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 patrn angry, Travis recalled. While he was trying to puzzle out what they meant, his brother, who was driving, interrupted: Dude, Trey said. Theres 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, were 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 werent doing anything wrong, he said, and they were in the United States. I was like, Theres no way they are going to take you away.
He was wrong.
The man in the truck was the womens 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 couldnt leave Wests 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 Wests 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.
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 wont 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 wages, threatened with guns, beaten, raped, starved, 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 cant 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 companys name. If the pay and working conditions arent 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 Americas high-tech industries, the H-2 program is for the economys 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 dont 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 bosss 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 were blacklisted 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 doesnt 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 Departments 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. Theres a big power imbalance there, and the worst guys get away with everything.
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 theres 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 didnt 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 Americas 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 peoples 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 didnt 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 womens 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 gun at 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.
Police officers, however, tell a different story. Two testified that when West arrived at the station that night, he was in a state of fury. In a sworn deposition in 2012, Mamou Police Sgt. Lucas Lavergne described Wests behavior this way: He said like looking toward the girls, he said, Mucho fuck you. Mucho kill you.
What happened that night, Travis said, was nuts and wrong. Reflecting on Wests and the polices attitude toward the women, he said, It seemed like we had messed with his property, like we had stolen a horse or did damage to his property.
His brother Trey added, Shortest date ever.
By scouring legal and administrative documents, BuzzFeed News identified more than 800 workers over the last 10 years who complained to authorities that they had their passports confiscated, were held against their will, were physically attacked, or were threatened with harm for trying to leave their housing or job sites. The number who experienced these abuses but did not speak out may be much higher.
In January 2013, a group of Mexican forestry workers said that they had been held at gunpoint in the mountains north of Sacramento and forced to work 13 hours a day and handle chemicals that made them vomit and peeled their skin, according to a search warrant affidavit filed in federal court last year by a Department of Homeland Security investigator.
Their employer, a small forestry contractor out of Idaho called Pure Forest, had also illegally charged the workers about $2,000 apiece for their visas, paid for out of deductions from their paychecks, the workers said. After additional fees were levied for food, they said, they were sometimes left with less than $100 for two weeks of grueling work. In one case, a worker said he was charged $100 for a pair of used shoes held together with nails.
Two of Pure Forests foremen reportedly carried firearms and threatened to shoot workers in the head and leave them in the woods if they did not work harder, the DHS special agent, Eugene Kizenko, wrote. He added that multiple workers heard these threats.
Five workers who escaped sued Pure Forest in federal court last year. They filed the suit, which is ongoing, using pseudonyms; the complaint states that the workers fear retaliation due to threats of bodily injury or death made by defendants.
Pure Forest denied the allegations in court papers and in an interview. Completely false, Owen Wadsworth said by phone. His father, Jeff, owns the company, and Owen was also named in the workers suit. We've had nothing but good working relationships with all our employees, he said. The H-2 program seems more set up to put the company, the owner or the employer, in a bad situation, he added, and whatever allegations or negative that come up, it's treated almost like it's true, and they'll assume that you're the bad guy.
A particularly effective force to keep workers in line is debt.
Interviews and court records reviewed by BuzzFeed News turned up hundreds of workers who claimed they were forced to pay for their visas. Thats illegal; companies are responsible for making sure their labor brokers don't charge bribes. But diplomats from the U.S. and Mexico say such bribes are rampant. In cables released by WikiLeaks, U.S. consular officials in Mexico, Jamaica, Guatemala, and the Dominican Republic describe reports of recruiters demanding fees for visas and also committing fraud in order to get visas approved.
Jacob Joseph Kadakkarappally was eager to come from India to the U.S. to work as a welder at the Pascagoula, Mississippi, shipyard of Signal International in late 2006. But he didn't have the approximately $14,500 recruiters demanded for the visa and other fees, so first he pawned the gold bangles his wife wore every day on her wrist. Then he hocked a gold chain that, he later testified, is considered to be holy, a symbol of wedding.
Other Signal workers from India, who had been misled into thinking they would get green cards, went deeply into debt or sold property to pay fees. Once the workers arrived in the U.S., Signal housed them in a labor camp, up to 24 men to a trailer, for which Signal charged them each $1,050 a month.
After Kadakkarappally and others began asking for better working and housing conditions, security guards raided his trailer early one morning and managers told him he was fired.
