When Marysol heard about the job in Belle Glade, Florida, in 2015, it sounded like a safe bet: She would be working full-time for six months, harvesting lettuce for a U.S. company and making $11 an hour, higher than the pay for many jobs in her hometown in Veracruz, Mexico. The recruiter even took care of the application for her H-2A visa, which is designated for temporary agricultural guest workers.
Marysol, then 42, arrived in Florida and found out that she would be making $10 an hour. And the workweek was only three days. “I felt cheated,” she said recently in Spanish, speaking through an interpreter. (She asked to be identified only by her first name to avoid losing the chance to apply for another visa in the future.) As the only female worker, Marysol said she was forced to share a trailer with four men. She had run-ins with intoxicated co-workers and felt unsafe, but complaining to the majordomo—the crew leader or manager—got her nowhere, she said.
And then there was the fact that so many of her co-workers were sick. Men from Veracruz and Guerrero showed up in Florida suffering, Marysol said, from the mosquito-transmitted Zika virus. They said they had contracted it before leaving Mexico.
“They had fevers,” Marysol said. “They were really not functioning well.” Zika is transmissible only through blood or sexual contact. She wasn’t afraid she would get infected, but she was frustrated and upset by management’s response. Marysol said the majordomo shrugged it off when she asked him to give sick workers permission to go to a clinic. “What can I do?” she recalled him saying. “They have to work. The harvest has to happen.”
Most cases of Zika are mild. But Marysol said one worker became so sick he couldn’t leave his trailer. “They didn’t want to help him,” she said. “They fired him. They gave him his passport, they bought him a flight, they paid him for the week, and sent him home.”
In recent years, the Trump administration has pushed to restrict legal immigration. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, it has temporarily closed U.S. borders, expelled asylum seekers, and suspended the approval of green cards. It is now expected to extend the immigration ban to cover other visa categories, possibly including the H-1B for skilled workers—something that anti-immigration hardliners like White House adviser Stephen Miller and Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas have long demanded.
But as the administration restricts avenues into the country, it’s also expanding one that leaves low-wage workers particularly vulnerable to dangerous working conditions: the H-2A—the same visa that brought Marysol and her co-workers to the U.S. Despite the White House’s claims that the immigration bans were enacted to reduce competition for jobs, over the last two months, the State Department has actively encouraged U.S. employers to bring more agricultural guest workers into the United States. Citing concerns from growers about a possible labor shortage, the agency has waived interview requirements for nearly all H-2A applicants—the vast majority of whom are Mexican—and made it easier for companies to hire H-2A workers who are already in the country.
As U.S. consulates around the world closed, the State Department slowed in issuing what are called “nonimmigrant visas”—a category that covers any temporary stay in the United States, including work and student visas. They issued nearly 50 percent fewer of these visas in March 2020 than they did in March 2019. But the number of H-2As issued actually went up: There were 26,957 issued in March of this year compared to 22,374 in March 2019—a 20 percent increase.
Overall numbers for April were even more dismal: Only 46,855 nonimmigrant visas were issued that month—total. That’s 94 percent less than were issued in April 2019. Yet despite the near-complete suspension of these programs, the U.S. government kept handing out farmworker visas. For the first time ever, H-2As made up the vast majority of the visas issued in one month, with 31,303 issued.
That means that 67 percent of all people who were issued nonimmigrant visas in April were part of a group that farmworker and labor advocates say are among the most exploited in the country.
H-2A workers are still in the minority among U.S. agricultural workers overall: Most farmworkers are undocumented, and many have been in the United States for years, if not decades. They may have families and local networks of support, while remaining vulnerable to workplace abuse and deportation. Guest workers, separated from their communities, experience a different kind of isolation, the inequities of their employment agreements enshrined in law and loosely regulated.
“Many of the advocacy workers on these issues see the guest workers as being even worse off and more indentured,” said Daniel Costa, director of immigration law and policy research at the Economic Policy Institute. That’s because H-2A workers are completely dependent on the individual employers who sponsor them. If they lose their job—if they’re fired for complaining about working conditions or become too sick to work—they can be forced to leave the country immediately. Terrified of losing the chance to support their families, they’re unlikely to speak up about abuses.
All 100 of the former H-2A workers who responded to a recent survey conducted by Centro de los Derechos del Migrante (CDM), a migrant rights organization, said they had experienced at least one serious violation of their legal rights, from illegally low wages to unsafe housing to sexual harassment and coercion. Ninety-four experienced three or more legal violations. That doesn’t mean they won’t return on the H-2A visa again: Many Mexican workers are from rural areas, where there are almost no jobs. For these workers, the H-2A program is a bad bet that they have to make again and again to support their families.
