Perfect Crimes

For immigrant victims of sexual abuse, justice is nearly impossible to come by.

Photograph by Dana Smith

Photograph by Dana Smith

ON A GRAY JANUARY day in 2007, Luisa Gonzaga watched the traffic rushing by on Route 1, wondering how things had gotten to this point. She was riding in a car driven by a man named Juan Tercero, her boss at the Gold Bell produce company, where she worked sorting food each day. As the two drove along the highway, Gonzaga looked out at the neon signs and rundown motels with increasing dread.

Tercero, her uncle by marriage, had gotten her the job after she’d followed her husband from Guatemala to Boston in 2003. Every morning before dawn, she walked past diesel-spewing freight trucks and the dark windows of the King Arthur’s strip club and entered the gates of the New England Produce Center in Chelsea. There, inside a warehouse as big as an airplane hangar, she joined dozens of other women — many of them, she says, immigrants like her — sorting onions and sweet potatoes for $6.75 an hour. The clouds of dirt from the vegetables caught in her throat and gave her nosebleeds, but she was done early enough each day to enjoy some time with her children.

The only problem was Tercero. The very first week, Gonzaga says, he began making comments about her appearance. Gradually he became more explicit, telling her, “I need to make you mine.” He started cornering her behind the packing crates and grabbing at her. When she rejected his advances, she says, he yelled and threw things — vegetables, rolls of shipping labels. It became unbearable. “My life didn’t make any sense to be here,” Gonzaga says. “I’d call my mom and sisters, and they told me to come home… [that] it would be better to have tortillas at home with salt than to go through this.” But going home wasn’t really an option. She barely knew how to get to New York, much less back to Central America. An undocumented immigrant, she feared that if she left she might never see her children again.

As she relates this story (which Tercero disputes), Gonzaga is sitting at her kitchen table inside one of the triple-deckers along the Chelsea waterfront. She is small and soft-spoken, with a diamond-shaped face and a ruffled shirt that nearly matches the tropical-orange color of the room. Wreaths of hot peppers are suspended over the stove, and flowering plants hang from the walls. Every so often, one of her younger children pads into the kitchen before running back to the other room.

The color drains from her face when she begins talking about the events leading up to that day in 2007 when she got into the car with Tercero. Throughout the holiday season, workers at Gold Bell had faced increasing pressure to fill a rush of orders. At the same time, Gonzaga says she faced a different kind of pressure from her boss. “He wanted to be alone somewhere with me, and if I didn’t go I would be without work,” she says. “He said if I gave in he would never bother me again.” Even worse than firing her, she says, Tercero threatened to turn her in and have her deported.

On that January afternoon, she finally relented, agreeing to drive with him to a motel if it would put a stop to the harassment. Once there, he had her get onto the bed, and then had sex with her; they were there less than 20 minutes. “I told him I didn’t want to be there,” she says, “but it was too late.”

That wasn’t the end of it. During a routine medical checkup a few months later, Gonzaga discovered she was pregnant with Tercero’s baby. “It was the worst day,” she says. “The earth and sky collapsed on top of me. I just kept walking, not even knowing where I was going.” That night she drank an entire bottle of NyQuil, hoping she’d fall asleep and never wake up. “I was in shock,” she says. “It was hard for me to believe that someone from my own family would be doing so much harm to me.” But her ordeal was only just beginning.

 

ABOUT ONE MILLION IMMIGRANTS LIVE in Massachusetts; of those, experts estimate that some 200,000 are here illegally. Those undocumented workers make up a vital if invisible workforce. They’re the people who show up after hours to clean our offices, do our dry cleaning, wash our dishes, and pack our fruits and vegetables in unseen warehouses on the edges of the city. To advocates, they are an essential part of the economy, doing jobs American citizens won’t. To critics, they are gaming the system, exploiting the country’s generosity, and draining tax dollars when they fall on hard times.

One aspect of our immigration system often ignored by both sides, however, is also one of the most insidious: The invisibility of undocumented workers has created a situation rife with abuse, especially against women like Gonzaga, whose legal status often makes them vulnerable to sexual harassment at work. Though reliable statistics are hard to come by, the few studies that have been completed on the topic paint a bleak picture — a California State University survey found that 90 percent of migrant workers, for example, cite sexual harassment as a problem — and local experts say violent sexual harassment among undocumented immigrants is a growing concern in Massachusetts. “It’s all too common,” says attorney Stephen Born of the law firm Mills & Born, who recently moved his office from Roxbury to Providence. “It’s hard to know what’s unreported. Immigrants who are illegal avoid any contact with the authorities. It’s one of those very-difficult-to-quantify issues.”

What’s worse is that in Massachusetts, even when victims do come forward, it has become nearly impossible for them to achieve justice.

 

DESPITE HER ANGER, GONZAGA stayed silent for another two years about what happened that January day. When Tercero told her husband she’d been with someone else, she says, he threw her out of the house. She rented a one-bedroom apartment, subletting the bedroom while living with her children in the living room. She started waking up at 2 in the morning to make food for extra income.

