Families of Half Moon Bay shooting victims who lived on farms left without homes or income

A week after tragedy rocked their community, the families of victims and survivors of a deadly shooting in Half Moon Bay, Calif., are still in crisis mode, an attorney who visited the community told NBC News.

With seven immigrant farmworkers killed on two different farms, many workers and their families have been left without housing or income, and an already exploitative industry now feels even more precarious for those facing return to work.

“This mass shooting, the problem of gun violence, adds to some already pretty terrible living and working conditions,” said Cynthia Choi, co-executive director of the advocacy group China for Affirmative Action, which met with survivors last week. She said she has spoken with community members who are still struggling to meet basic needs. “We have people who no longer have a place to live because they lived on the farm. … Obviously they don’t want to go back.”

Of the seven people killed last Monday, five were Chinese migrant workers and two were Mexican migrant workers. Zhishen Liu, 73; Qizhong Cheng, 66; Marciano Martinez Jimenez, 50; Yetao Bing, 43; Aixian Zhang, 74; Jingzhi Lu, 64; and Jose Romero Perez, 38, were identified as deceased by the San Mateo County Coroner’s Office late last week.

The shooter, farm worker Chunli Zhao, confessed to the killings, reportedly telling law enforcement he went on a rampage because his boss asked him to pay $100 to repair a forklift that broke down at work.

California Governor Gavin Newson admitted the conditions they lived in were “deplorable”, with farmers in California’s Terra Garden – the site of the first shooting – living in shipping containers and being paid as little as $9 an hour, quite below the state minimum wage of $15.50.

“In general, farm workers and migrant populations are often invisible,” Choi said. “They experience multiple forms of harm and violence.”

NBC News attempted to reach farmworkers and their families, but they were either unavailable or not speaking to the media at this time.

The Chinese farmworker community in Northern California is one that has consistently been overshadowed and left out of the conversation, she said. After the Half Moon Bay shootings, the Asian survivors and their families were left in a resource wilderness.

With no organizations in the area specifically dedicated to supporting them, San Francisco-based groups like Chinese for Affirmative Action and Stop AAPI Hate tried to fill the void. Working on the ground in Half Moon Bay, a coalition is helping to provide food, housing options and language services to survivors. They also set up a GoFundMe to raise money for those whose livelihoods are affected.

“When you think of farm workers and migrant workers, you don’t often think of Asians,” Choi said. “But of course we have a history of Asians being farm laborers, especially in California. I think there is very little information locally and on the coast.’

Without readily available translators and culturally educated advocates in the area, immigrant farmworkers are vulnerable to exploitation with few resources, Choi said.

“And on top of that, we’re coming off almost three years of an increase in anti-Asian hate,” she said. “There’s just fear on many levels.”

The director of communications for the United Farm Workers, the nation’s largest farmworker union, Antonio De Loera-Brust, said he has seen exploitation on farms across California. Farmworkers may know their rights, he said, but often feel like there’s no viable way to assert them.

“We have a saying, ‘There’s one law in the books, there’s another law in the fields,'” he said. “If these people are immigrants, there could be an immigration-related threat … If you make a complaint, I’m going to call ICE. Many of them live locally. This is another leverage point. Your boss is also your landlord.

It’s also an aging industry, De Loera-Brust said, as tightening immigration laws have slowed the flow of young people coming to the U.S. for farm work. Most of those killed in Half Moon Bay were over the age of 60.

Chinese immigrants worked on US farms as early as the 19th century, according to a University of Washington study. And from the beginning, exploitative working conditions and racist policies came with the territory.

Asian farmworkers in other areas of California have reported racial profiling and been targeted by local government in recent years. Hmong farmers in one county sued the local government last year, claiming they were regularly picked on by law enforcement, frequently stopped in traffic and had their water supply cut off. The case continues. A Hmong farmer in Siskiyou County, California, was killed by police in 2021 after trying to pass through a wildfire evacuation checkpoint. In previous interviews with The Associated Press, Siskiyou County officials said they were not racially profiled.

Invisibility and lack of contact make bad conditions worse, advocates said. In Half Moon Bay, the shooting upended the lives of those left behind, they said, exposing dire gaps in the way the U.S. protects farmworkers.

“This is still a crisis situation,” Choi said.

The Half Moon Bay shooting follows another deadly shooting in Monterey Park, California, that left 11 dead during the Lunar New Year holiday on January 21. County law enforcement says there is no evidence the Zhao killings were a copycat attack.

This article was originally published on NBCNews.com

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