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More Forced Labor in H-2A as Congress Works to Expand the Program

author Published by Chris Chmielenski

The owner of Los Villatoros Harvesting (LVH) pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit forced labor on Tuesday in the latest example of slavery in the H-2A agricultural temporary worker program. The Department of Justice (DOJ) said after the plea, “The scheme these defendants employed trapped the victims through fear of serious harm if they did not continue to toil away for the defendants’ profit.” According to the DOJ, LVH charged exorbitant sums of money to vulnerable Mexican workers just to get to the United States, and then forced them to work every day for essentially no pay. To keep the exploited in line they confiscated passports and even threatened physical harm to them and their families. The guilty plea is for conspiracy to commit forced labor, but this is clearly and plainly slavery. While this sort of atrocity is continuing apace within the borders of the United States, Congress and lobbyists are pushing hard to expand H-2A.

In 2021 the House of Representatives passed H.R. 1603 The Farm Workforce Modernization Act on a bipartisan vote. The big selling point for Democrats is that the bill allows illegal aliens to gain amnesty by working in the agricultural industry. For Republicans like Rep. Dan Newhouse, the bill provided a “reliable and legal workforce for our farms and ranches.” Yes, holding workers’ status hostage will certainly help their employers retain their services. It is stunning that Congress is bragging about it. Seeing as how the program is rife with abuse and slavery, Congress thinks they need to expand the size of the carrot to lure desperate workers to enter the industry. Of course, anything would be better than simply paying a living wage and recruiting the millions of Americans looking for work. H.R. 1603 functions as the black hole sucking in vulnerable workers and then locking them into an abusive job to earn citizenship. The bill offers lawful permanent resident status to workers if they stay in the agricultural industry between 4 and 8 years depending on their circumstances. Just as it sounds, this is forcing workers into indentured servitude for the agricultural industry where Congress knows, or should know, that actual slavery is occuring as we speak.

The bill does pay some limited lip service to the idea of labor and wage protections for both foreign and domestic workers. However, even at the time of this writing, the H-2A program is one of the most heavily regulated visa programs in the country. H-2A has requirements for employers to pay a fair wage to workers. Despite that, you see the Department of Labor investigations recovering $131,000 in back wages for abuse by an Ag employer. There are extensive requirements in H-2A, now, for reasonable housing and accommodations for foreign agricultural workers, and yet each new DOJ indictment and countless reports from foreign workers demonstrate this is not enforced. And we know where there is smoke there is a raging fire. For every tragic story that is discovered there are untold stories swept under the rug or never investigated at all.

Our dear leaders in Congress believe the solution is to simply restate the labor protection requirements and claim victory. The truth is that there is not enough staff or interest in the Federal government to enforce these labor protections. The United States admits far more workers than they can possibly regulate. Millions of temporary workers on top of millions of illegal immigrants are working in the United States, so even a motivated enforcement scheme could not capture more than a fraction of the employers abusing foreign and domestic workers. Essentially, due to the sheer overwhelming number of workers within these visa programs, employers are operating on an honor system. The regulations are mere suggestions for most and their actions have proven they have no honor over and over.

One potential solution is to greatly expand the federal enforcement bureaucracy to investigate the clear and present danger of fraud and slavery within these programs. Given the scale of temporary and illegal labor in the United States, this would require a Herculean effort of hiring and training thousands of additional staff across multiple agencies within the Departments of Justice, State, Labor, and Homeland Security. While it might be doable to essentially hire Americans to oversee the treatment of their foreign replacements, it would greatly expand the public’s costs for very little overall benefit. Why would American taxpayers spend billions of dollars to make sure employers get cheap agricultural labor? Americans would be footing the tax bill to prop up an immigration system that shuts them out of every industry. In the current time of high inflation and a staggering economy, expanding the exploitation of foreign workers is cheered as a way to reduce costs and ease pain for consumers, but that would be washed away in a world where the agricultural industry is actually held to account for their exploitation of the workforce. The trap of chasing cheap labor to produce cheap goods is that the exploitation of the workers becomes crucial and systemic.

Another solution is to reasonably reduce the number of foreign workers in the United States to a scale that can be effectively regulated with the agency staff we have. The calamity at the border provides a great case study on how overwhelming numbers reduce the ability to vet and oversee migrants. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) found multiple problems as the numbers have increased. It is time for lawmakers to realize the same problems of overwhelming numbers we see at the border also applies to the legal immigration system. Our government simply cannot sustain current numbers and cannot reliably vet and regulate increasing legal immigraton. We must require American employers to actually recruit and hire Americans at a living wage and protect foreign workers from slavery and other assorted abuses. Instead of asking American workers to “learn to code,” let’s demand industries innovate their business models and wean themselves from dependence on a constant stream of exploited labor. Rather than Congress bending over backwards at every turn to entice ever larger numbers of foreign workers to the United States, they should be creating policies to reduce dependence on such disgraceful tactics as we have been chronicling here. We need to introduce greatly reduced hard numerical caps on foreign worker categories with mandatory E-Verify for all employers. We need to stop allowing businesses to bully the public with threats of shipping jobs overseas or astronomical price increases at any hint of labor protections. The critics will claim that without dependence on exploited foreign workers that prices will rise, but as always they neglect the price paid by child labor, discrimination against American workers, and indentured servitude. No matter how much they speak about per capita GDP growth and cheap goods and services they cannot change the reality of the cost American and foreign workers pay.

JARED CULVER is a Legal Analyst for NumbersUSA

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