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. 

Email HCN at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor

High Country News Classifieds
  • NORTHERN NEW MEXICO PROJECT MANAGER
    New Mexico Land Conservancy is seeking a qualified Northern New Mexico Project Manager to provide expertise, leadership and support to the organization by planning, cultivating,...
  • GRAPHIC AND DIGITAL DESIGNER
    Application deadline: December 17, 2022 Expected start date: January 16, 2023 Location: Amazon Watch headquarters in Oakland, CA Amazon Watch is a dynamic nonprofit organization...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Eugene, Ore. nonprofit Long Tom Watershed Council is seeking a highly collaborative individual to lead a talented, dedicated team of professionals. Full-time: $77,000 - $90,000...
  • GIS SPECIALIST
    What We Can Achieve Together: The GIS Specialist provides technical and scientific support for Geographic Information System (GIS) technology, data management, and visualization internally and...
  • LOWER SAN PEDRO PROGRAM MANAGER
    What We Can Achieve Together: The Lower San Pedro Program Manager directs some or all aspects of protection, science, stewardship and community relations for the...
  • FOREST RESTORATION SPATIAL DATA MANAGER
    What We Can Achieve Together: The Forest Restoration Spatial Data Manager fills an integral role in leading the design and development of, as well as...
  • WATER PROJECTS MANAGER, SOUTHERN AZ
    What We Can Achieve Together: Working hybrid in Tucson, AZ or remote from Sierra Vista, AZ or other southern Arizona locations, the Water Projects Manager,...
  • SENIOR STAFF THERAPIST/PSYCHOLOGIST: NATIVE AMERICAN STUDENT SPECIALIST
    Counseling Services is a department strategically integrated with Health Services within the Division of Student Services and Enrollment Management. Our Mission at the Counseling Center...
  • THE NATURE CONSERVANCY IS HIRING A LOCAL INITIATIVES COORDINATOR
    The Nature Conservancy in Wyoming seeks a Local Initiatives Coordinator to join our team. We're looking for a great communicator to develop, manage and advance...
  • LAND AND WATER PROTECTION MANAGER - NORTHERN ARIZONA
    We're Looking for You: Are you looking for a career to help people and nature? Guided by science, TNC creates innovative, on-the-ground solutions to our...
  • SENIOR CLIMATE CONSERVATION ASSOCIATE
    The Greater Yellowstone Coalition (GYC) seeks a Senior Climate Conservation Associate (SCCA) to play a key role in major campaigns to protect the lands, waters,...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Southern Nevada Conservancy Board of Directors announces an outstanding opportunity for a creative leader to continue building this organization. SNC proudly supports Nevada's public...
  • CORTEZ COLORADO LOT FOR SALE
    Historic tree-lined Montezuma Ave. Zoned Neighborhood Business. Build your dream house or business right in the heart of town. $74,000. Southwest Realty
  • ENVIRONMENTAL AND CONSTRUCTION GEOPHYSICS
    - We find groundwater, buried debris and assist with new construction projects for a fraction of drilling costs.
  • STRAWBALE HOME BESIDE MONTEZUMA WELL NAT'L MONUMENT
    Straw Bale Home beside Montezuma Well National Monument. Our property looks out at Arizona fabled Mogollon Rim and is a short walk to perennial Beaver...
  • ATTORNEY AD
    Criminal Defense, Code Enforcement, Water Rights, Mental Health Defense, Resentencing.
  • LUNATEC HYDRATION SPRAY BOTTLE
    A must for campers and outdoor enthusiasts. Cools, cleans and hydrates with mist, stream and shower patterns. Hundreds of uses.
  • LUNATEC ODOR-FREE DISHCLOTHS
    are a must try. They stay odor-free, dry fast, are durable and don't require machine washing. Try today.
  • PROFESSIONAL GIS SERVICES
    Custom Geospatial Solutions is available for all of your GIS needs. Affordable, flexible and accurate data visualization and analysis for any sized project.
  • A CHILDREN'S BOOK FOR THE CLIMATE CRISIS!!
    "Goodnight Fossil Fuels!" is a an engaging, beautiful, factual and somewhat silly picture book by a climate scientist and a climate artist, both based in...