A transnational labor trafficking network brought dozens of individuals from Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico to the United States under the guise of agricultural work only to exploit them using brutal conditions, highlighting how criminal networks can manipulate legal work visa programs.
The victims had their passports and visas withheld, faced beatings, threats of violence and deportation at gunpoint, and were forced to work for little or no pay in agricultural fields in Georgia, Florida and Texas while living in crowded and unsanitary living conditions, prosecutors charged in a newly unsealed indictment filed in the Southern District of Georgia in October.
After entering into contracting agreements with local farmers to find and recruit foreign workers, the network allegedly filed thousands of false petitions using fake signatures and fraudulent documents to the US government requesting over 71,000 workers to enter the United States to work on agricultural farms under the H-2A work visa program between 2015 and 2021.
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Under that program, US employers are allowed to bring foreign nationals into the country to work temporary agricultural jobs so long as they meet “specific regulatory requirements,” including that such hiring “will not adversely affect the wages and working conditions of similarly employed US workers,” among others.
In some cases, prosecutors said the victims were forced to harvest onions with their bare hands, earning just 20 cents for every bucket collected. Workers were even bought and sold within the network, with one group of 30 laborers sold for over $21,000, according to the indictment. In total, the network is alleged to have earned more than $200 million in illegal profits through the scheme, which were hidden through cash purchases of land, homes and vehicles, and also funneled through casinos disguised as winnings.
“The American dream is a powerful attraction for destitute and desperate people across the globe, and where there is need, there is greed from those who will attempt to exploit these willing workers for their own obscene profits,” said Acting US Attorney David Estes in a Justice Department press release.
InSight Crime Analysis
The United States’ temporary work visa program has long faced heavy scrutiny, and the latest indictment underscores just how vulnerable temporary migrant workers are to human trafficking networks.
Between 2015 and 2020, the Polaris Project’s National Human Trafficking Hotline identified more than 4,800 potential victims of human trafficking who were working in the United States under some sort of temporary work visa. But this is almost certainly just a fraction of the true number of victims.
“Although they are legally authorized to work, temporary migrant workers are among the most exploited laborers in the US workforce because employer control of their visa status leaves many powerless to defend and uphold their rights,” according to a February report from the Economic Policy Institute.
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The H-2A visa program creates a severe power imbalance. The system almost always ties workers to their specific employer, which means that a worker’s legal status to work depends on maintaining the job they were contracted to do. As such, workers are hesitant to speak out about deplorable working conditions due to fears of losing their legal status and facing deportation.
[Graphic courtesy of Centro de los Derechos del Migrante, Inc. 2019 report]
Under the program, employers cannot legally charge workers recruitment fees and are required to provide safe housing and transportation. However, migrant workers often have enormous debts forced upon them for housing, transportation and recruitment - also known as "debt bondage" - all of which are illegal despite being a “normalized practice” within the system, according to experts consulted by InSight Crime.
This outsized control that employers have over migrant workers paves the way for abuse. Numerous victims exploited by the network were forced to live with dozens of other workers in a cramped, one-room trailer that had little to no food, limited plumbing and unsafe water for cooking and drinking, according to the indictment. At least two workers died as a direct result of the abuse they faced.
Employers can further punish workers who file complaints by “not rehiring them the following year or by telling recruiters in countries of origin that they shouldn’t be hired for other job opportunities in the United States [effectively blacklisting them],” the Economic Policy Institute report found.