Immigrant workers at Michigan greenhouse: We were cheated, tricked into deportation

When Eduardo Reyes-Trujillo arrived in Michigan in 2018 to work at a greenhouse about 30 minutes south of Detroit, he hoped to earn enough money to help some of his poor family members back in Mexico.

The migrant worker had come to the United States legally to work at Four Star Greenhouse in Carleton through a temporary agricultural visa known as H-2A.

But he said his dreams were crushed after he and other workers were cheated out of their pay despite working long hours.After they complained, he said that they were lured and tricked by their employer into being detained by federal immigration agents in a Walmart parking lot, and eventually sent back to Mexico.

"It's not fair," Reyes-Trujillo, 32, told the USA TODAY Network through a translator during a phone interview from Puebla, a state in Mexico where he lives. "It's not fair for us to work so hard, but instead were delivered to immigration. ... They didn't want to pay us."

In a lawsuit filed last week in U.S. District Court in Detroit, seven migrant workers from Mexico, including Reyes-Trujillo, allege that Four Star Greenhouse and the agent it used to hire them violated labor, wage and trafficking laws in 2017 and 2018.

"They were forced to work hundreds of hours without pay," the complaint says. "They were not paid for many weeks of work, leaving them without money for food and other necessities. ... When Plaintiffs stood up to their traffickers, complaining to Four Star and its recruiting agent about their exploitation, the agent delivered them to immigration authorities to have them deported and to avoid paying Plaintiffs for their labor."

Four Star strongly denies the allegations.

Attorneys for the workers say the case represents a broader problem with abuse in the H-2A visa system and of other migrant farm workers in Michigan and other states. Last year, there were 9,096 agriculture workers in Michigan with H-2A visas, the seventh-largest recipient of H-2A workers among all states.

Gerardo Santiago-Hernandez once was a worker at Four Star Greenhouse in Carleton, Michigan. A lawsuit filed in June 2020, on behalf of him and other migrant workers from Mexico alleges he was cheated of his wages and tricked into being detained by federal immigrant agents and removed to Mexico.
Gerardo Santiago-Hernandez once was a worker at Four Star Greenhouse in Carleton, Michigan. A lawsuit filed in June 2020, on behalf of him and other migrant workers from Mexico alleges he was cheated of his wages and tricked into being detained by federal immigrant agents and removed to Mexico.

"This is one of the most egregious cases I've seen of workers standing up for their rights" who were retaliated against, said Ben Botts, an attorney with Centro de los Derechos del Migrante (Center for Migrant Rights) who helped file the lawsuit. "These workers were raising concerns that were legally protected."

The lawsuit was filed against Four Star and its president, Thomas Smith, by the Center and two other migrant advocacy groups: Michigan Immigrant Rights Center and Farmworker Legal Services of Michigan.

Based in Monroe County, Four Star has more than 100 employees and earns $18 million in sales a year, selling young plants and finished crops across the U.S. to garden retailers, landscapers, retail growers, and wholesale growers, the complaint said. It's the top supplier of 'Proven Winners,' a brand described as a "breakthough brand" on its website.

In a statement provided through its attorney, Michael Stroster, Four Star said the lawsuit's claims are not true.

"We take the allegations made by former contracted workers very seriously and find it particularly disturbing that anyone would allege that Four Star withheld payments, threatened contracted workers, attempted or was involved in any way with deporting any individual who worked at its facility," Four Star said. "That is simply not true. We are extremely confident that Four Star acted appropriately and lawfully at all times and that the allegations levied against our company will be dismissed in their entirety."

The statement said that "Four Star Greenhouse’s success is the product of the excellent work performed by our employees and contracted workers. That is why we are dedicated to complying with applicable laws, rules and regulations and ensuring a safe workplace for all."

Four Star added: "We do not anticipate providing any further public comment on the pending litigation and look forward to our opportunity to be heard in court."

The lawsuit offers a peek into the world of agricultural laborers in Michigan, many of whom face hardships and exploitation, said immigrant advocates.

Journey from Mexico to Michigan

Here's what happened to the workers, according to the lawsuit.

In 2017 and 2018, the workers — all from Mexico — were offered a chance to migrate to the U.S. as temporary workers in various states, including Michigan.

They were "from rural, impoverished areas of Mexico where there are few opportunities for paid employment, and no opportunities that pay wages comparable to those promised under the H-2A program," the complaint says. They "traveled to the United States at considerable personal expense to support their families."

Reyes-Trujillo told the USA TODAY Network he was eager to find work in the U.S. because he said he can earn more in a day in the U.S. than a week in Mexico.

Four Star relied on a farm labor contractor based in Florida, Vasquez Citrus & Hauling, to recruit workers.

Reyes-Trujillo and the six other workers were in Michigan from December 2017 to June 2018, under a contract that was to pay them $12.75 an hour for 36 hours per week at the greenhouse from January 2018 to the end of July that year, the lawsuit says.

