other migrant laborers who eke out a living picking tomatoes and bell peppers on the state's richest farmland. The migrants say their employer cheated them on pay and didn't protect their safety. It's a big deal for farm workers in Palm Beach County, who -- unlike farm workers in some other parts of the state -- have never stood up to the boss.

But before moving forward, her story needs to go back, to Tacana, San Marcos, Guatemala, where her journey to the United States began.

One morning six years ago, Rosa overheard her mother, Ursula, in anguish: "I don't know what I'm going to do," Ursula wailed. "I might as well take poison." As a result of years of farm work on the coffee plantations on the hillsides of Tacana, Ursula's hands were gnarled and often swollen. She was always in pain. She had to make repeated trips to the doctor. The bills kept mounting. A neighbor lent the family $4000 to pay off the debt. Rosa's oldest brother, Dilmar, had gone to the United States several years before, worked as a migrant laborer, and sent his mother $4000 to pay off the loan. But there were always more doctor visits. More pain. More bills.

It frightened Rosa to hear her mother talk of suicide. She began to cry. She had to do something. She thought of Dilmar, how much money he was able to earn in the United States.

A family friend named Hector had a business smuggling people from Guatemala across Mexico to the U.S. border. Rosa left the house to find him. When she did, she asked Hector when he would be heading north.

Tomorrow morning, Hector said, he was leading a group of 10. She begged him to take her. "You're too young," Hector insisted.

But Rosa kept up her entreaties. "I don't want to see my mother suffer," she cried. Finally, he relented. Hector told her to be at the place they called the Las Vegas Ridge at 5 a.m.

Hector promised he would loan Rosa $1500 for the crossing, on the condition she would pay him back when she started work.

That night, as Rosa and Ursula lay side-by-side in the bed they shared, the teen lied to her mother. She said she wanted to go to Tapachula -- a town near the Guatemalan-Mexican border -- to do farm work for a month. Then she would return. She didn't have the heart to tell her mother she planned to leave for the United States in the morning.

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Susan Eastman
Contact: Susan Eastman

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