Maria Echaveste and Luis C.deBaca
DescriptionFriends Luis C. deBaca (54) and Maria Echaveste (66) discuss their early careers and arrival to labor law, share about some specific cases of labor abuse they worked on, and reflect on the larger global factors that contribute to labor trafficking.
Subject Log / Time Code
- Maria Echaveste
- Luis C.deBaca
Recording LocationVirtual Recording
Partnership TypeFee for Service
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00:05 My name is Luis c.debaca. I'm 54 years old and it is April 21st 2021. I'm in Shepherdstown West Virginia, and I'm talking over, the airwaves with Maria echaveste, my friend and storycorps conversation partner.
00:24 My name is Maria echaveste. I am 66 years old and I say April 12th 2021 and I'm in the Bay Area California. And I'm speaking with a friend and colleague Luda Baca with her, my part in the past.
00:44 Summary of the storycorps project that we're talking about today is coming out of the HHS trafficking office, which didn't exist when you and I were working in that pot and administration, but I think it also would not have existed. If you hadn't been working in the clinic ministration. I wanted to maybe just set the stage for our conversation by it. Could you, maybe walk us through, how you came into the government and specifically how you ended up working on patches farmworker issues, but on trafficking and slavery issues with large.
01:34 And I was asked to come over to the Department of Labor by secretary Bob rice, and I remember telling him, but I don't know anything about labor law. I'm a corporate litigator, and he said, you're just you're a lawyer, we can learn anything. And so it turned out, he asked me to be the head of wage an hour. And I turned out to be the exact job for which, I had gone to law school. I wanted to be involved in public policy and wage and hour and forces labor laws. Minimum wage overtime, Farm worker protection laws, and, and it as the daughter of farmworkers.
02:21 This was the job. I wanted a bundle of school for
02:29 How about you? How did you decide to go over cuz that department of justice? How were you there to law school after the Reagan years kind of decimated the farm economy. I thought that I like everybody in my family for the preceding 400s Years in New Mexico would end up being get out of raising cattle, you know, I was on a ranch. My dad was a professor who had left to the university and was back to grazing cattle. Here's the beef cattle professor. And so he was because he was one of the only Chicano scientists out there. He was doing a lot of work around the the world all the way back to the Kennedy administration with the alliance for Progress. Even before usaid.
03:21 And so I very much you know, I was thinking that I would go to into that and then when that turned out not to be the case because of the farm crisis. I went to law school fully intending on doing international law and fully intending on. Hopefully working on development work and I got for lack of a better word radicalized while I was in law school, working on challenges to the University of Michigan's. I've heard of Action Program, which the program that we were able to rewrite ended up going to the Supreme Court and getting upheld as constitutional. But also working on faculty hiring. And and a lot of other things that really just trying to make a space for ourselves as far as the Mexican-American humidity in that related Latino Community another bipod Community use at, Michigan.
04:19 And, you know, I'd worked at at all. That's one summer, Mexican American legal defense fund, for Norma, Cantu down, in, in Texas, inside worked on voting rights work. I've worked on a lot of those aspects and in the fall of 92, I went to this Panic Bar Association conference and two things happen there. There was people from the Clinton campaign at the Hispanic Bar Association conference with, I don't think we'll Clinton and including a pretty amazing. Lawyer from New York is Maria. You were, of course, at us. And also, there was a whole bunch of David Lopez James. We heal Lolita Rodriguez other
05:19 And I just a whole bunch of normal a horse and Lara Cordeiro. So basically that young crew of the Civil Rights division lawyers. And by the time that night was was gone and we were stuck in the hotel. It's actually Trump Plaza. The one that they jumped out of my wallet. They weren't burn down our pull down by the time we got done with that evening. They had convinced me that I needed to get my civil rights of an application in.
05:49 No matter than the fact that it was due on Monday at 5. And it was at that point, 3:30, or 4 in the morning, and I was in New Jersey, and there was a tropical storm coming ashore, but I made it back to Michigan. I guess I got my stuff in and, you know, I've later, I was actually when I left the government a few years ago. They sent me my my file or whatever and it actually had everybody's notes for my interview and it actually had in a two-word farmworkers written on it. And it had the fact that I could come from an agricultural background and there was something that the Civil Rights Division, I guess saw and I certainly at that point was like I'm going to do this and I'll consider doing development work. I'm going to try to take care of our community.