Even then, it’s not an option that’s open to everyone. If growers can prove to the State Department that they need to hire foreign workers, they can more or less hire whomever they want. “We’re essentially privatizing our immigration system,” said Rachel Micah-Jones, executive director of CDM. “We’re giving employers the possibility to decide who comes into the U.S. and who doesn’t.” She said the lack of oversight has resulted in blatant discrimination against women and older workers, as employers almost always prefer to hire young men. (Marysol, a rare exception, said she was only able to come because the recruiter was a friend of her brother.)
On top of that, recruiters who find H-2A workers for U.S. employers in Mexico will often extort illegal fees from the workers, who then arrive in the United States deeply in debt. The CDM study also found that many workers were not being paid the Adverse Effect Wage Rate—a minimum wage for agricultural workers required by the Department of Labor—because employers illegally dock their pay to cover transportation, housing, and other expenses.
That housing—which U.S. law requires employers to provide—tends to be crowded, with workers in bunk beds or otherwise close together, Micah-Jones said. Workers pile into company-provided buses or vans to reach the worksite. CDM is hearing from workers that few employers have made changes in light of social distancing recommendations, and many are not giving them adequate information about COVID-19. “We have heard from workers who say that their employers have told them, ‘There’s no such thing as COVID-19. It’s an invention of the government,’” she said. “So they call us: ‘They say it’s not real. What do we do?’”
The national unemployment rate hit 14.7 percent in April, and low-wage U.S. workers have lost the most jobs. Meanwhile, NPR reported that administration officials including chief of staff Mark Meadows and Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue have been pushing a proposal behind the scenes that could further sweeten the deal for H-2A employers: They’re aiming to lower the minimum wage for H-2A guest workers to $8.34 an hour. In some states, that would mean these wages could be cut by as much as $5.
The push to drive down these wages—which has not yet been formally proposed—is happening even as farmworkers across the United States have been deemed “essential workers,” the non-negotiable link between the fields and the country’s food distribution system. As part of the CARES Act passed in March, the Department of Agriculture promised farmers $16 billion in direct aid and an additional $3 billion in guaranteed purchases for government food programs. But as farmworker advocates have pointed out, none of that money has been earmarked to help the workers themselves.
Instead, many farmworkers report that their employers are not giving them personal protective equipment or allowing for social distancing, which is all but impossible when processing and packing produce. In North Carolina, an outbreak of COVID-19 among farmworkers was reported to have infected at least 29 H-2A workers. In Washington State, 36 workers at one apple grower tested positive for the novel coronavirus, including many H-2A workers.
When asked about the proposed wage change, the USDA’s press office forwarded a response attributed to Perdue: “Ensuring minimal disruption for our agricultural workforce during these uncertain times is a top priority for this administration. President Trump knows that these workers are critical to maintaining our food supply and our farmers and ranchers are counting on their ability to work.” The Labor Department did not respond to repeated requests for comment about the proposal.
The H-2A developed alongside the defunct Bracero program, a bilateral agreement between the U.S. and Mexico that started during the Second World War to bring Mexican farmworkers to the U.S. The H, or temporary guest worker visa program, was formally created in 1952, with what’s sometimes called the “low-skilled” category divided into H-2A and H-2B—for agricultural workers and non—when President Ronald Reagan signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act in 1986.
If they want to hire H-2A workers, employers have to prove that they can’t find U.S. workers to fill the positions, usually by placing recruitment ads in regional newspapers, then submitting documentation to show that they couldn’t find anyone qualified. The H-2A is unlimited, with no cap on the number of visas that can be issued—and the number grows steadily every year. With 204,801 H-2A visas issued in 2019, these guest workers make up nearly 10 percent of the country’s estimated 2.5 million farmworkers.
Donald Trump has a special, longtime relationship with the H visas. Despite his rhetoric about only hiring and creating jobs for Americans, his companies are heavy, repeat users of the H-2A and H-2B programs, as well as the H-1B “professional” guest worker visa, which he has used to hire models. BuzzFeed reported last year that Trump’s businesses had sought to hire at least 600 foreign workers since the beginning of his presidential campaign in 2015, including H-2A workers for the Trump Winery in Virginia. The Mar-a-Lago Club in Florida has hired not only H-2B workers, but also scores of undocumented workers. When confronted about his businesses’ use of the H-2 programs, Trump has said that it was impossible to find qualified applicants in the U.S.—a claim disputed by a New York Times report, which found that Mar-a-Lago had passed over hundreds of U.S. applicants in favor of guest workers.
