North Little Rock, AR — Jose Rangel Chavez and 18 other Mexican guest workers were dozing as their bus hurtled down Interstate 40 in a light rain. After nine months away from home, the 22-year-old was about to complete a meandering round trip of nearly 5,000 miles — from the citrus groves of Florida to farms in Michigan, where he harvested beets, broccoli, pumpkins and cauliflower, and finally back to their homeland.
They were just north of Little Rock, Arkansas, about a half day's hard ride from the border, when it happened: The 1997 Van Hool motor coach sideswiped a barrier and struck a concrete bridge support, peeling back the roof like a sardine can. Chavez and five others were killed; seven more workers were severely injured.
The crash in November 2015, though an isolated tragedy, was also the result of chronic problems within an American agriculture industry dependent upon a reliable supply of low-wage, foreign-born workers. Chavez and the others were part of an annual mass migration made possible partly by a guarantee of free and safe transportation to and from the fields each day and, at season's end, back home to their loved ones. But for many, that transportation is neither free nor safe.
It has been just over a half-century since the nation's worst fatal vehicle accident killed nearly three dozen migrants, a horror that farmworker advocates had hoped would bring lasting reforms. Yet, due to enforcement gaps and the sometimes callous attitudes of those who contract for the workers, laborers continue to ride in overloaded, poorly maintained, uninsured vehicles — often driven by a fellow crew member without a proper license, or with no license at all.
Chronically unsafe transportation for migrant farmworkers, blamed on enforcement gaps and ag industry demands, causes uncounted deaths and injuries
The Associated Press found more than a dozen accidents that left at least 38 dead and nearly 200 injured just since January 2015. The casualties included a 5-year-old Mexican boy who died when the van transporting him with his mother and 14 other blueberry pickers flipped in Virginia, and a 4-year old killed when a bus carrying mostly Haitian corn harvesters crashed in Florida.
Grim as it is, the AP's tally — generated through extensive interviews, public records requests and searches of online news reports — is almost certainly a significant undercount. No one keeps track of the casualties nationally.
"I think there's more unregistered, improperly insured, unsafe transportation out there for farmworkers than ... 20 years ago," says attorney Greg Schell, deputy director of Southern Migrant Legal Services.
A big reason, he and others contend: Rarely are those who profit most from this cheap labor made to pay. Instead, it is the families of people like Jose Chavez who lose.
Of the 1.1 million farmworkers in the U.S., 71 percent are foreign-born, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Nearly half of those acknowledge working here illegally.
Chavez did it by the books. His employer, Vasquez Citrus & Hauling of Lake Placid, Florida, is one of thousands taking part in the federal H-2A guest worker visa program. In addition to wages of $11.56 an hour, contractor Juan Vasquez would provide Chavez room, board and, crucially, a guarantee of free transportation from Mexico and back.
Whenever he could, Chavez dutifully wired money home. And his pledge of a better house began to be realized: His parents constructed two simple but sturdy rooms, with a roof that didn't leak.
Last Nov. 4, Jose wired his parents 6,000 pesos, about $320. Two days later, he was dead.
When the crash investigations began, a pattern of alleged safety violations emerged. Officials say the bus, purchased by Vasquez just the day before, was not registered with the Labor Department — meaning the company was not authorized to use it to transport workers. Investigators with the U.S. Department of Transportation cited Roberto Vasquez, Juan's brother, for allegedly driving while fatigued.
In addition, the vehicle was woefully underinsured, says Schell, who has been working with the victims' families. With a capacity of 47, it should have been insured for around $5 million; Vasquez's liability coverage was one-fifth of that. And his workers' compensation policy did not cover the journey home.
In the two years prior to the crash, Vasquez Citrus had been cited 22 times for alleged violations, from underage drivers to vehicles with worn tires, according to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. The Labor Department had also cited Juan Vasquez for failure to provide safe vehicles, going back to 2007. But no fines were issued.
Lori Flores, a history professor at Stony Brook University who has studied the Mexican farmworker movement, says the scenario is all too familiar.
"It's an honor system," she says of the regulatory apparatus meant to ensure workers' safe transport. "And it's only when accidents ... happen that agencies might get involved. But then it's way too late."