06:39 Here in the United States little did. I know that point I would end up being an ambassador and I working internationally but there anyway, so bad. As you know, I really feel like, you know, despite the fact that it wasn't the Trump Taj Mahal that has been a farce ization conference in 92. I mean, that's you're not only you know where I first encountered you, but it where I first encountered, so many of the other amazing people there that we know from the Civil Rights division.
07:12 When I speak with law, students are affiliated with UC Berkeley law and the center for Latin American studies is that the law is incredible versatile. And there's so many aspects to it and you might come in with a particular idea. Like I went because I wanted to be involved in public policy. I wanted to make decisions that could benefit people and then I spent twelve years litigating, but I think
07:39 When I say that wage-and-hour was really my dream job. It was the idea that someone with a farmworker background, who really has live. The American dream could be in charge of an agency that protected workers. And as I said, was just exactly what I wanted to be doing, even though in after six months everybody always described me as a worker Advocate and I've completely forgotten that I was involved in all kinds of what I called money fighting money and all very interesting work, but in But Not So Satisfied. Now, I just like it was money fighting money and
08:27 The wage and hour division had not had a confirmed administrator. So it's a sonic boom spot how lucky I was that there was no hearing it was sweet, the Democrats control the Senate and the house has. And yeah, I filled out all that background check information and took over in June of 93. And when you got there,
08:59 I've been twelve years. I mean, I was lucky enough. You're too later to start working with a bunch of your stuff. But I'm sure they were very different by the time I got to them just because of why you brought to the table. But what are you walk into? They have not had a confirmed administrator for 10 of the previous 12 years. And that means that there's a lack of sort of leadership and everything keeps running, but it is, they keep waiting for the next political appointee that kind of Direction and priorities. And the prior Administration under Elizabeth lidido have been the Secretary of Labor. And so, she has put a lot of attention on child labor, which my ways and our team. We, we enforce those, we enforce those laws and Sophie on the one hand were felt good because there were
09:59 Was being recognized by the secretary.
10:02 But they also felt adrift answer. Like, what should we be working? I think, the most important thing was that it was an agency that was complaint ribbon. And at the time it was about a thousand investigators. We ended up increasing it almost 1,500 to to look at over six million workplaces. You just don't have that kind of enforcement capacity. And so it was basically whoever knew that, which our existed whoever knew our office, who knew that they had rights.
10:39 Would call us. And so what are the things that I spent the first couple of years was really convincing my investigators?
10:50 You have to have to be a certain personality, because you basically go into an employer and say, let me see your records. Let me see you all. Your employee record, a little bit independent and used to doing things their way and hair was.
11:09 A woman, a Latina coming and say, look, I want you to rethink how you're doing your job. That was, that was a lot of culture shock. I felt like
11:21 Evangelical preacher. I would do these Town Halls across the country meeting with employees and they like Oprah taking question. I was really trying to get them to understand that we had a set priorities. We couldn't be everything to everyone and we couldn't just depends on who was coming into our office and backed the most egregious. Abuses were happening in low-wage jobs. And we knew what those were that was farm work. It was janitorial. It was Carmen sweatshops, and I wanted to concentrate on those Industries, which is why the big focus on on farmworker enforcement about you. I mean, how did how did
12:13 You start looking at farmworker of uses civil rights division, three kind of main things, release, going back to it when it was a section during the second Roosevelt administration and at different times over the last 75, 80 years. It's kind of abdomen float. In the 90s was actually a time when suddenly everything's happening at once. It wasn't like the sixties when suddenly it went almost, everything was about racial violence under Bobby Kennedy, and it's not because Bobby didn't care about the other thing. That's because the clan and everyone else was on full page not to try to Stave off all the games of the Civil Rights era back in the thirties. It was almost all slavery cases because they were trying to break the backs of the sharecropping and theater system in the south.