Throughout this period, she says, Tercero continued to harass her. Finally, on February 27, 2009, she decided she’d had enough. That day, Tercero had been particularly insistent they see each other again. As they walked out into the parking lot together, he allegedly tried to grab her and drag her into his car. “No!” she screamed. “I will never go out with you again.” She says that’s when he told her she was fired.

Gonzaga was so angry, she called the cops. “If they were going to deport me, they could deport me,” she says. When the police arrived, she told themeverything: about the abuse, about the threats, about the afternoon at the hotel room. Despite her fears, the Chelsea detective who took her statement wasn’t interested in her immigration status. Instead, he referred her to the Victim Rights Law Center, where she was assigned to a lawyer in Cambridge named Tyler Fox.

With his wiry beard and tufts of white hair sprouting like wheat stalks over small oval glasses, Fox looks more like a family physician than a lawyer who deals with some of the state’s most difficult cases. He briefly entered the public spotlight in the early 1990s when he helped represent three Guatemalan men who had been kidnapped and sexually assaulted by a state employee posing as an immigration officer. After a five-day trial, the jury awarded each of the victims just $250,000. “I think they got the immigrant discount,” says Fox, still rankled.

In the past 20 years, Fox has represented dozens of immigrants in cases involving workplace sexual harassment, but he’s convinced that he sees only a tiny fraction of the abuse that’s actually going on. He’s also convinced that the situation is getting worse. “I really do think this is the tip of the iceberg,” he says.

In these situations, there are myriad reasons for a victim’s reluctance to come forward. In cases of sexual abuse among immigrants, the perpetrator is often someone from the same ethnic group; it’s usually, “He is my cousin or he is my ex-husband’s stepfather’s friend,” says Shalini Vivek, an attorney at the Victims Rights Law Center of Boston who specializes in immigrant victims. “They lure them over to the workplace where they know they are vulnerable already, then they start — first it’s a come-on, then it’s a threat, then it’s an assault.”

That fits a larger pattern in rape and abuse cases, where the perpetrator is usually known to the victim, says Gina Scaramella, executive director of the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center. “That’s not too different from the coach or college professor or boyfriend,” she says — except for one important difference: “The person doesn’t have the ability to move or speak out or change their circumstance.” In fact, the tight-knit nature of immigrant communities reinforces the wall of silence. In some cases, a victim might not say anything because family or other community members are dependent on the perpetrator for a job or monthly check — or, perversely, because she knows her abuser is also here illegally, and doesn’t want him to be deported. “When you are here from another country, you are not just you,” says Scaramella. “You are everyone who is here with you and everyone who is at home depending on you.”

That pressure is even stronger on women from cultures where talking about sex is taboo. “For Latinas it is very hard to share that,” says Patricia Montes, executive director of Centro Presente, a Somerville-based agency providing services to Hispanics. “I can clearly picture a Latina telling another woman, and her saying, ‘It was your fault, what were you doing there?’” In some Asian cultures, reporting sexual harassment is virtually nonexistent. In certain Middle Eastern and African countries, admitting to being raped is equivalent to a death sentence.

By law, state and local authorities are supposed to treat victims the same whether they are in the country legally or not. Suffolk and Middlesex counties, say advocates, have been particularly aggressive in prosecuting cases of immigrant abuse. “No one, regardless of their country of origin, deserves to be a victim of a crime, especially of a sexual assault,” says Gerry Leone, district attorney of Middlesex County. Vivek has never had a client deported for reporting abuse, but she also knows that not all law enforcement officials are as sympathetic as Leone, and worries that the current wave of anti–illegal immigration legislation in the country will make it that much more difficult to convince victims to come forward.

But getting a victim to come forward is only part of the problem. Sometimes corroborating witnesses themselves are undocumented immigrants and don’t want to call attention to their own legal status. That was the case with Nelci de Lara, a Brazilian woman allegedly sexually assaulted by the owner of Samba Cleaning Service, which cleans homes and office buildings throughout the metro Boston area. In early 2004, de Lara claims, the owner, Gilberto da Silva, assaulted her while she was cleaning a house in Newton. After, she says, he continued to expose himself to her while on the job. “It was devastating,” says de Lara’s attorney, Dennis Bottone. “Around the time she was terminated, she was literally afraid to walk out the front door and walk around the block.” Da Silva denied any assault, and none of the other employees were willing to testify. “They said, ‘I don’t want to; I am going to lose my job. I am also going to be reported to immigration,’” says Bottone. The Middlesex DA’s office eventually dropped the charges.
Bottone had better luck with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination. After an investigation, the MCAD ordered da Silva to pay $164,700 in punitive damages and lost wages, plus interest. “When you look at the judge’s finding, it is most assuredly our side of the story,” says Bottone. (The case is currently under appeal.)

Created in the 1940s, the MCAD is a strange hybrid agency, with commissioners appointed by the governor to both investigate and prosecute crimes. While it gives plaintiffs a unique venue in which to bring their cases, it’s also — thanks to years of budget cuts and short-staffing — a highly inefficient means of administering justice. The agency’s most recent budget is actually lower than it was 10 years ago, and its backlog of cases currently numbers nearly 5,000. (The recent chairman, Malcolm Medley, says the MCAD has been working to dispose of the backlog of cases, starting with those more than three years old. “Most of our cases are now resolved within 18 months,” he says.)