Since Trump took office in 2017, his administration has made it much harder to get an H-1B and a few other kinds of work visas. Nonetheless Trump has repeatedly promised continued access to H-2A workers for the agricultural industry. “We have to have your workers come in,” he said, addressing growers, during a 2018 rally in Michigan. “They are going to be guest workers. They’re going to work on your farms. … Then they have to go out. We are going to let them in because you need them.”
His agricultural secretary, Perdue—a Georgia Republican with close ties to the agricultural industry—wants to deregulate the program. As governor of Georgia in 2006, Perdue enacted a strict state law targeting undocumented workers and those who hired them. As USDA head, he has complained that farmworkers—whom researchers have found to be among the lowest paid workers in the country—are overpaid, and attacked the process for determining their minimum wage. It’s a position that many large industry groups support.
The agricultural trade publication DTN/Progressive Farmer reported that Perdue said in January that he wanted “to separate immigration, which is people wanting to become citizens, with a temporary, legal guest-worker program. … It doesn’t offend people who are anti-immigrant because they don’t want more immigrant citizens here. We need people who can help U.S. agriculture meet the production.” He made that statement at a meeting of the American Farm Bureau Federation, a major industry group; the organization did not respond to requests for comment.
“Sonny Perdue is really a lobbyist for the [agricultural] industry disguised as a Trump cabinet member,” said Costa, the Economic Policy Institute research director. His opinion is that many big growers want the H-2A program to be administered by the USDA instead of the Department of Labor, for this very reason: “It’s a strategy for not having real oversight or enforcement in the program.”
The Trump administration is expected to soon announce new changes to immigration. Costa said Senate Republicans could try to push through a new, lower wage for H-2A workers as a provision on a relief bill—or Trump could try to mandate it through an executive order, following the template that President George W. Bush set after Hurricane Katrina, when the emergency became an excuse to suspend Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulations and cut wages for migrant construction workers.
Micah-Jones said in early May that CDM had heard from workers who decided not to come to the U.S. because of COVID-19. Those who do come may feel they have no choice—especially as Mexico enters an economic downturn of its own.
“The thing is, if you go to a farm and you ask [the workers], ‘How’s it going? What’s going on?’ they won’t say anything. They say nothing,” Emilio, a longtime H-2A worker from Hidalgo, Mexico, said in Spanish. “I understand. They’re afraid. But if we don’t say anything, it’ll never change.”
Emilio, who did not want to share his real name or the name of his employers out of fear of retaliation, spoke over the phone from Mississippi, where he has been traveling to work on farms every year since 2006. Last September, Emilio went to the town of Vardaman on an H-2A visa with two of his brothers to harvest sweet potatoes. He said the living conditions were wretched: In their bedroom, green mold bloomed along the walls and wooden bed frames, and rain dripped from the ceiling. As many as 10 workers had to share the same bathroom, and trash cans overflowed. During breaks, they were all forced to drink from the same bottles of water, with no cups provided to divide it up.
Within weeks of arrival, Emilio said, his younger brother contracted a mysterious infection. The 22-year-old ended up in a hospital in Oxford, Mississippi. For more than two weeks, Emilio and his other brother were forced to sleep in the hospital waiting room—with no way of traveling back to the farm, and nowhere else to go—as their younger brother slipped in and out of a coma. He appeared to begin to recover. Then one day he suffered a series of heart attacks and died.
The remaining siblings were devastated. Emilio said that after the death, their majordomo pressured them to return to the fields but refused to pick them up from the hospital. Meanwhile, their employer became evasive, avoiding their calls and questions about what to do next. “Our family in Mexico, they were all in shock, and we didn’t know how to move forward,” he said. They were eventually able to transport the body home, with some financial help from their employer.
Emilio suspects that his brother’s illness, which was never clearly identified, was linked to their poor housing conditions. Later, he and his older brother heard from several of their co-workers in Vardaman: They were sick, too—and the symptoms sounded a lot like their late brother’s.
Despite this experience, Emilio, who supports his wife and child in Hidalgo, returned to Mississippi with a new H-2A visa on April 3. He has worked for his current employer, a flower farmer in Lucedale, before; he trusted them to be responsible, and he said he has been given masks and gloves. But he doesn’t expect that most guest workers will be protected right now, as they are forced to weather a pandemic on top of everything else.
“Honestly, it’s sad to think about. I really doubt it. I really do doubt it,” he said. “If there’s not a good boss, if they’re not adhering strictly to the protocols, I doubt that it’s safe. Because all the times that I’ve come, I’ve seen that the boss doesn’t really take much responsibility—and the majordomo, even less.”