The perfect victim: Exploitation and threat of deportation

A retail custodian sexually assaulted by her boss fights back despite her immigration status

The perfect victim: Exploitation and threat of deportation

As Leticia Zuniga remembers the first time her boss made a pass at her, she fidgets with a sugar packet meant for the coffee in front of her.

When it happened, she explains, she was one of about 20 employees tasked with cleaning the Ridgedale Center, the upscale shopping mall in Minnetonka. Her actual employer was the subcontractor Service Management Systems, a Tennessee-based company with thousands of employees who clean more than 300 malls around the country.

A slim woman, Zuniga wears her dark brown hair tied in a low bun. Freckles dust her cheekbones and forearms. Her supervisor, SMS's facilities manager at the Ridgedale Center, used to notice them.

"'I'd love to get to know all of those freckles,'" Zuniga remembers him saying.

One day not long after that comment, Marco Gonzalez called Zuniga into his windowless basement office. He closed the door. It wasn't that unusual, Zuniga remembers thinking. He usually had the door closed.

Quickly, though, she grew wary. After running through his normal list of compliments, Gonzalez asked Zuniga to take off her clothes. She refused. And so he locked the door, turned off the lights, and stripped her clothes off for her.

"And that," Zuniga says, the sugar packet in shreds, "was the first."

Over the next two months, Zuniga alleges, Gonzalez would rape her three more times.

Gonzalez knew Zuniga's family. He walked around the mall with her husband on breaks; Zuniga had sold Avon products to his wife.

He knew that the immigration documents she had shown him were fakes — that she had come here illegally — and that she worried about being discovered. He knew that she had two sons who had been born in Minneapolis, ages 8 and 10, and that she feared having to leave them if she was deported.

Gonzalez knew this, and he used it. After the first assault, he pulled her aside one day.

"'If you ever tell anyone,'" she remembers him saying, "'I'll report you to immigration.'"

"I just kept thinking of my kids," Zuniga says now. "They were born here; they wanted to stay here. I kept thinking that I had to tell someone, but that if I did, they would not believe me. I felt very alone, so alone that I started to talk to myself. I felt that I couldn't do anything."

Retail custodians like Zunigaface some of the poorest working conditions in the industry. Invariably, they work for a big subcontractor like Zuniga's old employer, SMS.

"The standards in retail are horrible," says Javier Morillo, the president of the Twin Cities chapter of the Service Employees International Union, or SEIU Local 26. "When clients hire a subcontractor, it gives them the ability to distance themselves from any sort of working conditions issue."

As a result, the workers hired to fill those positions are often, like Zuniga, immigrants who have come to the country illegally.

"The exploitation," Morillo says of Zuniga's case, "is not unique."

But unlike in this case, that exploitation often goes unrecorded. Many people in the country illegally don't realize they still have legal rights, or simply avoid drawing law enforcement's attention for fear of deportation.

"Undocumented folks not reporting crimes, it happens all the time," says Mike Freeman, the Hennepin County attorney. "It's a major problem."

When Zuniga finally left her job with SMS, she sought help, ultimately teaming up with lawyers who helped her sue SMS and Gonzalez.

At the end of June, Zuniga will receive the "Courageous Plaintiff" award from the National Employment Lawyers Association. It is being bestowed on her, her nomination letter reads, for showing "that it is possible for an undocumented worker to win a lawsuit against a big corporation."

"She faced three huge obstacles," explains Steve Befort, an employment and labor law professor at the University of Minnesota. "Because of the potential danger of deportation, it's very risky to object to unsafe workplace conditions. Even if that person dares to assert rights, they might find themselves with fewer rights than other workers.

"It's very difficult," Befort continues, "for someone in her position to even dare to venture into the legal system."

When Leticia Zuniga first came to the United States, she was a 24-year-old with a tourist visa and a plane ticket to Chicago. She had grown up in the Mexican state of Hidalgo, the area just north of Mexico City.

She moved to Minneapolis right away and found work bussing tables at a hamburger joint. About five months later, she met Abraham Quevedo, the Guatemalan man who would become her husband.

In June 2005, Zuniga put in an application for a job with SMS. Marco Gonzalez, then age 37, hired her.

