Steve July 29, 2020
he-was-promised-a-job-in-the-us-he-found-himself-trapped-in-a-nightmare.

“The President supports legal immigration, and the growth of the H-2A program to provide critical labor to America’s farmers and growers for jobs that have been fairly offered to American citizens and left unfilled,” the White House said in a statement.

Trump himself has vowed to make H-2A workers more readily available to American farmers.

“We’re going to have them coming into our country in an easier fashion than even before. It’s very important for our business, for our farms, for our ranches. And we are going to make that a very, very much easier, less cumbersome program,” Trump said in July 2019 upon signing an agreement with Guatemala to restrict asylum applications to the U.S. in exchange for greater access to H-2A visas. “All of those workers that come in, we want them to continue to come in.”

H-2A visas are outpacing H-1Bs

The number of H-2A visas for farmworkers doubled in five years, overtaking H-1B visas for skilled workers.

Source: U.S. State Department

Last year, the Labor Department approved more than 257,000 positions for temporary foreign farmworkers through the H-2A program — more than twice as many as it had in 2014, according to federal data. “Most everybody is going to this as a last resort,” said Chalmers Carr, a South Carolina peach farmer who is president of USA Farmers, a national advocacy group representing H-2A employers.

The Trump administration defended its oversight of the H-2A program, citing the Labor Department’s efforts to investigate violations and educate employers about the program’s requirements. In a statement, the agency stressed its commitment “to safeguard American jobs, to level the playing field for law-abiding employers, and to protect workers from being paid less than they are legally owed or otherwise working under substandard conditions.”

Industry leaders say the vast majority of employers abide by the rules, working hard to comply with the program’s complex requirements and high labor costs. H-2A workers are currently required to earn more than the minimum wage in every state, and they are supposed to get free housing, transportation and food or access to cooking facilities.

“Generally, our growers want to do the right thing,” said Charles Hall, executive director of the Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association. “As with any industry, when you’ve got a few bad apples, that always taints it.”

But labor advocates like Goldstein believe that the fundamental design of the H-2A program leaves workers at risk of exploitation — and that the industry’s shift to using contractors makes it even easier for abuses to fly under the radar.

“Farmers get a very, very productive workforce, because these workers are so vulnerable,” Goldstein said. “They do what they say, and very few of them will speak up about unfair or illegal conditions, because they fear the consequences will be even worse if they do.”

The unheated sheds where Reyes and other H-2A workers slept.Elijah Nouvelage / for NBC News

‘Don’t you want to go to the other side?’

The first time he met Sanchez, in February 2018, Reyes was barely getting by. He struggled to afford food and school fees for his children, now 12 and 7, even though he was working overtime as a bricklayer in Ciudad Victoria, a hilly city in northern Mexico, and his wife had taken a job as a cashier.

Six years earlier, Reyes had crossed the U.S.-Mexico border on foot, without papers. He was caught in Texas, then deported after two weeks in detention. This time would be different, Reyes told himself: “I want to do things the right way — legally.”

Sanchez, whom he met through a friend, told him that it would cost $1,600 for the visa, transportation and a “special” passport that turned out not to exist, Reyes said. He scrounged together a little over $1,000 in loans from friends; Sanchez said he’d take the rest out of his paycheck, promising Reyes full-time work in the U.S. from February through December 2018, earning $1 per straw bale.

Reyes was heartened when others from his hometown signed up with Sanchez, too. In the weeks leading up to his departure, he befriended a man named Luna. Unlike Reyes, a broad-shouldered construction worker, Luna wasn’t used to manual labor; he sold corn flour and worked as an assistant to a lawyer in Ciudad Victoria. (Luna declined to use his full name for fear of retaliation.)

But Luna, now 32, had even more mouths to feed, supporting three young children and two teenage brothers on a meager salary. He remembered what a neighbor asked him when he mentioned the job: “Don’t you want to go to the other side?”

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In late February 2018, Reyes and the other workers met Sanchez in Monterrey, where they got their visas at the U.S. Consulate. Before they boarded the bus for Georgia, Luna noticed something: Sanchez had cut his long, stringy hair and swapped his loose, military-style clothing for dress pants, a button-down shirt and a scarf.

“How much you’ve changed, cousin,” Luna said with a laugh.

Sanchez smiled, flashing gold teeth.

They boarded a bus and crossed the border. More than 36 hours later, they arrived at a motel in southeastern Georgia surrounded by farmland, gas stations and the occasional strip mall.

