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 Zuniga face 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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