Topic: Immigrant Issues

← Back to Battered Immigrant Project

Battered Immigrant Helpline

Toll-Free: 1 (866) 204-7612

3:30 PM – 7:30 PM, Tuesday
9:00 AM – 1:00 PM, Thursday

​Free help for immigrants who are victims of domestic violence. Learn more: Battered Immigrant Project

Our intake line is available for low-income immigrant victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, and human trafficking who are seeking free immigration assistance.  

About

The Battered Immigrant Project (BIP), part of our Domestic Violence Prevention Initiative​, provides free immigration assistance to immigrant survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault, and human trafficking.  The BIP represents qualifying applicants across North Carolina in immigration matters including: 

  • Self-Petitions and Petitions to Remove Conditions for victims of domestic violence who are married to (or recently divorced from) U.S. citizens or lawful permanent residents who abuse them 
  • U Visas for victims of domestic violence, sexual assault and human trafficking 
  • T Visas for victims of human trafficking 
  • Applications to Adjust Status (to become a permanent resident) for self-petitioners, U visa holders, and T visa holders 
  • Removal defense for qualifying victims of domestic violence, sexual assault and human trafficking

​BIP attorneys work with domestic violence, sexual assault, human trafficking, and immigrant rights advocates across the state to provide them with information about the rights of immigrant victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, and human trafficking.  Through the DVPI, staff in local LANC offices, as resources allow, represent immigrant survivors in legal matters such as: 

  • Domestic Violence Protective Orders 
  • Family Law issues 
  • Public Benefits
  • Housing issues

Brochures

Our Team

Leah Arnold is a Senior Staff Attorney with Legal Aid of North Carolina’s Battered Immigrant Project where she has worked since 2015.  Leah obtained her B.S. in Journalism with a certificate in Latin American Studies from the University of Florida in 2011, and her J.D. with a graduate certificate in global transmigration studies from the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Law in 2015.   She is fluent in Spanish.  


Taylor Connell is a paralegal with Legal Aid of North Carolina’s Battered Immigrant Project where she has worked since 2022. She obtained a B.A. in Sociology and Spanish from Furman University in 2022 and plans to attend law school in the future. She is fluent in Spanish.   


Anna Cushman is a Staff Attorney within Legal Aid of North Carolina’s Battered Immigrant Project. Before coming to Legal Aid of NC in 2019, Anna worked at a small immigration law firm in Greensboro, NC for six years. Anna obtained her B.A. in Political Science and Spanish from Wake Forest University in 2008 and her J.D. from Campbell Law School in 2012. She is a Board-Certified Specialist in Immigration Law and is fluent in Spanish. 


Patricia Dykstra-Lalangui is a paralegal with Legal Aid of North Carolina’s Battered Immigrant Project where she has worked since 2005. Patty obtained her degree in Business Administration from Miami Dade College in 2002 and her NC paralegal certification in 2007. She is fluent in Spanish. 


Amanda Hinnant is the Supervising Attorney of Legal Aid of North Carolina’s Battered Immigrant Project. Before coming to Legal Aid of NC in 2010, Amanda worked as an elementary school teacher prior to attending law school. She obtained her B.A. in Elementary Education from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2005 and her J.D. from Charlotte School of Law in 2010. She is fluent in Spanish. 


Will Johnson is a Staff Attorney with Legal Aid of North Carolina’s Battered Immigrant Project. He has worked with Legal Aid of NC since 2013. Will obtained his B.A. in Political Science and Peace & Conflict Studies from Guilford College in 2006, and his J.D. from UNC-Chapel Hill School of Law in 2012. He is fluent in Spanish. 


Rona Karacaova is the Managing Attorney of Legal Aid of North Carolina’s Battered Immigrant Project.  Before coming to Legal Aid of NC in 2002, Rona worked with Connecticut Legal Services for three years and Legal Services of Southern Piedmont for one year.   Rona obtained her B.A. in International Relations from Tufts University in 1993 and her J.D. from UNC-Chapel Hill School of Law in 1998.  She is fluent in Turkish and proficient in Spanish and French. 