From their first night in America, there weren’t enough places to sleep: Packed five to a motel room, Reyes had to share a bed with two other workers, he said. The next morning, while it was still dark outside, they clambered onto a white minibus with Sanchez at the wheel.

By the time they got off, nearly an hour later, there were pine trees in every direction, and nothing else.

Sanchez began explaining how to pack pine needles into bales, which were headed for Premium Pineneedles, a business owned by the head of a South Carolina-based gardening company and wholesaler. “It’s easy work, just a little tiring,” he told the men, Reyes recounted.

But Sanchez didn’t have any of the equipment they needed, claiming he had ordered tools that had yet to arrive, Reyes said. So the men would start by clearing the underbrush with their gloveless hands.

Sanchez climbed back into the bus and drove off. He didn’t say when he’d be back.

The men looked at one another, dumbfounded. They were in the middle of the woods, with no transportation, no bathrooms and no cell service. One of them joked that he could climb a tree to get a signal. But they had nowhere else to go. So they hunched over and started clearing debris and picking up pine needles from the forest floor.

The branches and needles scratched their arms until they bled, Reyes said. The forest soon filled with clouds of pine dust that made it hard to breathe.

Luna kept thinking about his wife and children; his youngest was only a few months old. Even mortgaging their house wasn’t enough to pay Sanchez; he’d also taken out loans that charged 20 percent monthly interest.

“If anything happens to me here,” he thought, “they’ll be all alone.”

A country built on guest workers

For more than a century, America has relied on temporary foreign laborers to plant and harvest its crops.

During World Wars I and II, labor shortages prompted the U.S. to open its doors to farmworkers from Mexico. The U.S. government gave assurances that the temporary workers would be treated fairly under the Bracero Program, named for the Spanish word for “farmhand.” But oversight was minimal, and the program became notorious for brutal working and housing conditions, which contributed to its demise in 1964. By that point, Congress had established another pathway for temporary agricultural workers, which became the H-2A program in 1986.

For decades, the H-2A program remained relatively small. But over the past 10 years, demand for temporary farmworkers and ranch hands has taken off.

In 2011, Georgia passed a sweeping anti-immigration law requiring larger businesses to use E-Verify to vet new hires and imposing stiff fines and prison sentences for workers who used fake identification to get jobs. The law squeezed Georgia farmers, who had long depended on undocumented immigrants and domestic migrant workers to harvest blueberries, onions, peaches and other hand-picked crops.

Georgia is now a leading destination for H-2A farmworkers, along with Florida, North Carolina, California, Washington and Louisiana. Despite the president’s executive order to “Hire American,” even Trump’s own vineyard in Virginia was certified to hire 23 H-2A workers last year. Industry lobbyists are pushing Congress and the Trump administration to extend the program to new kinds of agricultural workers and to make it cheaper and easier to use.

The program’s growth has spawned a cottage industry of visa agents and growers associations to help farmers navigate the complex application process. But increasingly, farmers are turning to farm labor contractors like Sanchez to supply workers. Last year, the Labor Department certified 1,900 applications for H-2A workers from contractors — more than triple the number in 2014 — giving these contractors permission to bring more than 100,000 temporary farmworkers to the U.S., according to NBC News’ analysis of federal data. Many contractors are former farmworkers themselves.

Growing demand for temporary foreign farmworkers

The number of H-2A positions approved by the Labor Department is rising — and more of these jobs are being sponsored by labor contractors.

Source: NBC News analysis of Labor Department data

“In theory, having labor contractors organize workers is actually a good thing, because the contractor specializes in finding work for crews and lets workers get more hours,” said Philip Martin, a labor economist at the University of California, Davis. But many of them compete by providing workers at rock-bottom prices, Martin said — creating an incentive to skimp on workers’ paychecks and housing, given the lack of vigorous oversight. “The Department of Labor has not been good about throwing the bad ones out,” he said.

In late 2017, Sanchez petitioned the Labor Department to bring 30 H-2A workers to Georgia to harvest pine straw, attesting that he had tried to recruit U.S. workers, as the program requires, but that none had applied for the jobs. He promised that the foreign laborers would be paid either $10.62 an hour — the minimum for H-2A workers in Georgia that year, based on a federal formula — or $1 per straw bale, hitting the same minimum hourly wage; they would be housed at a motel that had already passed government inspection, according to records obtained by NBC News.

