“It’s not as simple as seeing someone holding people behind barbed wire and forcing them to do labor,” said Truong of the L.A. City Attorney’s Office. “The workers might make a choice to go do a job out of state, but they don’t know until they get there what that situation looks like, and by then it’s a little too late. I don’t know how much of a choice you’re making when you find yourself miles and miles from anywhere with no easy way to leave.”
Nevertheless, detecting trafficking can prove extremely difficult for law enforcement — a task further complicated by an ill-defined chain of command in government and a shortage of Mandarin-speaking investigators, according to a federal employee familiar with the matter.
Altogether, law enforcement picked up more than 50 Chinese immigrant workers at the marijuana farms in northwestern New Mexico, including 17 who were charged in October with felony drug trafficking and conspiracy after local police discovered them processing thousands of pounds of illegal cannabis in a budget motel.
The state district attorney agreed to drop most of the charges after public defenders and service providers determined the workers to be labor trafficking victims, a type of exploitation involving the procurement of labor through force, fraud or coercion. At least five have since qualified for and received reparations from the New Mexico Crime Victims Reparations Commission, according to the commission’s director, Frank Zubia.
One worker is a 36-year-old restaurant employee who goes by the name Anson. He told Searchlight that he had routinely worked 15-hour daily shifts and slept on the floor of greenhouses — without ever being paid.
“We were told it would be a good job for us and that it was completely legal,” he said. Instead, he recalled a harrowing occasion in which a small group of protesters carrying sticks and knives entered the farm where he was working, demanding that the workers leave. When Anson and 40 of his fellow workers saw the group approaching, they quickly picked up pruning shears, shovels and whatever other makeshift weapons they could find, pushing the protesters out of the farm and onto the street — until one of the protesters fired a warning shot toward the Chinese workers.
“The whole experience was crazy,” he said. “We all have to make a living, that’s why I went to New Mexico. I never thought it would be like it was. I was supposed to get $12,000 for my work, and now I have given up on getting it.”
On Nov. 9, he was discovered and picked up during the raid by federal agents, their weapons drawn. A coalition of anti-trafficking advocates, led by The Life Link, facilitated Anson’s return to Chicago, where he now holds a job at a Vietnamese restaurant. So disturbing was the incident that he still has not told his family what happened in New Mexico.