Dora MacDonald is a paralegal and Department of Justice Board of Immigration Appeals Accredited Representative with Legal Aid of North Carolina’s Battered Immigrant Project, where she has worked since 2008. Dora obtained her law degree from Libre University in Colombia in 1998 and her paralegal certification from Penn State University in 2007. She is fluent in Spanish. 


TeAndra M. Miller is a Managing Attorney and the Statewide Director for Legal Aid of North Carolina’s Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Project. TeAndra has worked with Legal Aid of NC since 1994. She obtained her B.S. in Communications from the University of Iowa, a Certificate in Non-Profit Management from Duke University, and her J.D. from North Carolina Central University School of Law. 


Jalal Nadimi is a paralegal and Department of Justice Board of Immigration Appeals Accredited Representative with Legal Aid of North Carolina’s Battered Immigrant Project, where she has worked since 2013. Jalal obtained her law degree from La Universidad Católica de Santa Maria in Arequipa, Peru in 1994. She is fluent in Spanish. 


Cara Palmer is a Staff Attorney with Legal Aid of North Carolina’s Battered Immigrant Project, where she has worked since 2020. Cara obtained her B.A. in History with a minor in Human Rights from the University of Southern California in 2013, her M.A. in History and a Graduate Certificate in Human Rights from the University of Connecticut in 2015, and her J.D. and a Refugees and Humanitarian Emergencies Certificate from Georgetown University Law Center in 2020. She is fluent in Spanish. 


Jennifer Robinson is a Senior Staff Attorney with Legal Aid of North Carolina’s Battered Immigrant Project where she has worked since 2016.  Jennifer obtained her B.A. in Women’s & Gender Studies from Dartmouth College in 2011 and her J.D. from Georgetown University Law Center in 2015. She is fluent in Spanish. 


Heather Ziemba is a Staff Attorney with Legal Aid of North Carolina’s Battered Immigrant Project, where she has worked since 2022.  Prior to coming to Legal Aid of NC, Heather founded and managed the Immigrant Justice Program at Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy and was also in private practice as an immigration attorney.  Heather obtained her A.B. in political science from Duke University in 1993 and her J.D. from Vanderbilt University School of Law in 1996.  She is a Board-Certified Specialist in Immigration Law and is fluent in Spanish. 


News

Topic: Immigrant Issues

← Back to We are launching our "Stop the Cycle" campaign against abuse, assault and exploitation

RALEIGH—Legal Aid of North Carolina has launched the StopTheCycleNC campaign to raise awareness of the key role legal representation plays in ending the cycle of abuse for victims of domestic violence, sexual assault and human trafficking, as well as seniors who have experienced financial exploitation. StopTheCycleNC.org educates users about what constitutes abuse, assault and exploitation, and the legal resources and support available to help victims break free from their abusers. From StopTheCycleNC.org, victims can call Legal Aid NC for help or connect to Legal Aid NC’s online application to start the intake process. Digital and radio advertising will start later this month and run through the holidays, when reports of abuse are known to increase. For more information, visit StopTheCycleNC.org.

Abuse, assault and exploitation can take many different forms, victimizing someone of any race, age, gender, sexuality, religion, education level or economic status. Victims are often repeatedly abused by an intimate partner, exploited by someone they trust or trapped in inhumane or illegal conditions at jobs they need for income. Escaping an abusive situation can become complicated between family members, for example, when the abuser is an intimate partner and children are involved, or when someone who holds power of attorney is using their position to defraud an elderly relative. Victims are even more reluctant to take action when they do not understand their rights, have little support and lack financial resources.

Rooted in more than 40 years of experience, Legal Aid NC has provided legal assistance to any victim of domestic violence, sexual assault and human trafficking, regardless of income or immigration status. Through its Senior Law Project, Legal Aid NC helps senior citizens who have been financially exploited. Legal Aid NC also helps clients with unemployment and government benefits, access to housing and family law services for child custody issues.