Instead, workers said, they stayed for a week at a motel — sharing beds, with some forced to sleep on the floor — before Sanchez moved them to the decrepit house in Blackshear.

No one was likely to check up on Sanchez: Under federal law, housing needs to pass inspection only when an employer applies to bring H-2A workers to the U.S. After workers arrive — sometimes months later — no follow-ups are required.

Visiting more than a dozen H-2A sites in Georgia and North Carolina in November, NBC News found government-approved farmworker housing overrun with insects and spiders’ nests, as well as cardboard covering broken windows. A dilapidated trailer in Georgia had gaping holes in the walls; feral cats had crawled into the kitchen cabinet, an H-2A worker documented in a video sent to Georgia Legal Services, an advocacy group that represents farmworkers. “Rats are better than us,” the worker said in the video.

The Labor Department conducts unscheduled inspections of H-2A worksites across the country, including occasional investigations of housing; the agency’s Wage and Hour division can issue monetary penalties, force employers to pay back wages, bar employers from the program and refer cases for prosecution. But resources for enforcement haven’t kept pace with the program’s rapid expansion: Wage and Hour staff has fallen by 19 percent since 2016, according to federal records. And even when employers are prohibited from hiring more H-2A workers, which is relatively infrequent, the bans are usually only temporary — between one and three years.

State oversight, too, is limited. Using federal grants, state agencies help H-2A employers comply with the program’s requirements and carry out housing inspections required before workers move in. Despite the rapid growth of the H-2A program, federal funding to these state agencies hasn’t increased, and some got less last year than they did three years earlier, according to records made public as part of a 2019 lawsuit against the Labor Department. Georgia’s federal funding dropped by 15 percent, the state Labor Department confirmed.

Some states, like North Carolina and California, also have their own standards and inspection systems for farmworker housing, and they take action against H-2A employers who break the rules. But others, including Georgia, have few additional rules and limited enforcement authority.

Last year, the Trump administration acknowledged some of the “unsafe and unsanitary” conditions facing H-2A workers. In July 2019, the administration released a lengthy proposal that sought to improve housing standards and increase the bonds that contractors must obtain as proof that they can pay their workers.

But the administration’s plan — which the Labor Department is slated to finalize next month — would also relax rules for employers who have complained that the H-2A program is too slow, expensive and cumbersome. State agencies would be allowed to conduct less frequent housing inspections by having employers certify themselves. Workers, meanwhile, would be responsible for more of their inbound travel expenses; some would be paid less under a new federal formula for calculating minimum H-2A wages, while others would be paid more.

Some lawmakers are trying to push the program in a new direction. Last year, the Democratic-controlled House passed a bipartisan farm labor bill that would include a pathway to citizenship for some undocumented immigrants and H-2A workers. The bill would also add 20,000 year-round H-2A visas, which are currently unlimited but only seasonal.

But the chances that Congress will pass any kind of immigration overhaul are slim, with a pandemic gripping the country and a presidential election only months away.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration has continued to keep the door open for H-2A workers, temporarily easing visa rules by allowing employers to hire guest workers more quickly and keep them in the U.S. longer. “The Trump administration is working to keep our farmers and growers competitive while ensuring that American workers have access to more opportunities and higher wages,” the White House said in a statement, adding that problems with H-2A workers’ health, safety, and employment “can be identified and resolved.”

Even as unemployment has climbed to the highest rate since the Great Depression, industry leaders say farmers are still scrambling to find enough workers to plant and harvest their crops — tough, manual labor that is usually in remote locations.

Labor advocates fear that America’s faltering economy could put these guest workers at even greater risk. While demand for produce sold in grocery stores has remained high, the pandemic has dealt a major blow to many farms that supply restaurants, cafeterias and other institutions.

That has increased the pressure for growers who rely on the H-2A program to cut costs — and that could ultimately mean skimping on wages, housing and other labor expenses, said Michael Hancock, a lawyer with Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll, a civil rights and employment law firm. Hancock was a Labor Department official in President Barack Obama’s administration.

“Who are the most powerless people in this process, in the weakest negotiating and bargaining position?” Hancock said. “The workers.”

Guest workers on H-2A visas harvesting collard greens in eastern North Carolina.Haimy Assefa / NBC News

‘All that time in vain’

Juana Cruz first spotted Sanchez’s crew walking along a back road off U.S. 84 in early March 2018.

