July 27, 2017


Farmworkers' lawsuit names business tied to Cervantes


Andrew Oxford, The Santa Fe New Mexican


A group of farmworkers is suing a company owned by the family of a Democratic candidate for governor, accusing the business of trying to manipulate a federal visa program and passing over American workers for foreign laborers.

State Sen. Joseph Cervantes, a lawyer, is defending his family's company. Cervantes, who this month entered the race for governor, says his family had nothing to do with a recruiter's efforts to obtain temporary work permits for hired hands from Mexico.

While he maintains that the lawsuit is without merit, the advocacy group that filed it says Cervantes' family business was part of a scheme that harms workers on both sides of the border.

Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid, a nonprofit group that advocates for farmworkers, filed the lawsuit. It names another business owned by the Cervantes family and four other agricultural companies based in southern New Mexico as defendants. Those four firms have settled, but the case involving Cervantes' family businesses continues.

We felt that settling the case would have suggested (it had) some validity," Cervantes said in an interview.

The lawsuit claims that Cervantes Agribusiness signed an agreement in 2011 with a firm called Workonnection that would supply workers for processing and packaging dried red chile.

Farmers in the area have long complained about a shortage of labor and the quality of workers they can hire on this side of the border. But the federal government has provided few temporary work permits for the agricultural sector in Doņa Ana County.

Workonnection, which would serve as a middleman by recruiting laborers and provide housing, aimed to get visas for a pool of workers in Mexico and bring them into the United States.

But Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid says plenty of workers already were in the country and willing to take the jobs. It accuses Workonnection and the farmers who signed on with the company of attempting to game the visa program by bypassing American laborers to get the visas anyway.

The lawsuit asks a federal judge to rule that the firms broke the law, fine the businesses and award damages to the farmhands.

Cervantes' family is a fixture of the agricultural community in the senator's native Doņa Ana County, producing pecans, chile, onions and other crops. Cervantes is even better known in political circles. He has served as a county commissioner, a state representative and since 2013 as a state senator. He once mulled a run for Congress and now he's one of four Democrats seeking the party nomination for governor.

Cervantes' brother, O. Dino Cervantes, helped manage Cervantes Agribusiness at the time the farm labor agreement was signed with Workonnection.

Founded by Jaime Campos, the former executive director of the state's border authority, Workonnection searched for laborers in Mexico to bring to the United States under temporary permits known as H-2A visas.

But to convince the federal government to issue such visas, employers must first prove they cannot find American workers to fill jobs.

To ensure the foreign workers are not just used as cheap labor to undercut the wages of workers in the United States, the federal government requires employers pay more than the minimum wage.