“When victims are finally ready to stop the cycle of victimization, Legal Aid NC is a partner in empowerment,” said TeAndra Miller, project manager of Legal Aid NC’s Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Project. “Our process may start with helping them obtain a protective order or legal document to protect their assets and children, but we go far beyond with services that can help them achieve stability and a path to independence.”

As an independent organization, Legal Aid NC is not affiliated with the government, district attorney offices or social services. They can help any North Carolina resident regardless of where they live, even if there is no Legal Aid NC office near them. Legal Aid NC’s ability to help victims is not impacted by the pandemic, or whether or not courts are open.

Legal Aid NC’s Stop the Cycle campaign and the services it promotes are funded in part by the Governor’s Crime Commission, the chief advisory body on crime and justice issues to North Carolina’s Governor and Secretary of Public Safety.

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Legal Aid of North Carolina is a statewide, nonprofit law firm that provides free legal services in civil matters to low-income people in order to ensure equal access to justice and to remove legal barriers to economic opportunity. Learn more at legalaidnc.org. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn and YouTube. Need legal help? Call 1-866-219-5262 (toll-free) or apply online.

Media contact: Sean Driscoll, Director of Public Relations, 919-856-2132, seand@legalaidnc.org

Topic: Immigrant Issues

← Back to Family Law

Sarah Caraffa, an attorney in our Raleigh office, will discuss the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction, an international agreement that provides for the speedy return of children abducted by a parent and held in a foreign country.

Topic: Immigrant Issues

← Back to Legal Aid attorney Anna Cushman certified as immigration law specialist

CHARLOTTE—The North Carolina State Bar’s Board of Legal Specialization announced on December 4 that it had certified Anna Cushman, an attorney with our Battered Immigrant Project, as a specialist in immigration law.

Only 4% of North Carolina attorneys achieve this status, according to the bar. To become a specialist, an attorney must devote an average of 700 hours annually to the specialty during the prior five years, be favorably evaluated by fellow attorneys and judges, pass a written exam, attend continuing legal education seminars in the specialty, and be an active member in good standing with the bar for at least five years.

Anna joined Legal Aid as an attorney with our Battered Immigrant Project in 2019. The BIP is part of our Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault unit. BIP attorneys help immigrant survivors of domestic violence navigate the complex maze of ever-changing immigration laws.

Anna recently helped a domestic violence survivor obtain a work permit, a big step towards achieving financial independence from her abusive U.S. citizen spouse. As a result, Anna’s client is better able to fight for the custody of her minor child in her care and establish a steady employment history.

“It is a privilege to serve immigrant domestic violence survivors as they assert the right to a life free from violence,” Anna said. “I am delighted to be certified as a specialist in immigration law after years of dedication to this practice area and to my clients along the way. Given the complexity of the U.S. immigration system and the high stakes for our clients, it is critical that immigrants have access to competent, experienced counsel. I am proud to say this is precisely the kind of representation that the Battered Immigrant Project provides to our vulnerable, low-income, immigrant survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault and human trafficking.”

Before joining Legal Aid, Anna spent six years handling immigration cases for a small immigration law firm in Greensboro. She earned her juris doctor from Campbell Law in 2012, and her bachelor’s in political science and Spanish from Wake Forest University in 2008.

She is a member of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, the North Carolina Bar Association, the Mecklenburg Bar Association, and a former member of the Greensboro Housing Coalition’s board of directors.

Topic: Immigrant Issues

← Back to Legal Aid secures $12,000 for aggrieved farmworkers

RALEIGH · April 6, 2018 – Legal Aid of North Carolina’s Farmworker Unit negotiated $12,000 in damages for four farmworkers who alleged that a farm labor contractor cheated them by underpaying them for their work and charging them an illegal recruitment fee.

“Over the past several years, we have seen a huge growth in the use of farm labor contractors to recruit and hire workers in the H2A program,” Meghan Melo, staff attorney at the Farmworker Unit, said.