That was strange, thought Cruz, 41, a boat painter who lived nearby. Everyone in rural Blackshear drove; there was hardly anywhere to walk to.

The next time she saw the workers, they were standing outside a house a few blocks from where she lived, hanging up their clothes to dry. They looked lost and haggard, Cruz recalled, like they hadn’t washed in days. She slowed her car and pulled over.

“Necesitan ayuda?” she asked them in Spanish. Do you guys need help? The men eyed her warily. Finally, one of them explained how Sanchez had brought them from Mexico nearly three weeks earlier but hadn’t given them a single paycheck. For days, Sanchez had simply not shown up, leaving the workers with a dwindling supply of food, they said. Now they barely had any canned beans and instant noodles, which they had bought after walking three hours along the highway to the nearest Walmart.

Cruz entered a house that looked like it was rotting from the inside out, she said. A worker had slipped in the filthy shower and hurt his arm; he had to use paper to stanch the bleeding because there was no first-aid kit, he later testified, according to court documents. A spider bit another man while he was sleeping in the sheds outside. His entire face swelled up when the wound got infected, and he was rushed to the hospital, he and the other men said.

The young workers told Cruz they were afraid to let on that anything was wrong. Luna had reluctantly asked his family in Mexico to send money so he could buy food, making up an excuse. “I didn’t want them to worry, right? To fall into despair…” When Reyes described their living conditions to his wife, she begged him to come home. “You can’t do this,” she said, tears streaming down her face on the video call.

But their debts were coming due, and the men didn’t know what to do. Reyes had borrowed from friends, and they were getting agitated after he missed the first scheduled repayment. Luna feared that his family would lose their home if he couldn’t pay back his loans. A lender threatened to rob and assault another worker when he returned to Mexico, the worker said later in an affidavit.

That night, Cruz couldn’t stop thinking about the workers — los muchachos, she’d come to call them. It was the second week of March 2018, and it was unusually cold for Georgia, dropping to near-freezing at night.

Juana Cruz discovered temporary farmworkers living in sheds near her home.Elijah Nouvelage / for NBC News

The next day, she dropped off a pot of rice and beans she had cooked for them. Hours later, she walked into her church, interrupting evening Bible study to tell the pastor what she had witnessed.

The following night, the workers heard a knock on their door.

The men scattered. Some hid inside the house, Luna recalled, fearing that immigration agents had come to deport them, as Sanchez kept threatening would happen, even though they’d done nothing wrong.

A middle-aged couple were standing on the porch, carrying cardboard boxes filled with canned food and blankets — Edgar De Leon and his wife, Marcela, both pastors from Cruz’s church, Destination Iglesia Cristiana Hispana. They often tried to help local immigrants who were in trouble. But they’d never seen so many workers crammed in such a tiny house.

Marcela De Leon was overwhelmed. “This is abuse,” she said, telling the men to speak to a lawyer. “You have to report it.”

Edgar and Marcela De Leon.Elijah Nouvelage / for NBC News

The men fell silent. Like many H-2A workers, they were loath to complain. They could be deported if they worked without proper documents; although retaliation is illegal, some H-2A workers are alleged to have been blacklisted by employers for making complaints.

But their greatest fear — more than being mistreated — was never being able to come work in America again. What would all that suffering have been for? “All that time in vain,” as one of the men later put it.

As the workers dug into the food, Pastor Edgar, as everyone called him, pleaded with them to go to the authorities. “If you don’t report it,” he said, “exactly the same thing is going to happen to other people.”

Luna and two other workers were ultimately convinced. Through the church, they got a ride to Savannah soon afterward and walked into the federal Labor Department’s regional office to file a complaint.

The workers spent three hours sitting with an agency staffer, detailing everything they had suffered under Sanchez, Luna said. Driving back to Blackshear that Friday, “I was already feeling calmer,” he said. “Because I thought that they would help us.”

On Sunday, Sanchez returned to the house to take the workers back to the fields. But this time, the workers’ anger overtook their fear.

Reyes spoke up first.

“I’m not going,” he said.

A chorus of voices erupted. “I’m not going,” Luna said. “I’m not going, either,” another worker chimed in. They couldn’t stay in that house. They hadn’t slept because they were trembling with cold. And they would not go to work without eating.

