Jose Rangel Chavez and 18 other Mexican guest workers were dozing as their bus hurtled down Interstate 40 in a light rain. After nine months away from home, the 22-year-old was about to complete a meandering round trip of nearly 5,000 miles.
They were just north of Little Rock, Ark., about a half day’s hard ride from the border, when the motor coach struck a concrete bridge support, peeling back the roof like a sardine can. Chavez and five others were killed; seven more workers were severely injured.
The crash in November 2015 was the result of chronic problems within an American agriculture industry dependent upon a reliable supply of low-wage, foreign-born workers. Chavez and the others were part of an annual mass migration made possible partly by a guarantee of free and safe transportation to and from the fields each day and, at season’s end, back home to their loved ones.
But for many, that transportation is neither free nor safe.
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It has been a little more than a half-century since the nation’s worst fatal vehicle crash killed nearly three dozen migrants, a horror that farmworker advocates had hoped would bring lasting reforms. Yet, due to enforcement gaps and the sometimes callous attitudes of those who contract for the workers, laborers continue to ride in overloaded, poorly maintained, uninsured vehicles – often driven by a fellow crew member without a proper license, or with no license at all.
The Associated Press found more than a dozen crashes that left at least 38 dead and nearly 200 injured just since January 2015. The casualties included three Merced County women and one teen who died last year as they returned home from picking garlic.
Grim as it is, the AP’s tally is almost certainly a significant undercount.
“I think there’s more unregistered, improperly insured, unsafe transportation out there for farmworkers than ... 20 years ago,” said attorney Greg Schell, deputy director of Southern Migrant Legal Services.
A big reason, he and others contend: Rarely are those who profit most from this cheap labor made to pay. Instead, it is the families of people such as Jose Chavez who lose.
It’s only when accidents ... happen that agencies might get involved. But then, it’s way too late.
Lori Flores, Stony Brook University professor
In exchange for tending the landowner’s animals in their remote mountain village, the Chavez family got the use of a leaky wooden shack. Jose Chavez wanted more for his parents and siblings, so he signed on to do farm labor in the United States.
Of the 1.1 million farmworkers in this country, 71 percent are foreign-born, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Nearly half of those acknowledge working here illegally.
Chavez’s employer, Vasquez Citrus & Hauling of Lake Placid, Fla., is one of thousands taking part in the federal H-2A guest worker visa program. In addition to wages of $11.56 an hour, contractor Juan Vasquez would provide Chavez room, board and, crucially, a guarantee of free transportation from Mexico and back.
Whenever he could, Chavez dutifully wired money home. Then, on Nov. 6, 2015, tragedy struck.
Investigators say the bus wasn’t registered with the Labor Department – meaning the company was not authorized to use it to transport workers. The driver did not have a commercial operator’s license.
Schell, who has been working with the victims’ families, says Vasquez should have had liability insurance of about $5 million, but that he carried only one-fifth that amount. The company’s workers’ compensation policy did not cover the journey home.
In the two years prior to the crash, Vasquez Citrus had been cited 22 times on violations, from underage drivers to vehicles with worn tires, according to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. The Labor Department had cited Juan Vasquez on failure to provide safe vehicles back in 2007, but issued no fines.
Lori Flores, a professor at Stony Brook University, called the regulatory apparatus “an honor system.”
“And it’s only when accidents ... happen that agencies might get involved,” Flores said. “But then it’s way too late.”
You end up saving money by just paying the fine and treating the farmworkers as disposable.
Dawson Morton, California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation
On Sept. 17, 1963, a makeshift bus carrying 58 migrant workers was struck by a freight train outside the California community of Chualar, south of Salinas. Thirty-two workers died.
In the wake of Chualar, Congress passed a law requiring contractors to provide proof of liability insurance and to inform workers about housing, wages and transportation. Two decades later, lawmakers enacted the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act, or MSPA, which, among other requirements, mandates that agricultural employers show that transportation is properly insured and meets safety standards.
More than 10,000 farm labor contractors are registered under MSPA, but Labor’s Wage and Hour Division has just 976 investigators to police them, plus the millions of other businesses covered by the laws it enforces.
That lack of staffing, combined with often minor penalties for infractions, encourages people to cut corners, farmworker advocates say.
“You end up saving money by just paying the fine and treating the farmworkers as disposable,” said Dawson Morton of the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation.
Violators are “aided and abetted” by the fact most workers are too afraid of dismissal or deportation to complain, Schell said. Often, a record of noncompliance is discovered only after a crash.
Crash east of Los Banos
Most growers don’t provide transportation to their remote fields. So, many workers fall prey to “raiteros,” who illegally charge desperate workers exorbitant fees for unregulated transportation.
Two recent California cases show the challenges regulators face when trying to assign responsibility for a crash.
On Jan. 9, 2015, four men returning from the fields died when their overloaded van plowed into a tractor-trailer in Fresno County. Investigators concluded that the driver was a foreman for C.A.T. Labor Services, and the Department of Labor moved to revoke the firm’s certification.
Company attorney Anthony Raimondo insisted the driver, who pleaded no contest in March to manslaughter, was solely responsible for this “horrible tragedy” and that the accusations against his client were “paperwork violations.”
In June 2015, three Merced County women and a 16-year-old girl died from injuries sustained when the van in which they were riding crashed as they returned from a day of picking garlic in Gilroy for grower Valley Garlic Inc. Corrina Palacios, 16; Christina Bautista Dalton, 35; and Maria Acevedo Cisneros, 48, died in the crash east of Los Banos. Maria Silva Perez, 46, died days later at a hospital. Police say the unlicensed driver, Enrique Franco, 21, of Livingston, fell asleep at the wheel. He and three other passengers suffered nonfatal injuries.
In August, Labor’s San Francisco office filed suit against Valley Garlic Inc. and contractor X-Treme Ag Labor Inc., citing a 1997 federal court ruling that rejected the view that growers who use labor contractors have no responsibility themselves to make sure workers travel safely.
Both companies have denied wrongdoing. Janet Herold, west regional solicitor for the Department of Labor, said these legal actions are a message to the agricultural community that “we are going to change tools until you change practices.”
In the crash that killed Jose Chavez, Labor Department inspectors recommended more than $500,000 in civil penalties, according to a draft settlement obtained by AP. A review knocked that recommendation down to $2,000.
Federal investigations continue. Despite that, Vasquez was authorized visas for nearly 350 guest workers this past year. The company did not reply to requests for comment.
Meanwhile, lawyers are wrangling over how to divide the limited insurance proceeds.
Jose Chavez’s wages helped his parents build a small but sturdy two-room concrete house. They had to borrow money to bury him.
Sitting before a portrait of her oldest boy, Maria Felix Chavez Martinez weeps.
“He was our only option,” she said. “The only hope we had.”
The Merced Sun-Star contributed to this report.