As the United States closes down our borders and Americans are staying home from work, school, and life in general, thousands of immigrant agricultural workers are still on the job, cultivating our food and helping to keep our grocery shelves stocked. Many are in the country on temporary work visas known as H-2As.
Immigrant rights advocates and anti-trafficking organizations have been raising alarms about the structure of the H-2A program for years. While guestworker programs provide economic opportunities for workers – and a reliable workforce for businesses – they are also rife with opportunities for exploitation and labor trafficking. Among the most pressing problems is the fact these visas bind workers to individual employers. Under the terms of the visa, workers lose their legal status and work authorization if they leave the employer who sponsored the visa. This emboldens abusive employers who coerce workers by threatening to get workers deported if they complain to authorities about mistreatment, wage theft, forced labor, poor living and working conditions or anything else.
Now, in this moment of extreme uncertainty for workers – and everyone else – we are concerned that things could get worse – and new trafficking concerns have arisen. U.S. produce growers, who depend on a critical labor pool of H-2A guestworkers for their harvests, warned of devastating disruption to our nation’s fruit and vegetable supply chains as the U.S. embassy in Mexico announced a pause in visa processing. In response, the State Department, in consultation with the Department of Homeland Security has relaxed the consular process for H2 workers to receive visas, removing an important step in the process that protects workers from trafficking and exploitation.
In the normal course of business, workers seeking H-2A visas are interviewed at the U.S. consulates of their respective countries. At those interviews, consular staff are supposed to ask questions to screen for fraud – for example, they ask questions that allow them to determine if the job offer at issue is real or if, possibly, the worker is at risk for trafficking. During that interview, every worker is given information – in a pamphlet – that explains their rights in the United States and gives them contact information for the U.S. National Human Trafficking Hotline. As a result of this vital information, hundreds of agricultural workers call us each year to report labor trafficking conditions.
Now, it appears those interviews are being essentially waived. Employers and recruiters are instead being asked to “closely vet” workers. It is not clear how – or if – anyone will make sure that this process includes making workers aware of their rights, or of the Trafficking Hotline. With little or no oversight, it is also not clear how workers will be protected from fraudulent recruiters who see this as an opportunity to bring people to the United States and exploit them.
Join us in calling on the State Department to reinstate interviews via videoconferencing to ensure that workers receive the essential information they need to know their rights and receive information about the Trafficking Hotline. We can and must do better as a nation to protect the people who quite literally put food on our tables. It shouldn’t take a health crisis to make this priority.