Sanchez stood there, blinking fast, as he did when he was stressed. Then he exploded. “You are animals!” he shouted in Spanish, threatening once again to deport them, according to Reyes and Luna and court documents. The men dug in their heels, holding up their phones to record him.

Sanchez stormed off. Days later, he promised to move the workers to better housing and started paying some of the men for their work, the men later attested. But for Reyes, Sanchez’s concessions weren’t enough.

In April 2018, Reyes boarded a van to Texas in the middle of the night, poorer and skinnier than when he had arrived.

Alberto Reyes carries laundry to his car at his apartment complex in Houston in February.Brandon Thibodeaux / for NBC News

‘You’re telling me lies’

More than two years later, the Labor Department’s investigation of Sanchez is still ongoing, the agency said. The statute of limitations for one of the most serious penalties — barring Sanchez from bringing more H-2A workers to the U.S. — has already passed. But the agency has yet to disclose any findings or enforcement action taken against him.

The Trump administration declined to answer questions about Sanchez, citing the open investigation. The Labor Department “prioritizes and publicizes the investigation and prosecution of entities that violate visa program requirements,” the agency said in a statement, adding that the requirement to recruit U.S. workers before applying for guest workers is a focus of its investigations.

Reyes and the other workers have needed to turn elsewhere for justice — and the money to pay back their debts. In November 2018, Reyes and Luna, represented by Georgia Legal Services, were among the 13 workers who sued Sanchez.

In July 2019, a U.S. District Court issued a default judgment against Sanchez, who failed to appear in court, concluding that he had subjected the H-2A workers to forced labor, human trafficking and “deplorable and dangerous living conditions for weeks,” the judge wrote in her decision.

The court concluded that Sanchez owed the workers nearly $280,000, including unpaid wages and expenses, as well as damages for emotional distress and “reckless disregard of Plaintiffs’ health, safety, and wellbeing.” Reyes was personally owed more than $17,000.

Despite the ruling, he and the other workers may never receive anything close to the money they are due, as Sanchez has few holdings in his name in the U.S., according to Solimar Mercado-Spencer, a lawyer for Georgia Legal Services.

At Sanchez’s mailing address in Hazlehurst, Georgia, more than a dozen rusted and broken-down vehicles surround dilapidated trailers. “Junk for sale,” the sign says. Financially, Sanchez appeared to be only a rung above the workers he exploited, Mercado-Spencer said. “From what I can see, he did not have the money or capacity to sustain this business.”

Under federal law, Sanchez needed a $10,000 bond to get his application for H-2A workers approved — a requirement for all farm labor contractors because of their checkered history of being “transient and undercapitalized,” according to the federal government. But only the Labor Department can get access to that money, which still hasn’t been made available to the workers, their attorney said. Even if it were, the funds would be only a fraction of what they are owed under the court ruling.

Premium Pineneedles paid each of the workers $850 “for the harm they endured as a result of [Sanchez’s] actions,” the court said. The company had previously worked with Sanchez and supposedly had an agreement to buy pine needle bales from him by the load, Mercado-Spencer said.

But Premium Pineneedles said Sanchez had forged the owner’s signature in his H-2A application to the Labor Department, according to the owner’s affidavit, and hasn’t faced further legal action. The company didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment.

Reyes still considers himself lucky. Georgia Legal Services helped the workers obtain T visas for trafficking victims, so he can stay legally in the U.S. for up to four years. After more than a year doing construction work in Houston, Reyes finally paid back his loans and is starting to save the money he’d planned to earn the whole time. Luna got his own T visa and has joined him in Texas.

Alberto Reyes wires money to his family in Mexico.Brandon Thibodeaux / for NBC News

It has been almost 2½ years since Reyes has seen his wife and two children — far longer than he had ever planned when he left Mexico. His 12-year-old son kept asking when he was coming home, so Reyes told him he is working on a construction project that’s taking a long time to finish. “Show me the building,” his son insisted on a video call last fall. “You’re telling me lies!”

Sanchez, meanwhile, has made himself scarce: He never responded to the workers’ lawsuit or appeared in court. Back in Mexico, however, he has tried to recruit another group of workers to come over on H-2A visas, according to a former guest worker who said he helped Sanchez collect fees and declined to be named for fear of retribution.

Sanchez hasn’t formally applied to bring more workers over, according to the latest federal records. But little may stop him from trying again.

Graphics and development by Jiachuan Wu; photo editing by Matthew Nighswander; video by Nirma Hasty.

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