A week after tragedy rocked their community, victims’ families and survivors of the deadly shooting in Half Moon Bay, California, are still in crisis mode, an advocate who visited the community told NBC News.
With seven immigrant farmworkers killed at two different farms, many laborers and their families have been left without housing or income, and an already exploitative industry now feels even more unsafe for those who face returning to work.
“This mass shooting, the gun violence issue, compounds some already pretty terrible living and working conditions,” said Cynthia Choi, co-executive director of advocacy group Chinese for Affirmative Action, who met with survivors last week. She said she spoke with community members who are still struggling to meet basic needs. “We have individuals 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 immigrant workers and two were Mexican immigrant workers. Zhishen Liu, 73; Qizhong Cheng, 66; Marciano Martinez Jimenez, 50; Yetao Bing, 43; Aixiang Zhang, 74; Jingzhi Lu, 64; and Jose Romero Perez, 38, were identified as the deceased by the San Mateo County Coroner’s Office late last week.
The shooter, farmworker Chunli Zhao, admitted to the killings, reportedly telling law enforcement that he went on the rampage because his boss asked him to pay $100 to repair a damaged forklift at work.
California Gov. Gavin Newson acknowledged the conditions they lived in were “deplorable,” with the farmers at California Terra Garden — the site of the first shooting — living in shipping containers and getting paid only $9 an hour, well below the state’s $15.50 minimum wage.
“In general, farmworkers, migrant populations are often invisible,” Choi said. “They experience multiple forms of harm and violence.”
NBC News tried to reach out to farmworkers and their families, but they were either unreachable or not speaking to the media at this time.
The community of Chinese farmworkers in Northern California is one that’s been consistently overshadowed and left out of conversations, she said. In the wake of the shootings in Half Moon Bay, Asian survivors and families were left in a resource desert.
Without organizations in the area specifically dedicated to supporting them, San Francisco-based groups like Chinese for Affirmative Action and Stop AAPI Hate have tried to fill the void. Working on the ground in Half Moon Bay, a coalition is helping to provide food, housing options and in-language services for the survivors. They also organized a GoFundMe to raise money for those whose livelihoods have been affected.
“When you think about farmworkers and migrant workers, you often don’t think of Asians,” Choi said. “But of course we have a history of Asians who are agricultural workers, especially in California. I think locally and on the coast, there’s just very little information.”
Without readily available translators and culturally educated advocates in the area, immigrant farmworkers are vulnerable to exploitation with little recourse, Choi said.
“And on top of that, we’re coming off nearly three years of a rise in anti-Asian hate,” she said. “There’s just fear on multiple levels.”
Communications director with United Farm Workers, the country’s largest union for farmworkers, Antonio De Loera-Brust, said he has seen exploitation play out on farms across California. Farmworkers might know their rights, he said, but they 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 folks are immigrants, there might be an immigration-related threat … If you complain, I’ll call ICE. A lot of them are living on site. That’s another point of leverage. Your boss is also your landlord.”
It’s an aging industry too, De Loera-Brust said, as tightening immigration laws have slowed the flow of young people coming into the U.S. for farm work. A majority of those killed in Half Moon Bay were over the age of 60.
Chinese immigrants have been working on farms in the U.S. as early as the 19th century, according to Washington University research. 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 being targeted by the local government in recent years. Hmong farmers in one county sued the local government last year, claiming they had routinely been singled out by law enforcement, frequently stopped in traffic and had their water supply cut off. The case is ongoing. A Hmong farmer in Siskiyou County, California, was killed by police in 2021 after trying to drive through a wildfire evacuation checkpoint. In previous interviews with The Associated Press, Siskiyou County officials said they were not racial profiling.
Invisibility and a lack of outreach make bad conditions worse, advocates said. In Half Moon Bay, the shooting has upended the lives of those left behind, they said, revealing dire gaps in how the U.S. protects farmworkers.
“It’s still a crisis situation,” Choi said.
The shooting in Half Moon Bay follows another deadly shooting in Monterey Park, California, that killed 11 people during a Lunar New Year celebration on Jan. 21. County law enforcement says there’s no evidence Zhao’s killing spree was a copycat attack.