13:14 Just before I got to the division. Everything was all hands on deck for police brutality because the Rodney King case that happened in because of some silly her days with the way that the law treats compelled administrative statements on the behalf of police officers. He basically ended up having it to have half the office investigating and Prosecuting officers to beat up Rodney King and the other half of the office.
13:46 Interrogating all of the documents and all of the evidence that would make its way to the people who were Prosecuting Rodney King's assault assailant.
13:57 So that the there wasn't any painted material, so it's like a giant fruits of the poisonous tree problem, except it's not tainted because those unreasonable search and seizure. And so, my predecessor is that or what am I part of sisters is the involuntary servitude and slavery. Coordinator Carlo. Devinsky. She had been taken off during slavery cases and put on to that team to leave that team for the running can gays and everybody was doing nothing. But but cop cases for just three different rights. And I so would mean, when you've got a crime cases traditionally, it was either under the housing law or it was under the First Amendment, your ability to, to associate with people from other races are other cultures. If it's the police brutality case, it's your fourth, fifth through Eighth Amendment rights have been violated depending on when you are
14:57 In the system.
14:58 And if you're in involuntary servitude and slavery, case your 13th Amendment rights have been Wallace. Have been my life.
15:06 If I came in and I started doing all that kind of normal.
15:09 In a normal things and did a rotation over to you at screens office, in DC, where you get a lot of trial experience in a lot of Street crime, and that was back, when reply is missing in DC and it was enough just a really tough place in that area to see a lot of neighborhoods, where people who live now, who people look pretty Patton, who is, who worked on slavery, cases at the in the Clinton White House at the NFC know. She was up at like, 16th and Euclid now, and there is no way that a woman, a white woman could come home at 16th and Euclid at 10 at night. Back then aren't because they'd run into all of the undercover detectives with the surveillance. But you know, it was an open-air TCP Gallery. So that was what I ended up.
16:09 Doing first off the bat. Then when I got back and started doing, in a case has Tom Perez had been named the for basically, he became the first Latino, deputy chief in the criminal section history. And Tom was just a few years ahead of me and he graduated from Brown at a time where later it turns out that that's you know, where the folks that started the Coalition of Immokalee workers, Lauren and Greg. Are we on Rodriguez magic time?
16:41 And as soon as he became the head of one of the deputies, in the rental section, he called Lyon. And I enter his office and he said, you know, we keep hearing about this guy, Big Al Flores.
16:55 And for two years people have been coming to us and saying. And then everybody keep saying there's no evidence. The other, we put the FBI agents on it. Nothing happens, but there's just too much smoke for there, not to be something. So under that where there's smoke, there's fire. I'm going to put you on this and if you don't find something in 6 months, then we'll, we'll just move on. But, you know, it was the first time not only that we had, I let them know as a, as a deputy chief, but it was also the first time that there were enough people from the community and being Leon fellow Gonzales. Come over, you know, we had folks
17:39 From that Latino Community, but we also had folks from other previously, excluded communities, like the Penguin and others from the, from the Asian.
17:52 And you know, Leon and I got out and I think it's cuz we didn't know any better. We just went out in the first place. We went was to talk to the farmworker group's. Second place. I went was to call my home, Parish back in Iowa and talk to the person who basically run the sanctuary program. And you know, within weeks of our workers have been his runaway from Miguel Suarez to three years before we're calling us because we had nuns
18:26 Who are cell network from the sanctuary days of hiding Salvadorans in the basements of the church is all across the country, you know, nuns were starting to tell people. If you give Miguel Torres hurt you you need to call the sky and the sun brights division. So it's kind of accidental in that, you know, could have called me on and I am and said, here's a police beat somebody up in Cincinnati yesterday and we should go work on that. But instead he chose to work on that, right?
18:57 What what gets lost in this is, it would have been just, who's, who's Miguel Florence? Right? Like we didn't know you didn't know and certainly I didn't know until you called me and said, you know, can we work together and waging our help build his case. In fact, it was going to be the case that really was going to show. I was going to be criminally prosecuted, which is really, really important that there were people being held as slaves being trapped and being deprived of their rights and it was in for work and
19:41 The thing about it is,
19:45 There's a way to an hour. It's about getting your back wages. And these exploited, this exploitation like being paid minimal, or are you going to being promised something, and then your paid less? You're not getting overtime.
