El 17 de noviembre de 2021, más de 200 agentes federales del orden público llegaron al sur de Georgia para ejecutar lo que el Fiscal Federal Interino para el Distrito Sur de Georgia, David H. Estes, ha llamado “la operación encubierta más grande de tráfico laboral en la historia de los Estados Unidos”. Operación Cebolla Floreciente, o sea, Operation Blooming Onion en inglés, resultó en la acusación y el arresto de 24 acusados por delitos graves, incluido el trabajo forzado de los trabajadores agrícolas en las granjas de Georgia. Operación Cebolla Floreciente, una investigación federal de tres años identificó a 100 víctimas en el Distrito Sur de Georgia. Estes estima que hay aproximadamente 70.000 víctimas en todo el país.
La División de Derechos de los Trabajadores Agrícolas de GLSP representa a más de 30 víctimas-testigos en este caso, y hemos estado trabajando con agentes federales durante el último año para proteger los intereses de nuestros clientes en esta operación. Nuestras asistentes legales, Miriam Peñafort y Anna Figueroa, fueron parte del equipo interdisciplinario listo en el centro de víctimas de Operación Cebolla Floreciente en Douglas, GA el 17 de noviembre para brindar información sobre sus derechos a las víctimas.
Muchos de los arrestados son bien conocidos por la División de Derechos de los Trabajadores Agrícolas, incluido un ex empleado del Departamento de Labor de Georgia y varios contratistas agrícolas contra quienes nuestros clientes tienen demandas civiles pendientes. Nuestra oficina demandó recientemente a dos de esos contratistas en un tribunal federal, en el Distrito Sur de Georgia, Marin-Santiago v. Gumara Canela, et al., alegando reclamos bajo la Ley de Normas Laborales Justas, la Ley de Reautorización de Protección de Víctimas de Trata y la Ley de Contrato de Georgia.
Entre los casos actuales de la División de Derechos de los Trabajadores Agrícolas se encuentran más de 60 casos de trata laboral (incluyendo demandas civiles y solicitudes de Visa T) relacionados con el trabajo forzoso y la explotación de trabajadores agrícolas. La División de Derechos de los Trabajadores Agrícolas recibió recientemente una subvención de tres años del Consejo Coordinador de Justicia Criminal de Georgia, por un monto de $471,539.00, para apoyar nuestro trabajo en representación de los trabajadores agrícolas de Georgia que están sujetos a condiciones de trata de personas, como las descritas en la acusación federal de este mes. Esta subvención financiará a una abogada y una asistente legal para que se centren en ayudar a las víctimas a solicitar Visas – T y otros trabajos relacionados con la trata, mientras que el resto de nuestro equipo puede continuar concentrándose en el litigio y la divulgación
The Honorable Brian P. Kemp Governor of Georgia 206 Washington Street 111 State Capitol Atlanta, GA 30334
RE: Request for Information Regarding Georgia’s Plan to Provide its Farmworkers with Fair Access to the COVID-19 Vaccine
Dear Governor Kemp:
Now that you have expanded access to the COVID-19 vaccine to all Georgians 16 and older, we write to request information about the plans that your administration has developed to ensure that farmworkers in the State of Georgia have fair and equitable access to the COVID-19 vaccine. We believe there is no work more essential than keeping food on the plates of every Georgia home, and it is thanks to the hard work and dedication of our farmworkers that our supermarkets remained stocked despite the COVID-19 pandemic. Now more than ever, Georgia needs to ensure that every farmworker keeping our state fed is protected, healthy, and vaccinated.
As you are aware, Agribusiness is Georgia’s leading industry. This important part of Georgia’s economy relies heavily on farmworkers, most of whom are foreign born and/or guest workers from Mexico and other countries in Latin-America. Regardless of where they come from, the color of their skin, or the language they speak, they live and work in Georgia and should be provided with equitable and fair access to the COVID-19 vaccine.
We represent agricultural workers in Georgia. This population is usually isolated, both in terms location (i.e. living in remote rural areas), and in terms of the social isolation that comes with not speaking the predominant language and being the subject of exploitation and racial discrimination.
To provide this population fair and equitable access to the COVID-19 vaccine, states need to consider all the extra barriers that farmworkers face and address those barriers in their vaccine distribution plans. Some questions that come to mind are the following:
Will Georgia provide informational materials in Spanish regarding vaccine information, including information about eligibility, how to schedule an appointment, and other information already provided to the general public?
Will Georgia provide vaccine distribution sites in rural areas accessible to farmworkers?
What assurances can the state offer that all farmworkers in Georgia have access to the vaccine?
Is Georgia already working with members of the farmworker community and/or their allies in developing their farmworker vaccination strategy?
Is your administration including the Georgia Farmworker Health Program’s migrant clinics in its farmworker vaccination strategy? Is it including Emory University’s Farmworker Family Health Program (Nell Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing) in that strategy?
