An 18-month investigation by Prism, Futuro Investigates, and Latino USA, is the latest to find horrific abuse throughout the H-2A agricultural temporary worker program. The H-2A visa includes extensive labor protections concerning wages, recruitment, working conditions, and housing, with multiple Federal departments playing a role in approval and oversight. And yet, the stories of abuse are as numerous as the regulations and Federal staff designed to stop it.
The Prism investigation opens with a story of trafficked H-2A workers that is corroborated by anyone who has followed the avalanche of abuse stories in the program:
But shortly after arriving in the U.S. as H-2A workers, Diego and Mario found themselves starving, scared, and plotting their escape from the very jobs they staked their families' futures on. In part, this is why they are using pseudonyms. Not only are they immigrant victims of trafficking, but pursuing justice has proven dangerous. The man who recruited them into the H-2A program in southern Mexico threatened Mario's wife."
Squalid conditions, physical threats, and crippling fear often come up when you listen to the foreign workers who the H-2A program is supposed to be protecting. The abusive employers, mind you, are the same ones decrying worker shortages and demanding more cannon fodder. And they are supported by willing dupes in Congress, including Rep. John Duarte and Rep. Zoe Lofgren.
Congress and the agricultural lobby will sell you stories about the pastoral family farmers needing a helping hand and try to scare you with threats of food shortages and famine. Next, they will tell you how the H-2A program protects foreign workers with strict wage and labor standards. It is sold to the American people as a "win/win," where American consumers get cheap food and foreign workers are allowed the opportunity to escape poverty with good honest work.
However, Prism adds the latest blemish to that false narrative:
But there is another critically important story to tell about the H-2A program: one that follows the deep problems that run through the program—problems that stem from the historically racist laws that shape it, the troubling history that informed it, the disposable ways employers are empowered to treat migrants, and the federal government's decades of failure to protect the workers that account for 10% of the farm labor force."
Meanwhile, American workers are discriminated against when they do try to join the workforce. African American agricultural workers in Mississippi were forced to train their white H-2A replacements. Also, while agricultural employers have a statutorily unlimited H-2A visa program, they still are violating the law and hiring illegal workers who they also abuse with forced labor and deprivation.
For this reason, the agricultural employers are the staunchest opponents of mandatory E-Verify. Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle are shockingly still carrying their water on this subject. Apparently, an industry built on illegal labor, immigration fraud, and worker exploitation is fine so long as the fresh fruit is sufficiently cheap.
Rather, I should say cheap for employers and consumers (if you ignore current inflation crippling the American consumer). One of the most prevalent forms of exploitation in the H-2A program is wage theft and illegal recruitment fees:
Even the one real benefit the program promises H-2A workers—money—isn't guaranteed. In the fall of 2021, Prism, Futuro Investigates, and Latino USA obtained records from the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) that showed $7.2 million in unpaid wages due to thousands of H-2A workers victimized by wage theft over the previous decade had never been returned to them. It had been sent to the U.S. Treasury instead. Officials at the DOL defended the practice, saying many transitory migrant workers are too difficult to locate....
There is no expressing how common—and ruinous—illegal recruitment fees are to prospective H-2A workers. According to John Sarraf, a fraud prevention manager with the U.S. Consulate General in Monterrey, Mexico, where the most H-2A visas in the world are processed, the typical cost of an illegal recruitment fee for a job that actually exists in the U.S. is around $2,000, which is almost what some Mexican workers make in a year. In cases of pure fraud, where recruiters have sent workers to the consulate for H-2A visas and jobs that don't actually exist, hopeful workers have been robbed of as much as $8,000."
There is no such thing as a free lunch, and in the H-2A program the workers are the ones paying the bill. They are paying with their labor and their stolen wages. This is clearly morally repugnant and economically unsustainable. The agricultural industry cannot think this scam will go on forever. A prudent Congress would see the voluminous writing on the wall and attempt to help our food suppliers reach a soft sustainable landing.
A soft landing would require accepting that the answer cannot be found in simply writing more labor protections. They do not have the staff in government to enforce the regulations that already exist. Instead, the overwhelming numbers must be reduced to a quantity our government can regulate. E-Verify must be mandated and punishments for forced labor and illegal labor must be increased for employers.
It is never too late to do the right thing, and the House of Representatives has recently passed a border security bill that would quell the border crisis and mandate E-Verify nationwide. Unfortunately, President Biden has promised to veto the bill because the chaos at the border is the point for him. Still, the Senate can place more pressure on him by passing the bill and making clear that the current status quo of border chaos and worker exploitation is unacceptable. You rarely lose money betting against sanity in the Senate, but here’s hoping.
JARED CULVER is a Legal Analyst for NumbersUSA
Updated: Tue, May 16th 2023 @ 1:52pm EDT