The federal H2A program allows American agricultural employers to hire temporary workers from foreign countries under certain conditions. Employers can hire the workers directly or pay farm labor contractors to hire the workers for them.

“Unfortunately, some farm labor contractors try to make extra money paying workers less than what they are entitled to, charging them illegal fees and otherwise exploiting them,” Melo said.

“It is important for workers employed by farm labor contractors – and all farmworkers – to know that they have legal protections if they are retaliated against for speaking to an attorney or government agency, or raising concerns with their employer about wages or working conditions,” she said.

The Farmworker Unit sued the labor contractor, Filiberto Perez, in federal court in the spring of 2017. The suit alleged that, in 2015 and 2016, Perez paid the farmworkers at a per-piece rate that amounted to less than the minimum wage guaranteed under the H2A program for the hours they worked, which is illegal under federal law.

The suit also alleged that Perez charged the farmworkers a $1,000 recruitment fee to obtain their work visas. Federal law prohibits farm labor contractors from charging workers recruitment fees of any amount.

Perez denied that he underpaid workers or charged recruitment fees. He agreed to settle the case by repaying the workers’ alleged unpaid wages and recruitment fees, which amounted to $12,000. He also agreed to pay a portion of Legal Aid’s attorneys’ fees and costs.

The U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division also investigated Perez for similar violations.

Farmworkers employed by Perez can call Legal Aid at 1-800-777-5869 (toll-free) to see if they are eligible to claim money that the Department of Labor has already collected on their behalf.

Farmworkers can learn more about their legal rights by visiting the know-your-rights section of the Farmworker Unit’s website at farmworkerlanc.org/know-your-rights.

# # #

Legal Aid of North Carolina is a statewide, nonprofit law firm that provides free legal services in civil matters to low-income people in order to ensure equal access to justice and to remove legal barriers to economic opportunity. The Farmworker Unit is a statewide project of Legal Aid of North Carolina that provides high-quality civil legal services to address the special legal needs of migrant and seasonal farmworkers in North Carolina. Learn more at LegalAidNC.org and FarmworkerLANC.org.

Media Contact

Sean Driscoll, Director of Public Relations, 919-856-2132, seand@legalaidnc.org

Topic: Immigrant Issues

← Back to On International Migrants Day, migrant farmworker advocates release video "Isolated by Force: Denying Migrant Farmworkers Access to Services"

RALEIGH – In recognition of International Migrants Day, a day designated by the United Nations to celebrate the role of the migrant and to promote the protection of the rights of migrant workers and their families, the Farmworker Unit of Legal Aid of North Carolina joins the Transnational Legal Clinic of the University of Pennsylvania to announce the release of a new video, “Isolated by Force: Denying Migrant Farmworkers Access to Services.”

Migrant farmworkers in North Carolina and across the United States labor and live in isolation, housed in employer-owned and operated labor camps. Employers, often aided by local law enforcement, regularly deny workers access to medical, legal, and other social service providers. There is no federal law governing access rights; instead, the right of access is in an uneven and patchwork system of state statutes, judicial opinions, and administrative guidance.

Even in North Carolina, where an opinion letter by the Attorney General supports the rights of migrant workers to receive visitors at their camps, those rights are regularly denied.

“Last year, an employer in Bladen County tried to prevent legal aid advocates from speaking with workers at a camp where there were suspected labor law violations. Despite being shown the Attorney General’s opinion allowing access to migrant labor camps, the employer called the sheriff to report that we were trespassing. When we tried to visit the same camp a few weeks later, we encountered a locked gate and were prevented from talking to the workers,” said Caroline DiMaio, attorney in the Farmworker Unit of Legal Aid of North Carolina.