What type of documentation can farmworkers provide to show that they are Georgia residents for purposes of eligibility to the vaccine?
Our office has close contacts with the farmworker population and years of experience providing outreach and legal services to farmworkers in rural Georgia. If you would like our input in developing a farmworker vaccination plan for Georgia, we would be honored to assist. We hope this letter starts a conversation and we look forward to your response to this very important inquiry. You can reach me via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, or by calling our office at 404-463-1633.
Thank you very much for your attention to this matter.
Solimar Mercado-Spencer Senior Staff Attorney Georgia Legal Services Program Farmworker Rights Division
CC: Dr. Kathleen Toomey, Georgia Department of Public Health Attorney General Chris Carr, Office of the Georgia Attorney General
BLACKSHEAR, Ga. — The woods were so cold, Alberto Reyes could hardly feel his fingers when the bus came to pick him up, more than 10 hours after he’d started gathering pine needles from the forest floor with his bare hands.
Two weeks earlier, in February 2018, Reyes had come to the United States through a fast-growing visa program for temporary farmworkers. The Georgia-based labor contractor who recruited him, Manuel Sanchez, had promised Reyes that he could earn more in a few months baling pine straw for garden mulch than he’d make all year as a bricklayer in Mexico — all expenses paid.
Instead, Sanchez had already missed the first paycheck, and Reyes and the 18 other workers Sanchez recruited were quickly running out of food, according to interviews and court documents. Sanchez left the men at a roach-infested house with no heat, hot water or working toilets. There wasn’t room for all of them to lie down, even on the floor. So Reyes had to sleep in a garden shed infested with spiders, shivering under plastic wrap that he used as an improvised sheet.
It was where the previous residents had kept their dogs.
“You didn’t come here to stay in nice houses or to do whatever you want,” Sanchez told the workers in Spanish, according to Reyes. “I brought you here to work.”
Like most of the other workers, Reyes had paid Sanchez a huge sum — about $1,000 — just to come to the U.S., borrowing money from creditors who were demanding to be paid back, said Reyes, 37, who is using a partial version of his name for fear of retribution from Sanchez. (Sanchez didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment.)
“What do I do?” Reyes thought over and over again. “Do I stay in Manuel’s hands?”
Federal laws are supposed to ensure decent working conditions, fair pay and safe housing for guest workers, who are tied to the employers who sponsor them and must return to their home countries after the short-term visas expire, as the program doesn’t provide a pathway to citizenship.
But as the H-2A program has expanded, it has left more guest workers vulnerable to abuse, an NBC News investigation has found. Over the course of six months, NBC News visited more than a dozen H-2A sites in Georgia and North Carolina; interviewed dozens of H-2A workers, labor advocates, industry leaders and former labor officials; and reviewed hundreds of pages of court documents.
Last year, the Labor Department closed 431 cases with confirmed H-2A violations — a 150 percent increase since 2014; the agency found about 12,000 violations under the program, with nearly 5,000 workers cheated out of their wages, according to federal data.
And those are only the documented problems. Workers are often reluctant to speak out against employers who are responsible for their housing, transportation and paychecks — and who control their ability to stay in the U.S. — workers and labor advocates say. The pandemic has created new hazards for these workers, who are transported together and often stay in cramped housing that their employers provide. COVID-19 outbreaks have infected farmworkers across the U.S., including large groups of H-2A workers in California, Washington and Michigan, according to health officials.
Labor advocates are especially alarmed about farmers’ growing reliance on contractors like Sanchez. As pressure grows to cut costs amid falling crop prices and competition from foreign imports, more farmers are outsourcing the time-consuming job of hiring, transporting, housing and managing H-2A workers. Labor contractors can also shield farmers from liability, curtailing their legal responsibility for the workers picking their crops should something go wrong.
While some farm labor contractors are well-established professionals, others are tiny, fly-by-night operations that cut corners — middlemen sometimes known as “enganchadores,” a Spanish word referring to the practice of “hooking” workers to come to the U.S.
Although they are still a minority of the companies bringing H-2A workers to the U.S. — submitting 15 percent of the federally certified applications for workers in 2019 — labor contractors are more than twice as likely to be barred from the H-2A program for violating the rules compared to other H-2A employers, according to NBC News’ analysis of federal data from 2016 to 2019.
Contractors are also behind some of the most egregious cases of H-2A exploitation in recent years:
Guest workers in Missouri hired by a contractor to pick watermelons in 2018 slept in a former county jail surrounded by barbed wire; some had passed out while working in the field because of a lack of drinking water, according to a federal investigator.
An Arizona man was banned from working as a farm labor contractor last year after he transported H-2A workers in a bus whose steering column was attached with duct tape.
