Editor’s Desk: Investigating H-2A visa abuse

The charred remains of the trailer on the morning after the fire that killed farmworkers Vicente Gomez Hernandez and Humberto Feliciano Gomez. Photo by Sampson County Fire Marshal’s office.

By Theodore Ross

If you are reporting today on the lives and experiences of the people in the United States who plant, harvest, and process our food, then yours is the immigrant beat. Approximately 70 percent of this country’s agricultural workers are immigrants, according to the most recent National Agricultural Workers Survey

Two recent stories published by FERN investigate conditions for immigrant agricultural labor, in different industries and in different parts of the country, but with one appalling consistency: abuse.

Alone on the range,” by FERN staff writer Teresa Cotsirilos and co-published with High Country News, investigates the exploitation of migrant workers in the sheepherding industry, many of whom are brought to this country under the federal H-2A program for seasonal guestworkers. The H-2A program is the most important legal pipeline for foreign-born agricultural workers in this country, and it is growing. A USDA survey reported that there were approximately 300,000 H-2A workers in 2022, a 15 percent increase from 2021, and a 300 percent increase since 2012.

Teresa tells the story of Gustavo and Iván, two brothers from Peru, who say they were trafficked into the country, deprived of their wages, badly mistreated at their work, and intimidated into compliance by their bosses. Sadly, theirs is not an uncommon story. As Teresa writes:

Since the 1980s, most herders have come from Latin America. Today, about 80% of them come from Peru; according to Peruvian diplomatic officials, the majority are from Indigenous communities like Iván and Gustavo’s, which have their own centuries-old tradition of sheepherding. “The herder problem is well-known in our country and has been a constant concern,” said Luis Felipe Solari Otero, the general consul at Denver’s Peruvian consulate.  “Feudalism — as I see it — is still practiced by some ranchers here.”

In “A tell-tale tragedy,” longtime FERN contributor Esther Honig and Johnathan Hettinger, with Investigate Midwest, chronicle another aspect of the H-2A program rife with abuse: housing. 

“Federal law spells out numerous protections for H-2A workers,” they write, including “free and safe housing.” But their story shows what happens in this under-regulated world, through the arduous life and tragic death of Vicente Gomez Hernandez and Humberto Feliciano Gomez, cousins from Mexico who worked on a farm in North Carolina, and who were killed in a fire in their temporary home.

Thomas Arcury, a public health scientist at Wake Forest University in North Carolina, said these conditions, while likely illegal, were typical. His research shows that nearly half of the housing for H-2A workers did not meet safety standards in North Carolina. “Even if it passes inspection,” he added, “you wouldn’t want to live there. If you want my impression, farmworker housing is dangerous.” 

Both of these stories exemplify the challenges of FERN’s mission. Investigations of this nature are time-consuming, emotionally and ethically difficult – and essential. FERN’s goal is to bring attention to parts of our food supply that many Americans rarely think about. That can only be done in an environment that supports journalism wherever it leads and despite the consequences. We rely on support from our readers to help us continue this work. Please consider making a donation so that the abuses we’re covering can be stopped.