Reyes-Trujillo said he only received a few paychecks before they stopped. In some cases, the checks from the recruiter bounced.

Adding to their financial problems was that they were not reimbursed for their travel and visa costs, facing a debt with growing interest, the complaint says.

The workers were also lied to about their visa status, told by the recruiter that their visas were being extended before they arrived in Michigan. Their visas had actually already expired by the time they arrived in Michigan.

The workers "were so desperate for money for basic necessities, including food, with no means of returning home to Mexico, that they had little choice but to work at Four Star," the lawsuit says.

At Four Star, the workers worked primarily in the shipping department, the lawsuit says, "choosing and transporting plants from the greenhouse to the shipping department, where they ticketed plants with shipping code labels and packed them for shipping around the country. Other duties involved building boxes, sweeping, and trimming plants."

They were made to work more than 60 hours a week, the lawsuit says, and their living conditions were challenging.

Reyes-Trujillo said he lived in a one-bedroom apartment nearby the greenhouse along with seven other residents: six people in the living room and two in the bedroom.

The workers "were supposed to be paid $12.75 per hour, on a weekly basis, but were not paid on time, not paid consistently, and were not paid at all for hundreds of hours of work at Four Star," the complaint reads. The workers "were paid with checks that bounced repeatedly, to the point that the store where Plaintiffs would cash their checks began refusing to cash their checks."

Struggling to pay for food and in debt, the workers complained to the recruiter and Four Star.

That's when the retaliation and threats started, they allege.

Company allegedly retaliates

The workers said they were threatened with being sent back to Mexico and being blacklisted from working in the U.S. again under the visa program.

Then, on March 21, 2018, the recruiting agent lured the workers out of the Chestnut Hills Apartments complex where they lived, telling them they needed to leave because of a housing inspection, according to the lawsuit.

They were told by the recruiter a "false claim that they were taking them shopping at Walmart while inspectors came to their apartments, and assured them that they had nothing to worry about."

They boarded a bus and arrived at the Walmart parking lot.

As he got off the bus, Reyes-Trujillo said he remembers asking the bus driver what time he would return to pick them up from Walmart.

But in the parking lot were immigration agents.

"As soon as we got off the bus, there was a patrol waiting for them," Reyes-Trujillo told the USA TODAY Network. "The patrol was telling them on loudspeakers something we didn't understand."

They were arrested and taken to the Calhoun County jail, where they stayed for a month or two before being deported to Mexico.

The workers can't recall whether the federal immigration agents were with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) or Customs and Border Protection (CBP). Spokesmen for the two agencies in Michigan did not comment on the lawsuit.

The workers weren't able to get their personal belongings before they had to leave America.

When the workers "were detained, nearly all their personal belongings — including their clothing and personal documents such as passports, visas, and birth certificates — were left at the Chestnut Hills Apartments," the complaint says. The "recruiting agent never returned their belongings, and (the workers) never recovered most of these items and have not been able to afford to replace them."

Maria Perales Sanchez, with the Center for Migrant Rights, said that employers often use contractors and agents to hire workers, and then try to avoid responsibility for how the workers may be mistreated. But the employers are aware of the abuses that are happening through the agents, she said.

The lawsuit alleges that Four Star chose Vasquez Citrus & Hauling despite its history of labor violations.

In March 2016, it was fined almost $22,000 by the U.S. Department of Transportation for a bus crash that killed six workers being transported from Monroe, Michigan, back to Mexico. In 2018, the Department of Labor debarred Vasquez for three years from the H-2A program.

A representative of Vasquez Citrus & Hauling could not be reached for comment. A phone number listed on websites for the company did not work.

In April, the Center for Migrant Rights released a report titled "Ripe for Reform: Abuses of Agricultural Workers in the H-2A Program" that found that all of the 100 workers they interviewed had their rights violated. And 96% had three violations.

About one-third did not feel free to quit and one-third had restrictions on their mobility, the report said.

The abuses come as the number of H-2A visas has spiked.

In 2013, there were fewer than 100,000 H-2A positions nationally, with only 585 of them in Michigan.

Last year, there were 257,661 H-2A visa workers, with 9,096 of them in Michigan.

The importance of agricultural workers is especially crucial during the coronavirus crisis with concerns about food supplies, said advocates.

"These workers are critical, the backbone of what is keeping us alive," said Botts, one of the lawsuit's attorneys.

What happened in Michigan "is problematic of the kind of issues we see in the H-2A visa program across the country," Botts said. "There are problems when workers are tied to a single employer and their immigration status is tied to the employer. They can exploit workers because they know the workers are dependent on them for their legal status. This is a case where employers took full advantage of the workers."

One of the workers who worked at Four Star, Gerardo Santiago Hernandez, said: “We received so many false promises. It shouldn’t be possible for us to work so hard and not get paid as one should."

Contact Niraj or 313-223-4792. Twitter @nwarikoo

Below is a copy of the lawsuit:

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Michigan migrant workers: We were cheated, tricked into deportation