In 2018, a worker in Georgia died of heatstroke while picking tomatoes for an H-2A labor contractor; the Labor Department fined the company more than $10,000 for failing to protect its workers.
“All too often, the grower doesn’t know what’s going on in the field,” said Bruce Goldstein, president of Farmworker Justice, a national advocacy group. “They’re either hiding their head in the sand or purposefully ignoring it.”
Do you have a story to share about temporary visas or farmworkers? Contact us.
¿Tiene una historia para compartir sobre visas temporales o trabajadores agrícolas? Contáctenos.
From his first days in office, Trump has made it a priority to impose draconian new restrictions on immigration — most recently freezing all new H-1B visas for skilled tech workers, among other groups. But the White House has made a rare exception for the H-2A program, which has no annual cap on visas.
“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.”
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?”
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.
“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.
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.”
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.
CORRECTION (Aug. 12, 2020, 1:03 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article incorrectly characterized the annual number of workers who were owed back wages under the H-2A program. The count is not exclusive to H-2A workers; in addition to foreign workers, it may include domestic workers hired by H-2A employers who were not paid properly under H-2A rules.
Graphics and development by Jiachuan Wu; photo editing by Matthew Nighswander; video by Nirma Hasty.
Brunswick, GA, August 1, 2019 – On July 25th, 2019, a United States District Court Judge ruled in favor of thirteen pine straw workers against farm labor contractor Manuel Sanchez. The guest workers, who were in the U.S. with H-2A temporary work visas, complained that Sanchez subjected them to human trafficking conditions, including forcing them to work for little to no pay and subjecting them to inhumane living conditions. Sanchez did not answer the lawsuit and did not oppose the workers’ motion for default judgment. The District Court for the Southern District of Georgia entered a judgment against Sanchez in the amount of $278,889.66. The workers had previously reached a settlement for a portion of their unpaid wages with the pine straw company, Premium Pineneedles, LLC.
Manuel Sanchez recruited these workers from poor villages in Mexico, with false promises of gainful employment and free housing. During recruitment, Sanchez defrauded the workers out of hundreds of dollars in illegal fees, and induced them to take on debt and travel to the United States to work in Sanchez’s pine straw harvesting operations in Georgia. Once in Georgia, Sanchez refused to pay the workers’ wages, subjected them to inhumane living conditions, and used threats of deportation to coerce the workers to remain under his employment. The Farmworker Rights Division of Georgia Legal Services Program represented the workers. The lead attorney for the case, Solimar Mercado-Spencer, commented, “Cases like this are all too common in Georgia. We are glad that we were able to expose one of these unscrupulous farm labor contractors and that our clients had their day in court. We will continue our fight for the most vulnerable workers in our state.”
About Georgia Legal Services Program: Georgia Legal Services Program (GLSP) is a nonprofit law firm that offers free civil legal services to Georgians 60 and older and those with low-incomes outside of the Atlanta metro area. Our mission is to provide equal access to justice and opportunities out of poverty. Visit www.glsp.org or call 404-206-5175 for more information.
The Farmworker Rights Division would like to thank our fantastic summer interns Juan Barragan-Rangel and Matt Stolz for a wonderful summer of outreach and legal research. Juan and Matt worked on several cases that the Farmworker Division is planning and completed numerous outreach trips around the state of Georgia with two GLSP outreach paralegals and representatives from Tapestri. We were lucky to have both Juan and Matt join the team for the summer and wish them the best as they return to school.
On July 25th, 2018, a United States District Court Judge approved a settlement in favor of thirty-three H-2A workers against Shiloh Berry Farms, (Alma, GA). The guest farm workers filed a complaint alleging that their employer was in violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act, their work contracts, and that the employer fired the workers in retaliation for exerting their rights. The parties agreed on a settlement that compensates the workers for 100% of the minimum wages, 100% of the liquidated damages, and 84% of the retaliation claims allegedly owed.
The workers were agricultural guest workers from Mexico who were recruited to work for Shiloh Berry Farm in 2017. The workers complained that the employer violated their contracts by failing to pay them for all reimbursable expenses and hours of compensable work time and that the employer terminated them in retaliation for the assertion of protected rights, in violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act.
Represented by Georgia Legal Services Program, the workers sought legal action to recover their damages, including unpaid and lost wages, statutory liquidated damages, unreimbursed expenses, costs, and reasonable attorneys’ fees.
The lead counsel for this case, Lauren Hoff-Downing, commented, “H-2A workers are often scared to speak up about unlawful working conditions because they fear retaliation from their employers. Retaliation against H-2A workers is particularly harmful because H-2A workers can only work for the employer listed on their visa. They therefore face a difficult choice between continuing to work under poor conditions, or speaking up, and risking having no work at all. Shortly after speaking up about their rights, the 33 Plaintiffs in this case were fired and sent back to Mexico. The Plaintiffs continued to assert their rights by filing a lawsuit against their employers, and ultimately recovered all of the minimum wages owed, and a substantial portion of the wages they would have earned had they not been unlawfully fired.”
