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Man gets 'rare' federal prison sentence for trafficking farmworkers in Indiana, other states

Migrant farm workers-USDA-Flickr
Bob Nichols
/
USDA
Migrant workers harvest corn on a California farm in 2013. The Department of Justice did not list what farms contracted with Bladimir Moreno's labor firm.

A Florida man is set to serve almost 10 years in prison after leading a forced labor and human trafficking operation that brought farm workers to Indiana and a few other states. The case highlights a pervasive issue.

“Labor trafficking is really modern-day slavery,” said Beth White, an attory and the president and CEO of the Indiana Coalition to End Sexual Assault and Human Trafficking. “And it can be as simple as not paying a person for their day's work, or holding them literally hostage in a labor camp or in an agricultural environment. And it really does prey on vulnerable people.”

Bladimir Moreno pled guilty to one count of racketeering and another of conspiracy to commit forced labor in September 2022. In late December, Florida U.S. District Court Judge Charlene Edward Honeywell sentenced him to 118 months in prison and ordered him to pay $175,000 in restitution to 17 victims. Two of his co-conspirators also face lesser prison sentences

Moreno owned and ran a Florida-based labor contracting firm that brought Mexican farmworkers to the United States on H-2A temporary visas. Those visas allow people from other countries to legally enter the U.S. for seasonal agricultural work. Many farmers and agricultural advocates say H-2A workers are critically needed for work like harvesting and planting.

READ MORE: Without state, federal protections, extreme heat puts Indiana farm workers in danger

Moreno’s firm brought in “large numbers” of H-2A workers from Mexico to farms in Indiana, Georgia, Florida and other states. But unlike more legitimate contractors, federal officials said that between 2015 and 2017 he ran the operation like “a criminal enterprise.”

The outcome in this case is “extremely rare,” White said. She was not directly involved with this particular case.

“And these cases are very, very hard to prosecute. There are two specific reasons why that's true, focused on victims,” White said.

The first, she said, is that victims have a lot of reasons to fear coming forward. In this case, for example, Moreno and his co-conspirators allegedly threatened to harm workers’ families.

“When people are brave enough to come forward and to ask for help, they need all kinds of help. They might need housing, they might need medical care,” White said. “They need to testify, they need to be available to the defense, it can take months or even years, if this person does not get the support that they need, they're not going to stay and they're not going to be available to prosecute.”

Indiana broadly lacks the proper resources to support victims and get successful prosecutions, she said. And the issue is not limited to agriculture, White said – people can be trafficked for their labor in construction, nail salons and more.

There is some data on trafficking in Indiana available based on calls to the national trafficking hotline and law enforcement investigations, but officials say that data likely misses a significant number of these cases. A state law passed in 2022 requires local law enforcement agencies to report all trafficking investigations to the state attorney general in an effort to improve available data.

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In the original indictment, federal prosecutors alleged Moreno and at least three other co-conspirators lied to workers about the wages they could make in the U.S., but ultimately only paid a “small fraction” of what workers were owed for "long hours" of forced, “demanding” labor.

The firm allegedly coerced victims into doing the work by confiscating their passports and threatening to get them arrested or deported. Court documents also reference instances of “verbal abuse” and the use of “physical restraint.” Prosecutors also alleged the workers were kept in unsafe, unsanitary living conditions.

“I sometimes hear people say, well, these folks shouldn't be here in the first place. They are taking jobs away from hard-working Americans, and therefore we don't really care about them,” White said. “First of all, it's not accurate. And second of all, it's really the wrong approach to take. This kind of exploitation hurts everyone.”

At least four victims, listed in court documents by their initials, worked in Indiana, primarily in Knox County. It’s not clear whether Moreno brought more victims to the state during the 2015-2017 time period. The DOJ declined an interview and did not respond to an emailed request to clarify that in time for publication.

The DOJ also did not respond to questions about how involved the agricultural operations in Indiana that used Moreno’s services were or whether they would be held accountable in any way. Victims were technically employed by Moreno, not the agricultural operations they worked on.

All of those victims were “harbored and concealed in lodgings and workplaces” in Indiana and other states after their visas expired. One continued working for six months after the expiry.

Victims in Knox County were allegedly warned against speaking to investigators about their working conditions directly by Moreno. They also received fake reimbursement receipts for travel expenses the operation promised them it would cover.

Federal law requires employers to cover the travel expenses of H-2A workers from their country of origin to the worksite in advance. Moreno’s co-conspirators in Mexico allegedly requested workers pay fees of between 20,000 and 50,000 pesos (equivalent to between around $1,000 and $2,000 USD) and falsely promised that those expenses would be reimbursed.

Prosecutors alleged Moreno knew that victims would take on debt to cover those fees and used that debt as another avenue to coerce them into working for his operation. They also alleged he and others lied on federal forms and to federal investigators, though charges related to that obstruction and misdirection were dropped as part of his plea deal.

While she’s happy to see this case end in a meaningful sentence, White said she worries that Indiana’s “not likely to stop the cycle of victimization with other people, because we aren't prosecuting these cases.”

“One of the things that I am going to advocate for in the legislative session this year is for there to be resources set aside. We have a Human Trafficking Victims Fund in the state of Indiana, it has no funding source,” she said.

White said she’s working with a senator to introduce a bill that would have private businesses pay a fee to help fund the services.

“Which I think makes sense,” she said. “I'm sure that there are those who represent those businesses or don't think that that is a good idea. So it's early days, and we'll just have to see. But there is no downside to talking about this and helping us understand that we've got to support victims when they come forward and create an environment where they are believed and they are helped.”

This story has been updated. A previous photo depicted a business whose owners and employees have no known connection to allegations of human trafficking.


Contact reporter Adam at arayes@wvpe.org or follow him on Twitter at @arayesIPB.

Copyright 2023 IPB News

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Adam is Indiana Public Broadcasting's labor and employment reporter. He was born and raised in southeast Michigan, where he got his first job as a sandwich artist at Subway in high school. After graduating from Western Michigan University in 2019, he joined Michigan Radio's Stateside show as a production assistant. He then became the rural and small communities reporter at KUNC in Northern Colorado.