I almost lost my breath, Kadakkarappally testified. He pleaded with managers, he said, recounting his huge debts and telling them that I would not be able to support my family. A fellow worker slit his wrist in a failed suicide attempt.
Kadakkarappally and four other welders eventually sued Signal, and in February a federal jury in New Orleans awarded them $14 million. This month, the Southern Poverty Law Center announced that Signal had agreed to a $20 million settlement that resolves those claims and those of 200 additional Indian welders in 11 related lawsuits. Signal, which filed for bankruptcy to carry out the settlement, also agreed to apologize to its guest workers. Signal did not respond to requests for comment.
Such a victory is extremely rare. Very few H-2 workers have the resources or support to file a lawsuit. Many workers become prisoners of their debt. The best way to pay it off is with a job in the U.S. and the only job H-2 workers can legally get is the one with the company that sponsors their visas.
In so many cases, these workers end up being abused, said Jennifer Gordon, a law professor at Fordham University and a former MacArthur Fellow who has conducted research into the discrimination against and mistreatment of immigrant workers. In routine ways, all the time, the workers pay fees, they are threatened, their families are threatened. And the employer knows that if you get workers through that program, theyre not going to complain.
That stark power imbalance can be downright dangerous, contributing to on-the-job injuries and even deaths.
Leonardo Espinabarro Telles entered the country on an H-2 visa in April 2011, to work for Crystal Rock Amusements as it moved from Pennsylvania to Vermont and back, staging that most American of pastimes: county fairs. The Mexico native had been on the job about three months, living in a crowded converted horse trailer without a working bathroom, when the crew of 17 guest workers arrived in northern Vermont for the Lamoille County Field Days.
A little before 3 in the afternoon on Tuesday, July 19, Espinabarro went to retrieve electrical connectors from a trailer housing the hulking Caterpillar generator that powered the carnival rides.
Inside, two feet separated the trailer wall from the generators massive spinning fan blades. The protective guard over the blades had either broken or been removed. At ankle level, pulleys and fan belts were also exposed.
Espinabarro was alone, so no one witnessed what happened, but co-workers heard cries for help. One man rushed to the trailer to see Espinabarro standing upright, then watched him collapse and fall out of the trailer. His clothing had gotten tangled in the machinery, and the fan blades had ripped through his body. From neck to waist, his back was carved open, his organs spilling out. He was dead by the time he reached the hospital.
Inspectors from the Vermont Occupational Safety and Health Administration found that Crystal Rock management knew the fan blades were unguarded at the time of the accident but had not told the workers. No one had posted proper warning signs. Nor had they delivered safety training in any language.
Vermont OSHA levied $114,550 in fines. The case is still open, because Crystal Rock has not paid.
Asked whether he had ever trained his guest workers how to be safe around heavy equipment, Crystal Rocks owner, Arthur Gillette, told an inspector: How can you train these guys?" adding, "Do you train someone to eat a hot dog?
Gillette, whose company has been certified for at least 358 visas since 2002, added that Mexican workers were mechanically inclined and would figure things out and that if the investigator had ever been to the country she would understand that. He explained: The streets of Mexico, cars were stolen and disassembled with just the frames left on the street.
The Labor Department conducted its own investigation following the accident, finding that Gillette routinely underpaid workers and owed more than $60,000 in back wages. This month, the Maine state fire marshal criminally charged Gillette with falsifying physical evidence after an accident on a roller coaster injured three children at a carnival in Waterville in June.
Gillette, reached by phone, said the criminal charges in Maine were unjust and denied tampering with evidence.
He said both the Labor Department and Vermont OSHA investigations of Crystal Rock, which is now out of business, were unfair. Ive worked dozens of carnivals and dealt with hundreds of foreign employees, he added. The vast majority of the guys that worked for me said I am more than fair. That I owe them nothing. That we are square.
Guest workers in other industries have died after being run over in grisly accidents, or collapsing for unknown reasons. Theyve had limbs amputated and suffered other catastrophic injuries.
On-the-job injuries happen to all kinds of employees, of course, but employers virtually unchecked sway over H-2 workers as well as some employers attitudes about foreigners can foster a cavalier attitude toward workplace dangers. It can also keep workers from pointing out safety violations or even reporting injuries.