About Georgia Legal Services Program:
Georgia Legal Services Program (GLSP) is a nonprofit organization which offers free legal services to low-income or senior-aged Georgians outside of the Atlanta metro area. Our mission is to provide access to justice and opportunities out of poverty. Visit www.glsp.org or call 404.206.5175 for more information.
The Farmworker Rights Division of Georgia Legal Services filed a federal lawsuit on December 18, 2017, Christian Murillo Quirino, et al. v. Francisco Saucedo, et al., United States District Court for the Southern District of Georgia. We represented 4 guest workers from Mexico, who were brought to work in Georgia under an H-2A visa and who claimed violations of their rights under the federal minimum wage law and the H-2A regulations by the defendants. The Court approved the settlement on February 28, 2018.
The Farmworker Rights Division of Georgia Legal Services filed a federal lawsuit on June 2, 2017, Florencio Hipolito Rivera, et al. v. Javier Guerrero, et al., United States District Court for the Middle District of Georgia. We represented 5 guest workers from Mexico, who were brought to work in Georgia under an H-2A visa and who claimed violations of their rights under the federal minimum wage law and the H-2A regulations by the defendants. The Court approved the settlement on November 1, 2017.
Georgia Dept. of Agriculture Extends Protections to Non-English Speakers
Georgia Legal Services Civil Rights Complaint on Behalf of Farmworker Yields Results
(Atlanta, March 2, 2017) – On February 8, 2017, the Georgia Department of Agriculture agreed to make its protections for workers more accessible to non-English speakers. The agreement, reached between the Georgia Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), is a result of a complaint that Georgia Legal Services Program brought to the EPA. Georgia Legal Services brought the complaint on behalf of a Spanish-speaking client, whose initial complaint of a worker protection violation was dismissed by the Georgia Department of Agriculture because the department was not equipped to interview a non-English speaker.
The Georgia Legal Services client, an agricultural worker in the south of Georgia, became ill after being exposed to pesticides while working on a farm in July 2015. The worker’s exposure to pesticides was caused by the farm’s inadequate pesticide handling, in violation of EPA regulations. The worker filed a complaint to the Georgia Department of Agriculture, but the agency was unable to adequately process the complaint because of the language barrier and, as a result, it dismissed the worker’s complaint.
The worker’s complaint demonstrated a violation of the EPA’s Worker Protection Standard, a regulation designed to protect agricultural workers. The regulation includes requirements for protective equipment, safety training, restricted-entry times following pesticide application, and others that prevent poisoning and injury from pesticides.
The Georgia Department of Agriculture, which receives funding from the EPA, is charged with enforcing the Worker Protection Standard in the state. All state agencies that receive federal funding to provide services to the public must make sure that those services are accessible to all individuals, regardless of race, color or national origin, under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The Farmworker Rights Division of Georgia Legal Services Program brought this matter to the EPA’s External Civil Rights Compliance Office and, as a result, the agencies signed an agreement committing the Georgia Department of Agriculture to develop, publish, and implement written procedures to ensure meaningful access to all of the department’s programs and activities by all persons–including people with limited English proficiency.
For more information, please contact:
Solimar Mercado-Spencer, Farmworker Rights Division
The Georgia Legal Services Program is a nonprofit law firm whose mission is to provide civil legal services for persons with low incomes, creating equal access to justice and opportunities out of poverty.
The Farmworker Rights Division of Georgia Legal Services filed a federal lawsuit on May 1, 2015, Cruz-Vasquez, et al. v. Sanders Farms, Inc., et al., United States District Court for the Southern District of Georgia, Civ. Act. No. 6:15-cv-48. We represented 9 H-2A workers who alleged violations of federal minimum wage law and breach of contract against Sanders Farms, Inc., Sanders Brothers, LLC and labor contractor Bartolo L. Hernandez. Another 6 H-2A workers joined the suit as Opt-In Plaintiffs. Before any responsive pleadings were filed, the parties reached a settlement in the amount of $39,500.
The Sanders Defendants compensated Plaintiffs $30,000 in damages and paid $1,500 as attorneys’ fees. Plaintiffs received a total award of $7,500 from Defendant Hernandez who also paid an additional $500 in court costs. Also, the Sanders Defendants promised to offer Plaintiffs and Opt-In Plaintiffs employment through the fall of 2018 should their operations require hand-harvest labor, and Defendant Hernandez promised that neither he nor certain close relatives would recruit, hire, or supervise any H-2A workers through the fall of 2020. The parties petitioned the Court for approval of the settlement agreement, as required under the Fair Labor Standards Act and related caselaw. The Court approved the settlement on July 21, 2016.