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A Lawyer Explains the Struggles Faced by Migrant Farm Workers

Following the latest episode of 'Balls Deep,' we take a deeper look into the struggles that migrant sheepherders face.

America has a tumultuous relationship with immigration. Some citizens want stricter immigration laws to stop others from entering out of the fear that immigrants—especially ones from Mexico, and Central and South America—will come and "steal our jobs."

This attitude sometimes trickles down into prejudice against undocumented immigrants and even immigrants who are in the country legally. Migrant farmers, who are contracted to work legally, face similar stigma as those without visas—sometimes from their own employers. These workers spend years in near isolation and collect earnings that often land under minimum wage; they live in places where few speak their language, and if they are exploited or injured on the job, their resources are limited. They struggle in silence.


On this week's episode of VICELAND's Balls Deep, Thomas Morton explores the daily life of migrant sheepherder. To get a more in-depth look, we called Jenifer Rodriguez, Colorado Legal Services' Managing Attorney of the Migrant Farm Worker Division, who specializes in assisting these vulnerable workers.

Photo courtesy of VICELAND

VICE: What obstacles do migrant sheepherders endure?
Jenifer Rodriguez: Usually, the workers that come to us are having problems with their employment or are dealing with a work-related injury. Oftentimes, because they're very isolated, they don't have communication with anybody other than their employer—even if they have a cell phone, they may not have a signal. So if they're injured and aren't able to get the medical treatment that they need, they reach out for help. There are some instances of mistreatment, too—like, complete neglect.

Would you say it's harder for migrant workers to work in sheepherding than agriculture?
Sheepherders go straight to the ranch that they'll be working on. They really don't have a sense of where their consulate is or where the cities and hospitals are, so they aren't assimilated at all. They have to rely on the employers for everything—food, water, the right clothes for the weather, and medical care. Because they're in the middle of nowhere and so dependent on their employer, it's not logistically easy to get out of that situation. There's a lot of things you have to consider: "Where am I?" "How am I going to get someone to help me?" "What am I going to do for food and water?" "Where am I going to stay if I leave?" There's way more obstacles to seek assistance if they find themselves in a bad situation.


What are some of the biggest misconceptions about migrant workers?
Sheepherders come over on the H-2A, a temporary visa for foreign agricultural workers. Only the employer can get and use that visa if they can prove to the government that no US workers will do that work. Assuming that they're complying with the program, they've tried to recruit US workers for these jobs but they won't apply, so they bring over foreign workers. And to some extent, it's probably true that you're going to have a harder time finding US workers who will subject themselves to some of these conditions.

Another misconception is that when a worker leaves the ranch they've been working at, the ranchers will say they were lazy or they came here to get a free pass into the US—that they want to abandon the ranch and be here illegally. But I haven't seen that. There are very significant reasons why they're leaving their working arrangement—either because they have a serious medical injury that their employer won't take them to go get treatment for, or they're hungry, or cold, or terrified. People are coming here because they want to be here lawfully. They want to work hard and support their family—it just doesn't work out that way for everyone.

Do workers talk to you about dealing with racism?
Absolutely. There's this mentality I've noticed with some employers—the way that they talk to their workers and the names they call them are very derogatory. Some workers have said they treat them worse than dogs. They're "the help," there to take care of the sheep and nothing else: "You're here to do work for me and that's it. That's your only purpose here." I think that [attitude] is related to racism because these jobs are predominantly done by people of color and of Spanish-speaking communities.

How can people help?
It's the awareness. It's very hard for us to understand their isolation. We've had clients come in who've been severely injured—whether they were thrown off a horse or attacked by a bear or coyote, or had a mishap with their gun. They're totally alone. Hearing about somebody having to drag themselves to the road to try to flag the next passerby to get help is just incredible. When something goes wrong and you're totally dependent on your employer, there's desperation.

People think, "They aren't chained in, so why don't they just leave?" But when you go up to the mountains, you see that they're in the middle of nowhere. They may not even have their documents with them that prove they're here lawfully. They may be totally freaked out from what they've heard from others about what people would try to do if they try to approach them and ask for help. As a worker, you can't pick up the phone and call 911 if you chop off your finger or something. [The dispatchers] don't know where you are, and you may not be able to communicate with them. If they have a good employer, that's great, but if they don't, it's really dangerous.

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You can catch Balls Deep on VICELAND. Find out how to watch here.