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 The H2 visa program in the US - The new American Slavery
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Posted on 07-27-15 7:29 PM     Reply [Subscribe]
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MAMOU, Louisiana — Travis Manuel and his twin brother, Trey, were shopping at Walmart near this rural town when they met two Mexican women who struck them as sweet. Using a few words of Spanish he had picked up from his Navy days, Travis asked the two women out on a double date.

Around midnight the following Saturday, when they finished their shift at a seafood processing plant, Marisela Valdez and Isy Gonzalez waited for their dates at the remote compound where they lived and worked.

As soon as they got in the Manuel brothers’ car, the women began saying something about “patrón angry,” Travis recalled. While he was trying to puzzle out what they meant, his brother, who was driving, interrupted: “Dude,” Trey said. “There’s someone following us.”

Trey began to take sudden turns on the country roads threading through the rice paddies that dot the area, trying to lose the pickup truck behind them. Finally, they saw a police car.

“I said, we’re gonna flag down this cop” for help, Travis recalled. “But the cop pulled us over, lights on, and told us not to get out of the vehicle,” Trey added, noting that the pickup pulled up and the driver began conferring with the police.

An officer asked Trey and his brother for ID. From the backseat, their dates began to cry.

Travis tried to reassure them. They weren’t doing anything wrong, he said, and they were in the United States. “I was like, ‘There’s no way they are going to take you away.’”

He was wrong.

The man in the truck was the women’s boss, Craig West, a prominent farmer in the heart of Cajun country. As Sgt. Robert McGee later wrote in a police report, West said that Valdez and Gonzalez were “two of his girls,” and he asked the cops to haul the women in and “scare the girls.”

The police brought the women, who were both in their twenties, to the station house. McGee told them they couldn’t leave West’s farm without permission, warning that they could wind up dead. To drive home the point, an officer later testified, McGee stood over Valdez and Gonzalez and pantomimed cutting his throat. He also brandished a Taser at them and said they could be deported if they ever left West’s property without his permission.

A little after 2 in the morning, they released the women to West for the 15-minute drive through the steamy night to his compound — a place where, the women and the Mexican government say, workers were stripped of their passports and assigned to sleep in a filthy, foul-smelling trailer infested with insects and mice. Valdez and Gonzalez also claimed that they and other women were imprisoned, forced to work for little pay, and frequently harassed by West, who demanded to see their breasts and insisted that having sex with him was their only way out of poverty.

Ken Bensinger / BuzzFeed News

These women were not undocumented immigrants working off the books. They were in the United States legally, as part of a government program that allows employers to import foreign labor for jobs they say Americans won’t take — but that also allows those companies to control almost every aspect of their employees’ lives.

Each year, more than 100,000 people from countries such as Mexico, Guatemala, the Philippines, and South Africa come to America on what is known as an H-2 visa to perform all kinds of menial labor across a wide spectrum of industries: cleaning rooms at luxury resorts and national parks, picking fruit, cutting lawns and manicuring golf courses, setting up carnival rides, trimming and planting trees, herding sheep, or, in the case of Valdez, Gonzalez, and about 20 other Mexican women in 2011, peeling crawfish at L.T. West Inc.

A BuzzFeed News investigation — based on government databases and investigative files obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, thousands of court documents, as well as more than 80 interviews with workers and employers — shows that the program condemns thousands of employees each year to exploitation and mistreatment, often in plain view of government officials charged with protecting them. All across America, H-2 guest workers complain that they have been cheated out of their wagesthreatened with gunsbeatenrapedstarved, and imprisoned. Some have even died on the job. Yet employers rarely face any significant consequences.

Many of those employers have since been approved to bring in more guest workers. Some have even been rewarded with lucrative government contracts. Almost none have ever been charged with a crime.

In interview after interview, current and former guest workers — often on the verge of tears — used the same word to describe their experiences: slavery.

“We live where we work, and we can’t leave,” said Olivia Guzman Garfias, who has been coming to Louisiana as a guest worker from her small town in Mexico since 1997. “We are tied to the company. Our visas are in the company’s name. If the pay and working conditions aren’t as we wish, who can we complain to? We are like modern-day slaves.”

In a statement, the Department of Labor, which is charged with protecting workers and vetting employers seeking visas, said that the H-2 programs “are part of a wider immigration system that is widely acknowledged to be broken, contributing to an uneven playing field where employers who exploit vulnerable workers undermine those who do the right thing.”