In a 2012 report from the Labor Occupational Health Program at the University of California, Berkeley, researchers surveyed 150 forestry workers in Oregon, about a third of them on H-2 visas, and found that more than 40% had been injured on the job in the previous 12 months. Fifteen of the workers had suffered broken bones, and another 18 had dislocated one or more bones. And yet workers kept quiet about many of their injuries including more than a quarter of the broken bones and nearly half of the dislocated ones.
The report concluded: They were afraid they would be fired, and they were afraid of otherwise getting in trouble.
Topolobampo occupies a peninsula at the mouth of a bay off the Sea of Cortez in violence-ravaged Sinaloa, the home state of the infamous drug lord Joaqun El Chapo Guzmn. The sparkling sea along the malecn belies a deep listlessness, more stifling than the tropical heat, that has settled over the town. The seafood plant along the waterfront closed down years ago. Mangy dogs range along barely maintained streets, while a few tiny restaurants with cement floors have almost nothing on the menu. Decent jobs outside of the drug trade are hard to find.
As much as a third of the population of 6,500 travels to the swamps and prairies of Louisiana every year to catch and process seafood, according to local recruiters. Those who make the trek are colloquially known as Louisianeros. The rewards of their work are easy to see: solidly built houses, clean tile floors, modern appliances, and framed degrees from private schools. Less visible are the costs: children who grow up in someone elses family, because their own parents are working on the other side.
Fernanda Padilla was just 3 when her mother, Guadalupe, started coming to Louisiana for 10 months a year to process shellfish. I couldnt understand, said Padilla. I used to tell her, I dont care. Ill eat rice and beans every day, but be here with me.
But at 17, Padilla dropped out of school and decided to follow in her mothers footsteps to make money. She secured an H-2 visa and arrived at her new job at Bayou Shrimp in April 2009. She was pregnant, but her pay stubs show she worked more than 60 hours some weeks. Forty days after her daughter was born, Padilla was back at work at the plant, leaving her baby with a friend.
Padilla, who has since had a second child, worked in the Louisiana shrimp industry for five seasons before losing her job last year. She said she used to worry that, like her own mother, she was abandoning her children in order to provide for them.
Five years working there seemed like no time had passed at all, and my daughter had already grown up and I didnt even realize it, Padilla said, adding that she is now cobbling together a living with odd jobs.
North of the border, H-2 visas are also important to the economy.
Louisiana is the nations second-largest seafood-producing state, and its crawfish industry used to rely on local labor. But competition from cheap Asian imports, along with the demand by huge retailers such as Wal-Mart for ever lower prices, have squeezed profit margins and put downward pressure on wages below the point, producers say, where people in America will take the jobs on a seasonal basis. In the 1990s, processors including Craig West hoped that machines could be built to take over the repetitive task of extracting the tail meat from the crustaceans. But eventually crawfish farmers discovered that the best and cheapest option is a Mexican on an H-2 visa.
The visa comes in two types: H-2A for agricultural workers and H-2B for nonagricultural unskilled workers, with varying rules and provisions. While many workers say that regulators dont do enough to protect them, their employers generally have the opposite complaint. They say they are burdened by endless bureaucratic hurdles and inspectors who ding them for tiny infractions of incomprehensible rules.
Ben LeGrange, the general manager of Atchafalaya Crawfish Processing, in Henderson, Louisiana, said most crawfish processors treat their workers well, and isolated incidents shouldnt taint the whole industry. He said he tries to treat guest workers as an extension of someone in my family and that without them the whole company, which also employs six American workers, would be in jeopardy.
Standing on his expansive lawn beside a riding mower, West, who co-owns the crawfish producer L.T. West with his brother, said he treats his workers well. My wife got holy water for them, he said, adding that when they were not working he and his wife, Cathy, drove workers to Walmart or church, and sometimes invited them to relax in the shade of a tree that protects his house from the sun.
But seven of his workers, including Valdez and Gonzalez, claim West took a different kind of interest in some of them.
Some of their allegations include that he took to bursting into their trailer unexpectedly, even when they were dressing, and called them his property and his Mexican ladies, according to their complaint. Some of the women recall him saying things such as mucho booby and mexicanas mucho booby, gesturing for them to lift up their shirts. He instructed one of his other workers to tell the women in Spanish that the only way they could get out of poverty was to accept his propositions, which included requests that they come to his house when his wife was away. In the suit, the women did not allege he actually had sex with them.
West, with his wife looking on, flatly denied the allegations, saying the women had made them up.
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The New American Slavery: Invited To The U.S., Foreign ...