Using the pandemic as an excuse, the Trump administration has all but canceled immigration to the United States. But while the president cracked down on families seeking asylum from life-threatening conditions, he’s still allowed big industries to hire low-wage laborers from other countries. Under the H2 visa program, record numbers are entering the country, recruited directly by industries such as meat-processing and agriculture, which determine who gets into the country and for how long.
In practical terms, a part of the U.S. immigration system has been privatized, says Rachel Micah-Jones, executive director of Centro de los Derechos del Migrante, a civil group that advocates for Mexican migrant laborers. “The guest worker programs are controlled by companies and employers. They decide who gets in the country and who doesn’t,” she says.
“There’s a transition in the U.S.,” Micah-Jones adds, which means an ever-expanding use by corporations of the H2 programs while avenues for immigrants to apply for their own visas are shrinking. “That’s very concerning because we see in these programs a tremendous amount of discrimination in terms of age, sex and country of origin.”
Through the H2 program, laborers are bound by law to work only for the employer that recruits them; they cannot bring their families along or, eventually, apply for permanent residency. Corporations in labor-intensive industries such as farming, forestry, food-processing, landscaping, tourism and construction even decide if a worker can come back to the U.S. in the future.
And abuse by employers is rife within the H2 programs. An April 2020 survey among 100 H2‑A visa holders (agricultural laborers) detected widespread discrimination, sexual harassment, wage theft and health and safety violations by employers. The survey, conducted by Centro de los Derechos del Migrante, found that all the workers experienced at least one serious legal violation, and 94% suffered three or more. It is “startling,” concluded the report, the “lack of recourse” for guest laborers to denounce abuse.
Despite their well-documented exploitation, low-wage guest workers have never been so crucial for the labor-intensive industries in the United States.
More than 204,000 foreigners obtained H2‑A visas in the fiscal year 2019, a record number. There are no limits on how many people can enter the United States with this visa, and that number has steadily increased since at least 1992. The H2‑B visas, for low-wage workers in nonagricultural industries such as food-processing, also increased in 2019, to 97,623, its highest number in a decade.
Benito, an H2‑A visa holder, was recruited in the state of Hidalgo, Mexico to harvest eggplants, chiles, peppers and cucumbers in Lake Park, Georgia for nine months. For six weeks in May and June, Benito (a pseudonym used to protect him from potential repercussions from his employer) and some 100 Mexicans harvested and packed vegetables during 16-hour shifts without overtime pay and only every other Sunday off. They are expected to labor as intensely in October and November. The rest of their 9‑month period, these crews work for 10 hours a day with some Sundays off, says Benito in Spanish over the phone. He has come three times to the United States with an H2‑A visa.
Benito has also seen discrimination in the hiring process firsthand. He was the only one hired from his hometown, although several of his neighbors also applied for jobs. Some were rejected because of their age; others because “they did not work hard enough,” says Benito. He has learned that companies blacklist workers who do not fulfill their expectations — like working without complaining for 16 hours a day for several weeks. “Many applicants do not make the cut,” he explains. “It is because they do not satisfy the bosses’ requisites.”
Unlike U.S. citizens or even undocumented immigrants, guest workers (the vast majority of whom are enlisted in impoverished communities in Mexico, followed by Jamaica, Guatemala and South Africa) do not enjoy the most fundamental protection of a labor market in a democratic society — the ability to switch jobs if they are mistreated.
“Guest workers have been compared to modern-day indentured servants,” states the Immigrant Justice Project of the Southern Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit that combats discrimination and promotes human rights. “But unlike the indentured servants of old, today’s guest workers have no prospect of becoming U.S. citizens.”
Preference for exploitable workers
While the number of guest workers under the H2 programs is surging, the Trump administration has suspended both employment-based and family-based immigrant visas, even for relatives of U.S. citizens. With the excuse of shielding the country from the coronavirus, the federal government has also canceled applications for nonimmigrant visas for visitors, students and skilled workers.
The pandemic made transparent a trend that was already intensifying during the Trump administration. The United States issued 625,344 immigrant visas in 2016 before Trump took office; last year, it granted 462,422. In July 2017, it issued 42,550 immigrant visas. As of July, that number was down to 4,412. Meanwhile, H2 visas are soaring.
The demand for H2‑B workers was so high even before the pandemic that the program reached its yearly cap on February 18. The Department of Homeland Security announced that it would grant 35,000 extra H2‑B visas but reversed course after anti-immigrant groups’ criticisms.
The Trump administration, however, did make substantive changes to the H2 programs. Since April, it has allowed companies to retain these laborers for longer than the three-year maximum. The purported objective was to “maintain the integrity in our food supply” during the pandemic, despite the enormous health costs paid by workers, most of them people of color.
As of July, 86 workers in meat and poultry processing facilities had died of Covid-19, out of 16,233 cases in 239 facilities, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Among cases where race and ethnicity was reported, 87% were racial or ethnic minorities. In some farms, all workers have contracted the coronavirus. The severity of Covid-19 among agricultural workers could be grossly undercounted. Benito has seen “five or six” of his co-workers with Covid-19 symptoms being quarantined and treated in-house in Park Lake, with no wages. Several more, he says, have continued to work when sick to avoid losing income.
Additionally, the wide use of these programs depresses the wages in the industries that capitalize on them, contends the Southern Poverty Law Center. The programs provide companies with lots of control over the labor market. They also give the Trump administration the chance to restrict immigration while assuring cheap labor for corporations.
“The administration has also used the Covid-19 outbreak to pursue policy changes that it has sought to implement for many years,” according to a May report by the American Immigration Council, a non-partisan think tank. These changes include a near elimination of asylum at the southern border and a reduction of family-based immigration. “While these policy changes have been described as temporary in nature, they may remain in place into 2021,” stated the report.
These measures have been coupled with a resumption of deportations of undocumented immigrant workers, even amid the health emergency.
Meanwhile, corporations are pressuring both the Trump administration and Congress to keep incrementing the number of visas for guest workers. The agribusiness sector, which includes a large variety of sectors such as crop, livestock and meat producers, tobacco, food manufacturers, and stores, spent $140 million in lobbying efforts last year, spearheaded by more than 1,000, according to OpenSecrets.org, a nonpartisan nonprofit that track money in politics. The meat-processing industry spent $4.5 million.
Legislators’ aides told Micah-Jones that private interests are continually pressuring them. “They hear every day from these companies,” she recounts. Without a voice in the United States political system, guest workers depend on civil society organizations to push for fair conditions. These groups face “very well-resourced business associations and companies who like the guest worker program because it gives them the power,” Micah-Jones says. “It gives them a lot of control over workers’ lives.”
Maurizio Guerrero is a journalist based in New York City. He covers migration, social justice movements and Latin America.