Another example took place in May, when an employer carrying a gun in Sampson County approached a group of health outreach workers who had come to the camp to do health assessments and promote the services in their clinics. Despite many of them being dressed in scrubs and carrying medical equipment, the employer asked if they were prostitutes and told them they were illiterate because they “couldn’t read the no-trespassing sign.” He said he had called the cops and told them to leave the premises. As they drove away, they noticed the sheriff’s car pulling into the drive.

Service providers across the country report similar practices, where farm owners and camp operators subject them and the workers to harassment and threats of violence, and threats or actual arrest carried out by local law enforcement.

“Over and over again, our partners and staff continue to be denied access to the homes of the workers who we are trying to serve. Even when we are explicitly invited, employers bar entry, at times with the threat of violence, adding to the culture of intimidation and fear that farmworkers experience,” said Julie Pittman, paralegal at the Farmworker Unit of Legal Aid of North Carolina.

“Isolated by Force,” produced by the Transnational Legal Clinic, calls attention to the devastating impact this has on migrant farm workers’ rights under international law, including the right to freedom of association, freedom of assembly, basic workplace rights, and the right to be free from forced labor and human trafficking. It also recognizes the rights of the service providers themselves to security in person and not to be subjected to arbitrary arrest. The video calls on the United States to protect migrant workers’ and their advocates’ basic human rights by guaranteeing unrestricted access to workers living in isolation on employer-owned and operated labor camps.

Today, as the world celebrates migrants and their contributions to local communities and the global economy, “Isolated by Force” serves as a reminder of the work the United States government has to do to guarantee migrant workers’ human rights, and calls upon the United States to ensure service providers access to workers in employer-controlled housing, and investigate the actions of law enforcement and others who interfere with the right to access migrant labor camps.

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Legal Aid of North Carolina is a statewide, nonprofit law firm that provides free legal services in civil matters to low-income people in order to ensure equal access to justice and to remove legal barriers to economic opportunity. Find us on Facebook and TwitterThe Farmworker Unit is a statewide project of Legal Aid of North Carolina committed to providing high quality civil legal services to address the special legal needs of migrant and seasonal farmworkers in North Carolina. Learn more at www.farmworkerlanc.org and find us on Facebook in English and Spanish.

Learn more about International Migrants Day at www.un.org/en/events/migrantsday/.

Media Contacts

Lariza Garzón, Community Education Coordinator, Farmworker Unit, Legal Aid of North Carolina, 919-856-2186, LarizaG@legalaidnc.org

Sean Driscoll, Director of Public Relations, Legal Aid of North Carolina, 919-856-2132, seand@legalaidnc.org

Topic: Immigrant Issues

← Back to Farmworker Unit secures $75,000 settlement in labor trafficking case
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Hear Caitlin Ryland discuss the case on WUNC

Read coverage in The Wilson Times

RALEIGH · April 1, 2019 – A group of 13 migrant farmworkers represented by Legal Aid of North Carolina’s Farmworker Unit has obtained justice – and $75,000 – in a labor trafficking case involving the federal H-2A visa program. The case, Eliseo Alonso-Miranda, et al. v. Cirila Garcia-Pineda, et al., was settled in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of N.C. on Dec. 26, 2018.

The vast majority of the $75,000 settlement will be paid in damages to Legal Aid’s clients: Mexican citizens lured into crippling debt for the opportunity to come to North Carolina in 2015 with promises of a legal work visa that would provide them with abundant work, ample pay, and the chance to extend their stay in the U.S. at the end of their visa period.

The ones who made those promises were three farm labor contractors in Stantonsburg, North Carolina: Cirila Garcia-Pineda, her daughter Marisa Garcia-Pineda, and her stepson Ofelio Garcia. The workers say the Garcias exploited features of the federal H-2A visa program, which allows U.S. employers to hire foreign workers for temporary agricultural work under certain conditions. Farm labor contractors act as go-betweens who recruit, transport, oversee, and often house workers on behalf of agricultural companies. The role of farm labor contractors is defined by federal law, and contractors must be certified by the U.S. Department of Labor. Farm labor contractors, in addition to fixed-site farming operations and grower associations, are permitted to directly petition for workers using the H-2A visa program.