Gonzalez had been born and raised in El Paso, Texas, and dropped out of high school in the 10th grade to work for his dad. He got the job with SMS in 2001, and two years later, the company moved him to Minnesota to run the Ridgedale Center facility, its only contract in the state.

As facility manager, Gonzalez could hire and fire at will, and he was also responsible for all new employee training. He distributed SMS's employee manual, which included a section on sexual harassment, but he didn't have to go over it.

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13 comments
ElChingon82
ElChingon82

Just because she is an illegal immigrant doesn't take away the fact that he is a rapist.....PERIOD!!! NO woman illegal or not should be a victim of rape!

mdc701
mdc701

Thank you for writing about this.  No woman whether legal or illegal, law abiding or not, deserves or should go through a rape.

Truth_Teller_1
Truth_Teller_1 topcommenter

This person has no business being here.  She has comitted a criminal act.   If she was still in Mexico, this would have never happened to her.

Obviously, she has no drivers license, or liability insurance, or health insurance.  If she ever would have an accident, well you or your insurance company is gonna 'eat it'.

If she really wants to make things better - stay in Mexico and make it a better country for future generations.  These illegal aliens are selfish people:  They desert their country of origin, and steal our infrstructure.   I'd rather pay US citizens $20/hr to clean the Mall, and pay for the costs upfront - higher rents/prices.  All that happens is that our gubmint taxes us, to pay for these illegal aliens.

Breeders.  Need I say more?

blacksheep
blacksheep

Why was she too timid to tell her own husband, who could have beat the heck out of the guy?

But now you make her out as brave? Deport her, end of story!

_Joe_
_Joe_

@East_Coast_Doug I'm inclined to agree.  Some measure of blame should fall on the people who get themselves into this situation.  However, the laws of our country are also there to protect people, not just citizens.  Criminals are still protected by law.  If you beat the tar out of someone that just got a speeding ticket, you are still breaking the law.  The fact that they too have broken some kind of law is irrelevant.

 However, as long as we have American citizens willing to break the law and hire illegal aliens, they will keep coming.  The focus needs to be on people doing the hiring.  Make the penalty so high that it is not worth the risk.  If someone can save $30K a year by hiring an illegal worker, then make the penalty for getting caught $500K per instance.  The problem will go away overnight.

erikostrom
erikostrom

@blacksheep What they said, and also, in America we don't think vigilante justice is the best justice.

hmcgarvey
hmcgarvey

@blacksheep First, you clearly you don't understand the psychological effects of rape. Illegal or not, she's a human being with emotions and feelings. As clearly explained in the article, there are numerous reasons that many women and men may not come forward with these allegations immediately. Second, I'm really glad that your concern is about deporting a woman, who is now here legally, rather than understanding why this man continues to be employed, is deemed an excellent supervisor and is likely continuing the same abuse that has affected (at LEAST) two women for their entire lives. Just no.

sblsister
sblsister

@blacksheep She was certainly afraid that if she told him, he would indeed beat the heck of the guy, get arrested, and made things worse.  She truly had no reasonable recourse.  She was very brave.  I hope she has a happy life right here in the USA, and I wish nothing but the best for her, her husband, and her children.  Gonzalez, on the other hand, deserves prison. 

Truth_Teller_1
Truth_Teller_1 topcommenter

I agree that she should be protected by our laws. 

I wonder what kind of fake / altered / borrowed documents she used to get the job?

_Joe_
_Joe_

@j.reiter

So she can break the laws and then claim she wants to be protected by the laws? 

Yes.  For the same reason that I don't get a free pass to beat you senseless and take your things because of that speeding ticket you got that one time.

 If it is really so horrible then why do people continue to come here illegally and work?

 Because there are American businesses that will pay them.  American businesses that care more about their bottom line and getting the cheapest labor they can find than they do about creating jobs and employing their fellow citizens.The problem starts right here.  It's not coming across the border with these people.


j.reiter
j.reiter

So she can break the laws and then claim she wants to be protected by the laws?  If it is really so horrible then why do people continue to come here illegally and work?

_Joe_
_Joe_

@East_Coast_Doug Nothing that would stand up to even a cursory amount of scrutiny.  The employers are equally if not more culpable in this mess.

 
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