20:04 But there's a line we're being held the price of your Liberty because someone's forcing you to work and holding you in substandard conditions that this exploitation, and then there's slavery, right? And I think that that case made it real as as people learned about it at Sweet. If you investigated, this brought the case, may people realize that there are lines that even that was the 90s.
20:41 That they were still sleeping. And there were people who think that they have a right to control other people. And those people who very often are immigrants, almost there desperate their desperate. I mean, we're looking at the border right now of all those unauthorized Miners and their pic. And when you're desperate you become your pray, you can be exploited because you're so desperate. So what was it like to actually talk to some of those workers who had escaped loris?
21:25 What you know, what was interesting was it really struck me in and
21:30 You know, because I was in lucky enough to work on the policy stuff. We just kind of built this all in Quality Sewing in the people from Europe and other places that carefully constructed, how they're going to approach to policy thinking they're always asking me. So, how did you guys build in this victim centered approach, or how did you guys, you know, building in the notion of it up? Climate of fear in people being out in afraid to leave because of other things. They were hearing and rumor bells, and this, and that, you know, a lot of it was simply that whatever we were hearing from the workers, you know, we can come back up and transfer speed and Willy Ferrer was working for for mystery know, you know, once we got the task force that happened, after the Elantra case, especially, you know, suddenly I get back from a trip and I'd have to go in and see the attorney general and tell her what was going on. Especially cuz these cases were
22:31 But what was the child support for producing goods? For some high-end shops like Neiman Marcus and sewing machine. The El Monte case and then there was the other after that. There's a gay sex trafficking case that got in that case, in Florida,, You know, that all had kind of one. After another. I remember my Myron Marlin who was depressed person for the Department called as the, the
23:17 El Monte situation was unfolding. He's like,
23:21 He knew about slavery because of Miguel Flores.
23:28 If you had to deal with some of those press request from Dan Rather and from, CVS Edwin, Forrest by guilty, and it not being on the front page of the Wall Street Journal. That's on my renew about that and
23:44 I've always secretly thought that at Meijer and hadn't known about for us.
23:50 El Monte and you know, Paul Cheng, it was one of your investigators, you know, and a bunch of really good people could very well have gone in there and done what everybody's always done and like done, get our back wages interviews and everything else instead. Myren called me and I cannot go to just left to go out to to the US attorney's office. You've been in this section and I called Mike and I was like, oh my God, it looks like you've got a big slavery case have and within like, you know, 2 hours. Mike was out at the factory. In a lot of those sewing machines in the offences and the barbed wire and everything else are in the Smithsonian now, but in the meanwhile, in a bothan, Flores in El Monte and then in the car, then against the sex trafficking case, it's happening simultaneously. We're having to figure out how to how to not just listen.
24:50 So that survivors, but how did them take care of them in? So that's, of course, were things like the TVs and continued presence and all of those in El Monte way. It's going to 75 in our garment workers. Who is Julie Sue who now is about to be the deputy secretary of Labor, Julie, Sue. And and and you're on mine who are? I think Julie was at Asia Pacific and when year was I want to say, it's Kaden fell out. And people don't realize that the fellowship program was our secret weapon in a Terry, Gross thing was a Scot and fellow down at 4 to Immigrant Advocacy Center. When when suddenly they ended up representing a bunch of big, New York law firm, Skadden, Arps it actually in my very first litigation as a baby lawyer, baby gator as we said, it was a takeover case.
25:49 And I was reviewing documents in the Skadden office in New York and weak spot for sure. They had purposely lowered the temperature in the conference room cuz it was freezing. So it is this law firm and yet they created a fellowship that that allowed young lawyers to work on civil rights cases to give something back to the community with Cheyenne. So shut up. It's a really important program.