In their August 2017 complaint against the Stantonsburg contractors, Lori Johnson, managing attorney of the Farmworker Unit, and supervising attorney Caitlin Ryland described a very different reality for their clients than the lucrative job opportunity that they were promised in their hometowns in Mexico.

The complaint alleges that before the workers arrived in North Carolina, Cirila had been operating as a farm labor contractor for years, but her business was in trouble. Facing financial difficulties and weathering multiple state and federal investigations, she was potentially on the verge of losing her certification as a farm labor contractor. So, she turned to her daughter Marisa, who was working as a paralegal in a Greenville law firm at the time. Acting as a front for her mother, Marisa submitted the various applications required to hire workers through the H-2A program. Marisa held herself out to the feds as the sole contractor, when in reality, her mother and stepbrother acted as the on-site farm labor contractors.

The workers allege that, in 2015, the Garcias charged them exorbitant and unlawful recruitment fees, which are expressly prohibited by the H-2A program; paid them less than the $7.25 per hour minimum wage and the required $10.32 per hour H-2A wage for their work in the tobacco and sweet potato fields; lied to them about their chances of staying in the U.S.; failed to reimburse the workers’ upfront visa and travel-related expenses to come from Mexico to North Carolina; housed them in substandard housing; deprived them of workers’ compensation coverage, which they are entitled to under H-2A rules; impeded their access to medical care; retained their Social Security cards; used threats and coercive action to try to confiscate their passports; and made a loud, public display of physically threatening another worker who dared to ask for his wages.

“Our clients wanted justice, and we are glad that we were able to win some measure of it for them.” Johnson said.

The complaint alleged that, taken together, the contractors’ actions violated multiple state and federal laws, including the North Carolina Wage and Hour Act, the federal Fair Labor Standards Act and Trafficking Victims Protection Act, and the rules of the H-2A program.

“This is what labor trafficking looks like,” Ryland, a member of North Carolina’s Human Trafficking Commission, said. “Sex trafficking might be better known, but labor trafficking is just as pernicious and it’s all too prevalent, especially in industries where labor contracting services are used.”

“North Carolina’s agricultural industry is one of the largest users of the H-2A program,” Johnson said. “H-2A workers are particularly vulnerable, despite the protections guaranteed to them by the program. They are often recruited from parts of the world with fewer economic opportunities, rarely speak English, typically are unaware of their legal rights, and they depend on their employers for nearly everything: housing, mail, access to food, medical care, houses of worship, information … almost everything. With their visas tethered to one employer, the H-2A worker can’t just leave and work lawfully for a different employer. There are always individuals out there who are willing to exploit these vulnerabilities for their own gain.”

Under the settlement, the three contractors deny all liability, but agree to the financial settlement and other terms, including a lifelong ban from participating in the H-2A program. This was a moot point for Cirila Garcia-Pineda, whom the U.S. Department of Labor added to its list of Ineligible Farm Labor Contractors in 2017, which prohibits her from engaging in any activity as a farm labor contractor, whether under the H-2A program or not.

For Marisa Garcia-Pineda, her agreement to the life-long H-2A ban comes on top of a three-year ban – issued by the U.S. Department of Labor in 2018 – on acting as a farm labor contractor outside of the H-2A program.

Ryland remarked, “I am honored to have had the opportunity to represent this group of workers who bravely stood up in solidarity against those that wronged them. Our clients hope that this settlement will help them and their families move forward from this experience and that shedding light on what happened will protect others vulnerable to the same exploitation.”

Media Contact

Sean Driscoll, Director of Public Relations, Legal Aid of North Carolina, 919-856-2132, seand@legalaidnc.org

About

Legal Aid of North Carolina is a statewide, nonprofit law firm that provides free legal services in civil matters to low-income people in order to ensure equal access to justice and to remove legal barriers to economic opportunity. Our Farmworker Unit is a statewide project that addresses the special legal needs of migrant and seasonal farmworkers in North Carolina. Learn more at legalaidnc.org and farmworkerlanc.org.

