Cirilio* is one of about 85 workers from Guatemala who traveled to the southeastern United States in 2012 to bale pine straw and harvest blueberries. Making only about $10 to $40 a week in coffee production in Guatemala, Cirilio was eager for the opportunity to earn higher wages in the United States. “My wife had been sick and we needed money to pay off loans for her medical treatment. We also hoped that this opportunity would also help bring us closer to our dream of building a house together and starting a family,” he said. Already deeply in debt due to his wife’s illness, Cirilio took out additional loans to pay for the $2,000 in travel, visa and recruitment expenses.
When Cirilio arrived in the United States, his employers confiscated his passport and withheld it for the duration of his employment. Cirilio initially worked long hours baling pine straw, often leaving the house before dawn and working until sunset. Cirilio was never reimbursed for his travel or visa expenses, and his wages were further reduced by excessive deductions: Employers automatically deducted $200 from his check each month for rent and transportation, and Cirilio spent about $40 to $60 of his own money per week on string used for tying pine straw bales.
Cirilio’s situation became even more desperate when he began working for a blueberry grower. “After the first week or so, the work really slowed down. The employer had too many workers and there was hardly anything for us to do.” Legally prohibited from seeking work elsewhere, Cirilio was at the mercy of his employer. “We just sat around the house day after day. We were desperate for work, but the grower warned us that if we tried to work for anyone else, he would call Immigration and have us deported. We could hardly afford to buy food. On a few occasions, we went out into the woods to look for herbs to eat.”
While Cirilio was in the United States, his wife in Guatemala gave birth to their son, who died soon after birth. “Since I wasn’t making any money, I couldn’t even give him a proper funeral. I was so sad and frustrated.” As his wife’s health deteriorated after the loss, Cirilio told the grower that he wanted to return to Guatemala to care for his wife. “He told me that I couldn’t leave because he needed me to stay on the farm and work.”
Cirilio stayed for a little while longer, but the work did not pick up. “I felt trapped. My debts were mounting, but I was scared to leave the farm without my passport. I didn’t want to get deported and ruin my chances of getting another visa in the future.” Despite his fears, Cirilio eventually felt compelled to abandon the farm, leaving his passport behind. “I just wanted to go back to Guatemala but I couldn’t even afford the plane ticket.”