When José Alberto Aguilera-Hernandez first arrived at the Jackson Farming Company in Autryville in 2011, the work was hard but good, better-paying and more consistent than he could find as a taxi driver in southeast Mexico.
"You have to make a lot to make a little bit [in Mexico]," he says through a translator. "At least [in the United States], you can make more money for your family."
The early-summer trips were arduous. In June, he would take a thirteen-hour bus ride from Veracruz to Monterrey to obtain his H-2A guest worker visa. From there, another bus ride to North Carolina took three days and three nights in intense heat and humidity.
Aguilera-Hernandez made this trek from his home to the Jackson farm, which sponsored his visa, every summer for four years. Once he reached Autryville, he drove tractors for a few months; then, in the fall, when the sweet potato harvest came, he joined a hundred others in the fields. For six long months a year, he did his job, sent money home to his wife and two children in Mexico, and had few complaints—although he says he noticed the amount he was paid didn't always match the number of hours he worked.
Then, he says, things went sideways.
According to a lawsuit he and six other workers filed in federal court last December, in late summer Aguilera-Hernandez "accidentally damaged a gasoline pump" that was used to fuel the farm's vehicles. In court documents, Aguilera-Hernandez alleges that Rodney Jackson—the vice president of the farm and son of its owner, state Senator Brent Jackson (see sidebar, page 14)—pulled him out of work for three days and told him he would to pay $1,000 to cover the cost of the pump.
But for the next two months, he says, he didn't hear any more about it.
Then, at about 10 a.m. on October 27—the same day Senator Jackson held a political fundraiser at the farm that netted $52,400, according to campaign finance documents—Rodney Jackson pulled Aguilera-Hernandez out of work again and demanded he pay for the pump in weekly wage deductions, which amounted to about $480 a week for the last five or six weeks of the season, Aguilera-Hernandez says.
Aguilera-Hernandez refused; he gave the same response when Jackson offered to lower the deduction to $200 per week. Aguilera-Hernandez was working as many as sixty hours but only earning about $600 a week. As the lawsuit notes, that deduction would have reduced his wages to below the minimum wage.
According to the lawsuit, Rodney Jackson "then became really angry," fired Aguilera-Hernandez on the spot, then threatened to fire his brother, who also worked on the farm, and told Aguilera-Hernandez he had thirty minutes to leave the premises before he called the cops.
Aguilera-Hernandez says his supervisors watched suspiciously as he waited on the side of the road for the owner of a nearby store to pick him up. Rodney Jackson did not give him his "return travel payment," which is required by federal rules, and said he couldn't produce Aguilera-Hernandez's final paycheck until the weekend, four days later, the lawsuit says. That meant Aguilera-Hernandez had to foot the bill for the more than $500 it cost to get back to Mexico, according to court records. He was left with two choices: try to scrape together some money to leave, or stay in the States and try to find other work as an undocumented immigrant.
"I felt like I didn't know what to do or where to go," he says. "I'm not from here, so I had no idea where I was going to go."
At his friend's store, he tried to sort out his options. He made a call to Justin Flores, the vice president of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee in nearby Dudley, who came to pick him up. His brother loaned him money for a plane ticket back to Mexico, and, in return, Aguilera-Hernandez let him keep his last paycheck.
In court documents, the Jacksons deny Aguilera-Hernandez's version of events. Their lawyer, Paul Derrick, says there was "more to his termination than meets the eye," but he wouldn't say what that was.
Aguilera-Hernandez wasn't the only migrant worker disgruntled with the way things worked on the Jackson farm. On December 16, Aguilera-Hernandez and six fellow farmworkers—on behalf of themselves and at least fifty other workers—sued the Jacksons for unpaid wages. They say they weren't fully reimbursed for expenses, were clocked out while traveling between fields, and were paid below the federal government's adverse effect wage rate, which is the lowest amount an H-2A worker can legally be paid. The workers' lawyer, Bob Willis, says that each worker probably lost between $50 to $100 a week due to the farm's alleged wrongdoing.
Then, according to an amended complaint the farmworkers filed in April, the farm exacted its revenge. The workers say the Jacksons intentionally omitted them from the list that would have brought them back to the farm this year—retribution for filing the lawsuit, they charge. If true, that amounts to a violation of federal regulations.
The lawsuit is an unusual step taken by workers in a program that has been rife with controversy, including frequent complaints of wage theft and retaliation, housing issues, and safety violations. In essence, the guest worker system is designed to give employers total control over workers who rely on them for the visa they need to legally come to the United States.
"The main problem is that if the grower doesn't request you, you don't have access to the U.S., and if you're fired you often only have a few days to get out of the country," Flores says. "One, a grower can threaten you with deportation, and two, there's a not-so-subtle threat of, 'if you complain, you're going to be stuck in Mexico like these guys are.' A lot of guys think that if they don't finish the work with a grower, they'll lose the opportunity to ever get a visa again."