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^ Back to English version

La División de Trabajadores Agrícolas asegura un acuerdo de $75,000 en caso de la trata de personas en el aspecto laboral

RALEIGH · Abril 1, 2019 – Un grupo de 13 trabajadores agrícolas migrantes representados por Ayuda Legal de Carolina del Norte de la División de Trabajadores Agrícolas ha obtenido justicia – y $75,000 – en un caso de la trata de personas en el aspecto laboral que involucra el programa federal de visas H-2A. El caso, Eliseo Alonso-Miranda, et al. v. Cirila Garcia-Pineda, et al., fue resuelto en el Tribunal de Distrito de los Estados Unidos para el Distrito Este de Carolina del Norte el 26 de diciembre del 2018.

La gran parte  del acuerdo de $75,000 se pagará en daños y perjuicios a los clientes de Ayuda Legal: ciudadanos Mexicanos fueron reclutados con una deuda perjudicial para tener la oportunidad de venir a Carolina del Norte en el 2015 con la promesa de una visa de trabajo legal que les proporcionaría trabajo abundante, un buen salario, y la posibilidad de extender su estadía en los Estados Unidos  al finalizar el tiempo de su visa.

Los que hicieron esas promesas fueron tres contratistas de trabajadores agrícolas en Stantonsburg, Carolina del Norte: Cirila García-Pineda, su hija Marisa García-Pineda y su hijastro Ofelio García. Los trabajadores dicen que los García abusaron de las características del programa federal de visa H-2A, el cual permite a los empleadores de los Estados Unidos contratar trabajadores extranjeros para trabajos agrícolas temporales bajo ciertas condiciones. Los contratistas de trabajadores agrícolas actúan como intermediarios que reclutan, transportan, supervisan y, a menudo proveen vivienda a trabajadores en nombre de las empresas agrícolas. La función de los contratistas de trabajo agrícola es definida por la ley federal, y los contratistas deben estar certificados por el Departamento de Trabajo de los Estados Unidos. Los contratistas de trabajadores agrícolas, granjas operativas, y las asociaciones de productores, tienen permiso para solicitar directamente a los trabajadores utilizando el programa de visa H-2A.

En la demanda de agosto de 2017 contra los contratistas de Stantonsburg, Lori Johnson, Abogada Directora de la División de Trabajadores Agrícolas, y la Abogada Supervisora Caitlin Ryland describieron una realidad muy diferente para sus clientes, que la lucrativa oportunidad de trabajo que les prometieron en sus pueblos de origen en México.

La demanda alega que antes de que los trabajadores llegaran a Carolina del Norte, Cirila había estado operando como una contratista de trabajadores agrícolas por años, pero su negocio estaba en problemas. Al enfrentar dificultades financieras y sobrellevar múltiples investigaciones estatales y federales, estaba potencialmente a punto de perder su certificación como contratista de trabajadores agrícola. Entonces, se dirigió a su hija Marisa, que en ese momento estaba trabajando como asistente legal en un bufete de abogados en Greenville. Utilizando su nombre para encubrir a su madre, Marisa presentó las diversas solicitudes requeridas para contratar trabajadores a través del programa H-2A. Marisa se presentó ante las agencias federales como la única contratista, cuando en realidad, su madre y su hermanastro eran los contratistas de trabajo agrícola en los campos de trabajo.

Los trabajadores alegan que, en el 2015, los García les cobraron cuotas sumamente altas e ilegales de reclutamiento, las cuales están explícitamente prohibidas por el programa H-2A; les pagaron menos del salario mínimo de $7.25 por hora y el salario requerido de $10.32 por hora de H-2A por su trabajo en los campos de tabaco y camote; les  mintieron sobre sus posibilidades de permanecer en los EE.UU.; fallaron en reembolsarles el costo de la visa y los gastos relacionados con los viajes de México a Carolina del Norte; los alojó en viviendas precarias; los privó de la cobertura de compensación laboral para trabajadores, a la que tienen derecho según las reglas H-2A; impedido su acceso a la atención médica; confiscaron sus tarjetas de Seguro Social; utilizaron amenazas y acciones agresivas para intentar confiscar sus pasaportes; e hicieron una demostración pública en donde amenazaron físicamente a otro trabajador que se atrevió a preguntar sobre su salario.