Despite the agency’s efforts, some lawyers, including Fox, routinely pull their cases out of MCAD after the required 90-day waiting period to bring them in Superior Court, where the risks are greater but so are the potential awards. “The MCAD, in my opinion, started out as a good thing,” says Fox. “Now it’s like a shadow court. If you keep your case there, defense attorneys may think you don’t have a case.”

With Fox’s help, Luisa Gonzaga filed her complaint with the MCAD in March of last year, three weeks after Tercero told her she was fired. Fox pulled the case and resubmitted it in Superior Court. Last December the company settled for an undisclosed amount without admitting any guilt.

Such settlements are common for these kinds of cases, says Fox, which only serves to keep the issue under the radar. “First she’s silenced because she can’t speak English,” says Fox. “Then she’s silenced because this guy Juan [Tercero] tells her not to talk or he’ll fire her. Then she is silenced by this order that says she can’t talk about the settlement.” At least Gonzaga’s agreement still allows her to talk about the underlying incidents of abuse. Fox is able to discuss only a handful of cases of the dozens he’s prosecuted; Born can’t talk about any of his.

Gold Bell denies it, but Gonzaga says she is “100 percent certain” the company was aware of the abuse taking place on its warehouse floor. She says she notified the company early on and was rebuffed by a female supervisor who said that was “just the way he is” with everyone. “Juan Tercero acted as if he could just do anything he wanted and have his way with people,” says Gonzaga. In addition to the civil case against him, Tercero was also charged in Chelsea District Court with criminal assault and battery for the items he threw at her on the job — though not for sexual assault, which is more difficult to prosecute.

Tercero denies he ever harassed or assaulted Gonzaga; he says the two had a consensual sexual relationship. “We had what you would call an extramarital affair,” he says after agreeing to meet in his lawyer’s office on the Chelsea waterfront. He is short and small, and wore a white T-shirt, glasses, and a mustache. “Almost from the beginning she had problems with all of the personnel,” he says, though he claims he never reported Gonzaga because he felt sorry for her. She confided in him regarding problems with her husband, and he says the two went out to restaurants and motels together at least once a week for two years. After she accused him of abuse last year, however, the company fired him. “They said they didn’t want any trouble,” he says. “I guess they believed her and not me.”

Despite his claims of innocence, Tercero pleaded guilty to assault and battery a few weeks after speaking for this story. He was sentenced to six months in jail, with the term suspended for a one-year probationary period. If he stays out of trouble, he won’t do the time. He now works for another produce company during the day and for a cleaning service at night.

 

AFTER LEAVING GOLD BELL, Gonzaga got a job at a food company in Newburyport called Greencore. Yet her relief at finding a new job soon faded. She realized she had left one bad situation to find herself in another — working in an environment fraught with sexual harassment and racial tension between the mostly Hispanic and Cape Verdean employees. “It’s like I was traumatized before and now something worse was going to happen,” she says. At one point, she says, a fellow employee punched her twice in the chest, causing her to black out; the police were called to the scene, and an ambulance had to take her to the hospital, she says. (Gonzaga’s story may not be unique: This past September a manager at Greencore was arrested and charged with indecent assault for allegedly luring an employee into a storage closet and groping her at knifepoint. He has denied the charge. )

This time, Gonzaga immediately reported the incident and filed a claim with the MCAD. In a statement, Greencore has denied the assault, providing several statements from witnesses that contradict Gonzaga’s account of the altercation with the employee. However, other employees, along with police and hospital reports, corroborate her account. Whatever the outcome of the various pending trials, Gonzaga is a changed woman from the one who suffered for five years in silence.

When she first walked into Fox’s law office, she says, “I would have chills, I would be very afraid. But that is gone now.” Even though her oldest daughter is only 14, Gonzaga says she has told her the whole story about what happened. “I wouldn’t want this to happen to my daughter or anyone else,” she says. “I can’t forget what happened, but if I talk about it, maybe other people won’t have to go through what I did.”

  • lydia

    Thanks goodness for the Victim Rights Law Center and their ability to help survivors of sexual assault from further abuse and exploitation

  • Sharmili

    Regardless of immigration status, those sexually abused should have a clear path to justice; unfortunately, that is often not the case. The threat of deportation hopefully has less impact when survivors of violence are connected with resources knowledgable about the U-Visa and other remedies. Thank you for shedding light on a situation many don’t think about in our country’s ongoing debate about immigration, and for sharing a brave woman’s struggle.

  • howeecarr

    I’m SURE Boston Mg will be running a story on crimes COMMITTED by illegal immigrants. Fair and balanced, doncha know…

  • victor

    as an undocumented i have been assulted,abused and almost raped.have not found a group or organization to help yet.now i am being extorted by rapist and threatened deportation if report assults and torture and molestation.still not a group or soul to help.its either deportation by loosing all self dignity or thearts of death and extortion by assailant.no mercy or help by anybody.