26:23 And, you know, I think it is specially then because they're, you know, in case after case, they are the ones who are able to, you know, get up and you do not, do I say now, do you know, we work together on that case, but it's like, you know, they were times when you know, they were having to come after the government and say you, you aren't doing what you needed to be doing, you know, 25 years later. You're like, oh, yeah, we worked that case together. Anyway. I think that
26:58 You have an incredible thing that I took away from the especially the Flores survivors was twofold. First of all, just how tough they were. These are not people who We rescued. These are people who had very scared.
27:20 Late-night conversations in those trailers out in the swamps where they collectively decided how they were going to escape and knowing that they could be
27:32 I could drown in the in the Everglades knowing that they could be caught and hurt because they'd seen him do it to other people. I'm all of those things that we never charged that in a body in the river because we never were able to get to get enough information to prove that Beyond A Reasonable Doubt. Any of those were of great moment for these folks are all for 4:10 of some of these amazing Guatemalan Mayan women and the two men, a lot of them from the same regions that people are leaving today,. We're watching on go and and that area.
28:14 And they deciding that this thing that they believed in, and they believe that the United States stood for was something that they were going to have to take on their own. And that I think for me, you know, it color the rest of my now but 25-year career during slavery work is that, you know, we don't rescue people, people emancipate themselves and hopefully, we're there to catch and where they are not to make it worse when they get out. And then the second thing from from Flores, is that
28:49 People will do a phenomenally Brave things even.
28:55 Knowing that they're going to get hurt because of their sense of fairness. There was a guy Antonio Perez who had worked in the United States before and he stood up on a bucket and talk to all the other workers. He says this is not how it's supposed to be in the United States. I've been here. This is not what it was like that the other Farm, you know, we have rights. They can't do this to us.
29:19 And then he got pistol-whipped into having to be Medevac. And then
29:26 Flores, his wife Kris Cortez happens to be the person who volunteered to.
29:31 Translate for the sheriff's deputies. When they came to arrest me to interrogate everybody, you know, so that no should know of, you know, somebody like everything that we do. That seems pretty fancy whether it's white asses or or about your trips or this or that is nothing compared to enter Antonio. Perez getting up on a note on the back of a tomato bucket. I want to ask you.
30:01 Because you said 25 years.
30:06 From that cave to State Department's ambassador-at-large ludovica, you know what can use? I mean, slavery and trafficking is worldwide.
30:22 Yeah, you know, the, the numbers obviously are contested as his everything, but he died, even the smallest estimate served in the kind of 2025 million range. And you know, I think a lot of it comes down to
30:43 A lot of it comes down to individual greed and crime. A lot of it also comes down to things that are built into
30:51 Global capitalist.
30:53 And I'm not saying that from some kind of marxist perspective or anything like that. You know, it's I think that, you know, when we see the kind of stress that gets put on for just-in-time delivery in the biggest case in US history and I was able to do it. It's the one that I was doing right as as the administration was ending and
31:20 It's the one that came out of your caution to me, not to try desperately, to get a political appointment, but to hang in there, because somebody was going to have to keep this flame alive. No matter what happened, and I was able to do that night, you know, I was able to do that, that case out in American Samoa with the 250 ish, Vietnamese and Chinese garment workers.
31:46 Anyone at the end of the day, the reason to kill Julie ordered those garment workers beat by the two guards, in the warehouse workers was because they had to get a shipping container loaded.
32:00 To get to JCPenney on time for Black Friday.
32:05 So in an absent, the way that we do capitalism in the way that we Source things. Now, those folks would not have been in that situation. He was he was clapping down on them because his suppliers and his vendors and his bankers and rails were clamping down on it doesn't excuse what he did. Right now. I have this ongoing discussion with a dear friend who's a big advocate for socialism and I say what?
32:42 Capitalism unleashes the best, the Ingenuity. The
32:49 Allergy and Innovation, but it also unleashes the worst of a human being, right? Is it supposed to good Innovation and just thinking of new ideas because also the worst of humanity? The greed, but I wanted to
33:09 To go. Do you know what's the thing? You're most proud of when you what you worked on at the state department? Cuz that's a difference. You know, when you're at the justice department. It's like a case winning a case, right?
33:26 But, but when you're operating at the policy level and an international, what do you look back on?
