A family held their relatives captive; a community set them free

A labor trafficking case shows Westerners can sometimes still count on each other to protect those in need.

 

Phyllis Adkins, 65, had known William and Leonida Sackett for six years before she met the people who would later become their victims. Like the Sacketts, Adkins owned a farm in Rocky Ford, Colorado, a small, tight-knit community where neighbors are like family.

So when Leonida was able to help her brother, Esmeraldo Echon Jr., emigrate from the Philippines in 2011, it looked like a cause for celebration. A year later, Esmeraldo’s wife, Maribel, and their three sons joined him in Rocky Ford.

The Echons saw their arrival as the dawn of their American Dream. Instead, they found themselves trapped by their own relatives in a three-year nightmare of forced labor — until local residents like Adkins began suspecting that something was wrong.

Thanks in part to their testimonies, a federal jury awarded the Echons $330,000 last year in Colorado’s first civil human-trafficking trial. “If it hadn’t been for those community members (who spoke up), this case would not have happened,” said Jenifer Rodriguez, managing attorney for the migrant farm worker division at Colorado Legal Services, who represented the Echons.

At a time when threats of immigration raids and mass deportations are making immigrants increasingly vulnerable to exploitation, what happened in Rocky Ford offers hope that rural Westerners can still sometimes count on each other to protect those in need.

William Sackett at his market in Rocky Ford, where he and his wife, Leonida Sackett, forced Esmeraldo Echon Jr. and Maribel Echon to work. The Echons were awarded $330,000 last year in Colorado’s first civil human-trafficking trial.
Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post via Getty Images

The Sacketts were well-known in Rocky Ford, an agricultural town in southern Colorado with a population of less than 4,000, famous for its sweet melons. They owned a farm, a market and 15 rental properties. As Esmeraldo Echon’s official immigration sponsor, Leonida had to agree to financially support the family so they would not need welfare or other government assistance. But she used that legal obligation against her newly arrived brother and his family, forcing them to work without pay to cover the cost of their sponsorship and threatening to have them deported if they refused.

From April 2012 to June 2014, the Sacketts forced the Echons, who were unaware of their rights, to work in their fields and at their market, as well as clean and maintain their rental properties and do various other jobs. Maribel had to care for Leonida’s ailing mother, while Esmeraldo usually performed hard manual labor 10 hours a day, six days a week. He never knew exactly how much he owed or when it would be paid off.

The Sacketts deny that the Echons ever worked for them. “It was all a bunch of lies, all a bunch of malarkey,” William Sackett said in his deposition.

Adkins, a self-proclaimed “staunch conservative,” realized something was amiss when Maribel and Esmeraldo came to the Community Presbyterian Church, which Adkins attended, because they didn’t have enough food. Later, Adkins visited the Echons at their home and saw a meticulously kept house with no toiletries and no food save for some old vegetables in the freezer. They had no heat in the winter or air conditioning in the summer because Leonida (falsely) told them that it would drive up the electrical bill by thousands of dollars. To Adkins, it was clear the Echons needed help.

“I knew it was illegal, but I didn’t know how to deal with it,” she said, referring to how the Sacketts controlled Esmeraldo and Maribel.

Throughout the West, labor trafficking is as pervasive as it is invisible in a range of industries that rely on cheap labor: agriculture, construction, mining, logging, hospitality and domestic services. Nationwide, more than 8,000 human-trafficking cases were recorded in 2017. In Colorado, law enforcement agents reported that 16 investigations were opened, all of them related to sex trafficking. But labor trafficking receives far less attention and fewer law enforcement resources than sex trafficking, experts say, so those numbers don’t reflect the scope of the problem. “Most people don’t identify as a victim,” says Annie Fukushima, an assistant professor at the University of Utah who specializes in human trafficking and migration.

Immigrants are particularly vulnerable, she added, with traffickers often exploiting their undocumented or non-citizen status and lack of English skills and support networks.

And the Trump administration’s tough anti-immigration policies have made it harder than ever for trafficking victims to gain legal protection. Last June, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services released a new policy memo, which warned that immigrant human trafficking victims who apply for a special T-visa and are denied could face deportation proceedings. “That would never happen before,” Rodriguez said, noting that immigration enforcement used to focus on deporting people with criminal records. Rodriguez now feels she has a duty to warn potential clients about the risks they face.

In 2014, Maribel Echon sought help from Colorado Legal Services, which filed a civil case for non-payment of wages. Later, Adkins and four other Rocky Ford residents testified on behalf of the Echons, helping secure a ruling in their favor. The case is under appeal, but Rodriguez believes it offers an important message for immigrant trafficking victims elsewhere: “There are people who will help you,” she said. “Justice can be served.”

Sarah Tory is a correspondent for High Country News. She writes from Carbondale, Colorado. 

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