Behind the story: Why we delayed publication of our labor trafficking report

Emily Shullaw for Wisconsin Watch

“Sometimes the manager was angry and didn't give us water. (We) told him that there was no water — it seemed intentional,” said “Roberto,” an immigrant farm worker describing working conditions at a farm in Wisconsin. Roberto and 13 others were allegedly forced to work illegally at the farm.

In 2017, Alexandra Hall, our Wisconsin Public Radio/Wisconsin Watch reporting fellow, was investigating labor trafficking in Wisconsin. An advocate put her in touch with a young man from Mexico who had a horrific tale of exploitation and forced labor. 

“Roberto” arrived legally in the United States to work at farms in Georgia, but he soon found out the job was not as he expected. His passport was confiscated. He and the roughly 200 other workers from Mexico were told not to talk to strangers. The work was brutal; sometimes workers fainted in the fields and were left to lie in the sun, Roberto said.

Fainting and freezing in the fields: Alleged labor trafficking victim tells of mistreatment in Wisconsin and Georgia

Then, three months after arriving, the men were told they would be driven to Wisconsin, where they would continue picking produce. They were issued fake names and documents and again told not to talk to anyone outside the Racine-area farm where they worked.

That is when Roberto became an undocumented immigrant and — a federal indictment would later charge — a victim of human trafficking. 

The story presented an ethical dilemma for Hall and Sarah Whites-Koditschek, the WPR reporter who succeeded Hall as the Mike Simonson Memorial Investigative Reporting fellow.

Listen: Alexandra Hall’s audio report on Wisconsin Public Radio

Roberto, through his attorneys, strongly urged us to hold off on reporting his story, saying it could jeopardize an ongoing federal investigation and bring harm to him and the other 13 alleged trafficking victims. Sure enough, when the charges came down in May 2019 against five employees of Garcia & Sons, they included allegations that the workers had been pressured not to testify.

We were also asked not to publish any identifying details about Roberto. We honored that request by giving him a pseudonym and illustrating the story not in photographs that showed Roberto and some of the other workers but in illustrations based on court documents.

While journalists’ first inclination is to bring you the news as soon as we learn it, we decided to delay release of the story and to conceal Roberto’s identity to minimize harm.

It was the right choice.

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