33:34 We do one thing that I think they always have to realize is that you know, unless you're tremendously naive and frankly stupid.
33:47 The smallest country in the UN system is just a sovereign of a Nation as is the United States.
33:56 And just cuz he knighted states is wealthy or just because United States has no military or political power that it can it can spread around the world. These are the people who know what their communities need. These are the people who reflect their territorial sovereignty etcetera, and that to me was something that was I think so.
34:24 Useful to and I got a kind of known that to some degree from other work, but did I think it was very useful to be able to come in with some kind of humility? And to basically say Okay work walk me through. Talk me through your Colonial Traditions, walk me through your freak. Lonial Arrangements, you know, who was it that was being enslaved and exploited 200 years ago.
34:51 And are they still in that position? And if so, how do we attack that? You know now because it's not really the kind of modern country that you want to be, but, you know, it was very much the coming in and I'm doing that. But I think that for me, is also going to the idea that
35:10 And this is going to be at the question I have for you in the last 5 minutes of the idea of if a country is truly going to to sign on to this idea of the three. P's the 3p Paradigm. President Clinton announced in 98 of prevention protection and prosecution and secretary Clinton then later added Partnerships, but if that is going to be, how you claim to be, arranging your anti-slavery work, your modern anti-slavery were
35:41 Cuz it gets in trying in the United Nations protocol to, which we were negotiating at the same time that we were negotiating, the US legislation.
35:50 At some point you have to graduate from carceral Solutions as much as I feel like a bad boss, who enslaves people needs to go to jail and I'll even go one step further and say, the folks above him, who profit from him, should be put in some risk, whether it civil or criminal or criminal. So, watch out everybody in the financial sector and watch out insurers and everybody else.
36:18 But if you're going to actually talk about prevention and something other than stupid and useless ways, like, posters in in departure, lounges that every woman who's ever traveled from Colombia, to the United States thinking, she's going to be a model is walking, right? Past that thing saying it's sex trafficking and she doesn't see herself in that poster. Kennedy real prevention work yet to actually look at at markets and you have to look at the power of the market. And so I think the problem
36:53 If not the most but certainly one of the most proud things about the Obama Administration. Before me, is that, we were able to harness the power of the government as far as its procurement strategy and that's still taking time to come online. I don't think it's it's online, really up. The regulations have been written. They made it to the Trump Administration and I think that we're going to see the United States and Allied countries starting to use our procurement. No slave made good. Should be bought by your tax dollars. And we're starting to hear that now reflected, back from the UN was actually thinking about having a u n y procurement ban on sleeping cuz I want to throw it back on to you because we didn't talk about you being at the White House. How did you carry and I win your wager. Our even when you're the headquarters person at wage our, you're still very field-oriented.
37:49 And you know the kind of the daily stopped at coming up from the field and you're having to deal with all that and then suddenly you go up to the White House for goodness sake and especially in your role as Deputy Chief of Staff. How are you able to continue to work on slavery trafficking, labor issues, ETC. When you've got Osama Bin Laden, got in a trade deals going on. People are trying to impeach the president, you know, all of those other things are happening. How are you able to keep focused on Sundays? Corey? And I know you have since we probably don't have time to talk about that, but it really matters to keep your feet on the ground. And to remember that those
38:33 Fancy titles and, you know, High positions that they'll be gone and you need to be able to look in the mirror and know that you were working on things that that really, we're going to make a difference. And I think the second thing is, I knew that other people were working on stuff, that's on the New York Times front page the budget. I felt that my role was, let me pay attention to other issues that are just as important like labor, like workers rights, like immigration, because I can make a difference there. So it's finding that balance, but I think more than anything is always remembering where you came from. And my roots are very humble. Even if I reached high places and so you can't ever let that go.
39:27 That's how I felt. So anyway, well, I feel like that that Legacy which was a bunch of new folks who had come to DC not knowing what we didn't know, or what we weren't supposed to do, cuz it was impossible. I do feel like, you know, 20 years years later, you know, there are whether it's immigrants, or US citizens have been enslaved. Other since X or labor, and I think hopefully they've had something good happen their lives because of what you and me, and a few others of us were able to do.