The number of H-2 visas issued has grown by more than 50% over the past five years. Unlike the better-known H-1B visa program, which brings skilled workers such as computer programmers into America’s high-tech industries, the H-2 program is for the economy’s bottom rung, designed to make it easier for employers to fill temporary, unskilled positions. Proponents argue that it gives foreigners a chance to work here legally, send home much-needed dollars, and return to their families when the job is over.

In March, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce defended the guest worker program before a Senate committee, noting that such “temporary workers are needed in lesser-skilled occupations that are both seasonal and year round,” and that aspects of the program are “critical” to “American workers, the local community, and companies that provide goods and services to these seasonal businesses.”

Tens of thousands of companies, ranging from family businesses to huge corporations, have participated in the program since it took its modern form in 1986. Employers pledge to pay their workers a set rate, which can range from the federal minimum wage to a higher “prevailing wage” that varies from state to state and job to job. As for the employees, they can only work for the company that sponsored their visa. They are legally barred from seeking other employment and must leave the country when the job ends.

For some people, such as the hundreds of soccer coaches who youth sports camps bring in every year from the United Kingdom and elsewhere, an H-2 visa offers an opportunity to make some money while spending time in another country. Many companies treat their H-2 employees well, and many guest workers interviewed for this article said they are grateful for the program.

But public records and interviews reveal how easy it is for companies that sponsor H-2 visas to abuse their employees.

Many companies pay their guest workers less than the law mandates. Others pay them for fewer hours than they actually work, or force them to work extremely long hours without overtime. Some, on the other hand, offer them far less work than promised, at times leaving workers without enough money to buy food. Employers also whittle away at wages by imposing an array of prohibited fees — starting with bribes to get the jobs in the first place, which can leave workers so deep in debt that they are effectively indentured servants.

Guest workers often toil in conditions that are unsafe, inhumane, or simply exhausting, wielding dangerous machinery beneath a scorching sun or standing for hours on end in sweltering factories. And at the end of their shift, many workers retire to grim, squalid quarters that might be little more than a grimy mattress on the floor of a crowded, vermin-infested trailer. For such housing, some employers charge workers extortionate rent.

Though it is against the law, employers often exert additional control over guest workers by confiscating their passports, without which many foreign workers, fearful of being deported, feel unsafe leaving the worksite. Some employers extend their influence over workers to extremes, screening their mail, preventing them from receiving visitors, banning radios and newspapers, or even coercing them to attend religious services they don’t believe in. Some foremen sexually harass female workers, who live in constant fear of losing their jobs and being deported.

The world has become accustomed in recent years to hearing of guest worker abuse in countries such as Qatar or Thailand. But this is happening in the United States. And the problem is not just a few unscrupulous employers. The very structure of the visa program enables widespread abuse and exploitation.

The way H-2 visas shackle workers to a single employer leaves them almost no leverage to demand better treatment. The rules also make it easy to banish a worker to her home country at the boss’s whim. And guest workers tend to be so poor — and, often, so indebted from the recruitment fees they paid to get the job in the first place — that they feel they have no choice but to endure even the worst abuses.

Court documents and interviews revealed numerous cases where workers who tried to speak out said they received threats to their lives. Many others claimed they wereblacklisted by employers, losing the opportunity to get jobs that, however miserable, give them more money than they could earn in their own countries.

The government has been warned repeatedly over almost two decades that the guest worker program is deeply troubled, with more than a dozen official reports excoriating it for everything from widespread visa fraud to rampant worker abuse, and even calling for its elimination. Since 2005, Labor Department investigation records show, at least 800 employers have subjected more than 23,000 H-2 guest workers to violations of the federal laws designed to protect them from exploitation, including more than 16,000 instances of H-2 workers being paid less than the promised wage.

Those numbers almost certainly understate the problem, as the federal government doesn’t check up on the vast majority of companies that bring guest workers into this country. The Labor Department noted in its statement that it has limited resources, with only about 1,000 investigators to enforce protections for all 135 million workers in the U.S. Still, it said, it recovered more than $2.6 million in back wages owed to roughly 4,500 H-2 workers in the 2014 fiscal year. In that year, the agency said, it found violations in 82% of the H-2 visa cases it investigated.

Kalen Fraser, a former investigator for the Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Division who specialized in H-2 visa cases, said that while some companies stumble over complex rules, a substantial portion “maliciously” violate worker protection laws. “There’s a big power imbalance there, and the worst guys get away with everything.”