“Nuestros clientes querían justicia, y nos alegramos de haber podido ganar algo de eso para ellos,” dijo Johnson.

La demanda alegó que, en conjunto, las acciones de los contratistas violaron múltiples leyes estatales y federales, incluyendo la Ley de Horas y Salarios de Carolina del Norte, la Ley de Normas Razonables de Trabajo y la Ley de Protección de Víctimas de la Trata de Personas, y las reglas del programa H-2A.

“Así es la trata de personas en el aspecto laboral,” dijo Ryland, miembro de la Comisión de Trata de Personas de Carolina del Norte. “La trata de personas en el aspecto sexual podrá ser más conocido, pero la trata de personas en el aspecto laboral es igual de pernicioso y demasiado frecuente, especialmente en las industrias donde se utilizan los servicios de contratación laboral.”

“La industria agrícola de Carolina del Norte es uno de los mayores usuarios del programa H-2A,” dijo Johnson. “Los trabajadores del programa H-2A son particularmente vulnerables, a pesar de las protecciones que les garantiza el programa. Normalmente, son reclutados de partes del mundo con menos oportunidades económicas, rara vez hablan inglés, generalmente desconocen sus derechos legales, y dependen de sus empleadores para casi todo: vivienda, correspondencia, acceso a alimentos, atención médica, lugares de adoración, información… casi todo. Con sus visas atadas a un empleador, el trabajador H-2A no puede simplemente irse y trabajar legalmente para un empleador diferente. Siempre hay personas que están dispuestas a explotar estas vulnerabilidades para su propio beneficio.”

Según el acuerdo, los tres contratistas niegan toda responsabilidad, pero aceptan el acuerdo financiero y otros términos, incluyendo ser prohibidos de por vida de poder participar en el programa H-2A. Este fue un punto discutible para Cirila García-Pineda, a quien el Departamento de Trabajo de los EE. UU. agregó a su lista de Contratistas de Trabajadores Agrícolas Inelegibles en 2017, la cual la prohíbe participar en cualquier actividad como contratista de trabajadores agrícolas, ya sea bajo el programa H-2A o no.

Para Marisa García-Pineda, su acuerdo con la prohibición del programa H2A de por vida se suma a una prohibición de tres años, emitida por el Departamento de Trabajo de los EE. UU. en 2018, al actuar como contratista de trabajadores agrícolas fuera del programa H-2A.

Ryland comentó: “Me siento honrada de haber tenido la oportunidad de representar a este grupo de trabajadores que valientemente levantaron la voz en solidaridad en contra de los que los maltrataron. Nuestros clientes esperan que este acuerdo los ayude a ellos y a sus familias a salir adelante de esta experiencia y al sacar a la luz lo que sucedió va a proteger a otras personas vulnerables de este tipo de  explotación.”

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Contacto con los medios

Sean Driscoll, Director de Relaciones Públicas, Ayuda Legal de Carolina del Norte, 919-856-2132, seand@legalaidnc.org

Acerca de Ayuda Legal

Ayuda Legal de Carolina del Norte es una firma de abogados a nivel estatal sin fines de lucro, que brinda servicios legales gratuitos en asuntos civiles a personas de bajos ingresos para garantizar el acceso equitativo a la justicia y eliminar las barreras legales a oportunidades económicas. Nuestra División de Trabajadores Agrícolas es un proyecto estatal que aborda las necesidades legales especiales de los trabajadores agrícolas migratorios y temporales en Carolina del Norte. Obtenga más información en www.legalaidnc.org y www.farmworkerlanc.org