How Trump Is Privatizing the U.S. Immigration System

The administration is allowing industries to directly control guest worker programs.

Maurizio Guerrero

Farm laborers from Fresh Harvest arrive for their shift on April 28, 2020 in Greenfield, California. Fresh Harvest is the one of the largest employers of people using the H-2A temporary agricultural worker visa for labor, harvesting and staffing in the United States. Photo by Brent Stirton/Getty Images

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 OpenSe​crets​.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.”

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