A recent report has shed new light on how temporary work visa programs providing migrant laborers with employment in the United States are ripe for abuse, often leading to forced labor and other forms of human trafficking.
Between January 2018 and December 2020, the Polaris Project’s National Human Trafficking Hotline identified almost 16,000 labor trafficking victims in the United States, according to a new data analysis from the non-governmental organization, which works to combat sexual and labor exploitation.
However, labor trafficking experts told InSight Crime that these figures are just the tip of the iceberg, and hardly represent the full scope of the problem.
Among the visas that migrant laborers were most commonly abused under were the H-2A and H-2B. The former allows US employers to petition to recruit migrants for seasonal agricultural jobs, while the latter allows for the recruitment of other low-wage work positions in non-agricultural industries like construction, meatpacking, and landscaping, among others.
The majority of victims identified to be holding temporary visas were Mexican men. This highlighted the disproportionate reliance the United States has long had on Mexico’s labor force, especially for agricultural work. In fiscal year 2021, for example, Mexican nationals received 93 percent of H-2A visas issued by the US government, and 75 percent of H-2B visas, according to official data.
While there is a common misconception that victims may be kidnapped or trafficked against their will, the report noted victims are regularly recruited through what appear to be legitimate job offers. Victims are then “controlled through a complex series of other methods including threats, emotional manipulation, and economic coercion.”
Employers were found to control their victims primarily through force, fraud, and coercion - three core elements of human trafficking. This included threatening to report workers to immigration authorities, forcing victims to work excessive hours while withholding their pay, as well as limiting workers’ access to medical care in the event of sickness or injury, among other methods.
Even so, the US government continues to rely heavily on these visa programs. During a July 12 meeting with Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, US President Joe Biden said his administration “set a record” last year in issuing more than 300,000 temporary work visas to Mexicans.
“This is a proven strategy that fuels economic growth as well as reduces irregular migration,” President Biden claimed.
However, these visas lack protective mechanisms and only offer an alternative to migrants that fit a specific profile, according to the report. Temporary work visas do not help those fleeing violence, climate change, gender-based violence, or many other conditions pushing people from their homes.
“We need to make sure that the United States provides enough resources and oversight to ensure protections are in place to empower and protect workers, and to hold abusive employers and recruiters accountable,” said Andrea Rojas, director of the Strategic Initiative on Labor Trafficking at the Polaris Project.
InSight Crime Analysis
This report underscores how labor trafficking often takes place in plain sight across several major industries.
Despite operating within legal frameworks, in some cases, employers and recruiters act similarly to organized criminal networks. An example of this was the so-called “Blooming Onion” case, which was made public last year. Federal prosecutors in Georgia accused one transnational labor trafficking group of illegally earning $200 million from exploiting dozens of Mexican and Central American migrants working with H-2A visas on US farms, according to court documents.
At least two victims died from the abuse they faced. Others were sold like cattle, kidnapped or faced death threats from the network, prosecutors explained in the indictment.
“In the way these temporary work visa programs are currently regulated, criminal enterprises are allowed to operate with near-total impunity,” Rojas told InSight Crime.
The Polaris Project found that one of the most significant problems faced by migrant laborers working in the United States on these visas is the “power imbalance” created by the current system. Workers are bound to the employer that sponsored them for the visa. They can be reported to immigration authorities, arrested, and deported if they try to find another job.
This makes labor trafficking increasingly challenging to identify, especially when workers are isolated in rural areas on tightly controlled worksites. When those environments become exploitative, victims are fearful of speaking out even if they have access to the resources needed to do so. If they are fired and deported, they not only lose the ability to provide for their families but also risk being blacklisted by recruiters in their home countries for future work offered by US employers.
“Trafficking victims are not going to identify as victims if they’re being threatened,” said Rojas. “If that threat is there, it’s unlikely they’ll speak out because the current system doesn’t offer them any safe alternatives.”
But with local recruiters often paid depending on how many workers they can recruit, coupled with the steady demand for migrant labor from US employers, there is no shortage of people looking for work. This leaves many Mexican and Central American workers susceptible to exploitation.