Jessica Garrison / BuzzFeed News

Route 95 between Chataignier and Mamou, Louisiana, winds through endless acres of rice paddies that teem with crawfish after the grain is reaped. The country is dead flat, and stretching to the horizon there’s little but lush fields of green, dotted with glassy brown pools beneath a heavy sky. Near a bend in the two-lane highway sits the L.T. West crawfish plant.

It was there that Valdez, Gonzalez, and the other women, tired and stiff from a crowded, 1,500-mile ride up from Mexico, stepped out into the dark, wet heat on the night of April 9, 2011.

Valdez said it was need that had brought her there — need and principle. “I wanted to work and make money and do it in a legal way,” she said in a recent interview, “so I didn’t have to cross the border illegally or undocumented.”

She had left behind her 5-year-old son and her 8-year-old daughter, along with her mother, who was taking care of the children, and her dream — at least for a time — of finishing her college degree. She was 26. It was her first time away from home.

She landed in one of America’s most distinctive and insular regions. Acadiana stretches from the bayous near the Gulf of Mexico up through Lafayette and into the Cajun Prairie north of Interstate 10. It is a place where Spanish moss drips so thick off trees they can hardly be discerned, French is still many people’s first language, zydeco music blares from the radio, and social life for generations has centered around great feasts of boiled crab, shrimp, and crawfish.

Valdez and Gonzalez claim they were assigned, along with three other of the youngest women, to an isolated trailer that lacked safe drinking water. Valdez was terrified — of the dark, of the sounds of animals in the brush, of snakes. The women talked that first night about their goals and what their families would do with the money they earned.

“I felt very strange,” she said. “Being with all these people I didn’t know, having to leave behind my life, my family, my things, in a country I had never been in before. I felt very sad. I felt sad, but the truth is the need we had at that moment was so great that we had to do it, we had to be there.”

Valdez lay awake, she said, “thinking about where I was, how did I get there, why I was in this position.” A few hours later, the women were rousted and sent to peel crawfish.

After hatching and maturing in the shallow ponds that spool over the landscape, the crustaceans — rusty brown and squirming — are plucked from baited traps. The “mudbugs” are stuffed in mesh sacks, heaved into the back of pickup trucks, then cooked in steel baths until they are bright red.

Then the women go to work. Still steaming, the crawfish are dumped by the basketful onto long metal tables. The workers crowd in, standing shoulder to shoulder or perching on stools. Hour after hour, they pull the heads off and extract the tail meat.

The hot crawfish “would hurt your fingers,” Valdez said. But the worst thing was the smell. “It stung your nostrils,” she said. “The smell stuck to everything. We carried it home with us.”

In its application for H-2 visas, filed in November 2010, L.T. West committed to pay the workers $9.10 an hour, plus overtime. The company also promised the Labor Department it would issue detailed pay statements.

The women soon learned, however, that they would sometimes be paid for each pound of crawfish tails they peeled. Federal law allows guest workers to be paid a piece rate, but only if the employer makes up any difference between that and the promised hourly wage.

L.T. West did not backfill their wages, according to the women’s complaint. Some weeks, they said, their piece-rate wages amounted to the equivalent of less than $4 an hour. Sometimes they were given only about 15 hours of work per week.

Craig West denies that he shorted the women. But notes from a Labor Department investigation show that he did not keep proper pay records, making it impossible to verify that assertion.

The women also said West forbade them from leaving his plant and ordered one of his employees to confiscate their passports and visas — their only proof, in a region that takes border enforcement seriously, that they were in the U.S. legally. On numerous occasions, they said, West threatened to call police or immigration authorities.

A few days after the disastrous double date, two of the women claimed, West pointed a gunat Valdez, the red beam of his laser scope directly on her face, and told her never to leave the work camp.

West, a solidly built man with a honey drawl, vehemently denied that he mistreated his workers, taking particular umbrage at the allegation involving the gun. He is a hunting instructor and runs the church skeet shoot, he said in an interview outside his home in June, and would never recklessly point a weapon at anyone.

The real story, West said, is that Valdez, Gonzalez, and some of the other women in their trailer were “wild,” partying and arranging to have cases of beer dropped off at his property. In a sworn deposition, one L.T. West employee said the women went out often and sometimes came back after “having been drinking.” Another said that West did not get angry if they went out without his permission.

West also denied trying to use the Mamou police to intimidate the women. He called them, he said, because some of the workers had expressed fears that a rapist would sneak onto the property.

More at http://www.buzzfeed.com/jessicagarrison/the-new-american-slavery-invited-to-the-us-foreign-workers-f#.tp9e8Jgy7J


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