Legal status of migrant victims uncertain - WALB.com, Albany News, Weather, Sports

Legal status of migrant victims uncertain

October 11, 2005

Albany- GBI agents say they are not looking for anymore suspects in a string of home invasion murders in Tifton and Tift County.

Four people are charged in the killings, all face six counts of murder. Nineteen year old Stacy Sims, 27 year old Jamie Underwood, and 27-year old Jennifer Wilson all of Moultrie were charged last week. Agents from the southeast task force and the Marshal's office arrested 22 year old Thomas Christopher Mathis of Adel Friday afternoon in an apartment in Valdosta.

Sims and Underwood are also charged with aggravated assault, aggravated sodomy, and rape for a Norman Park home invasion.

The murders have left many wondering whether the six victims were documented workers. Investigators say they are not sure, but their initial focus was on arresting the killers. Many South Georgia farmers employ migrant workers, and in addition to agencies who check to make sure they're in the country legally, there are also investigators to make sure the workers are being treated fairly.

If you take a look around South Georgia you'll likely find large groups of Hispanic workers on the farms, and its up to investigators with the Department of Labor to make sure their employers are doing their jobs.

"What we're looking at is primarily wages, housing, transportation, and also the registration," says Joe Brown.

Brown worked with the Department of Labor for 38 years before retiring. He was a wage and hour investigator and says there are laws on the books that hold both farmers and their crew leaders responsible for unfair treatment.

"All we're trying to do is make sure that the crew leader is registered, if he's transporting that he's authorized to transport. Whenever the wage hour does the investigation they also check the payroll to make sure that the piece rates that the crew leaders are paying the workers are minimum wage or higher."

Brown says most large farmers will provide on-site housing for their workers, a safer alternative than allowing people will large amounts of cash to rent housing in the community.

"In this day and time there are a lot of people you don't want to have access to your workers, and you can control that access much better if its on your farm," Brown says.

But providing housing for workers also means keeping a certain standard of living conditions, something Brown says growers have gotten a lot better at doing.

"This is what we ran into 20, 25 years ago, well the housing we've got is much better than what they're living in possibly in Mexico or wherever. Our response was well, we're not in Mexico. This is the U.S. and there's a law that says you've got to provide adequate housing."

Brown says though Department of Labor investigators do not handle legal documentation of migrant workers, he says if violators are found during checks, investigators can refer the case to immigration officials.

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