Every year, hundreds of thousands of foreign workers come to the United States to fill temporary agricultural jobs under the government-sponsored H-2A visa program. But instead of finding safe jobs to support their families back home, many farm workers end up getting deceived and abused.
In the first episode of “Head Down,” a two-part special from Futuro Investigates and Latino USA, in collaboration with Prism, we follow the journey of Mexican farm workers. Soon after they arrive in North Carolina with H-2A visas in 2018, they find themselves in a nightmare they’re forced to escape.
When Diego and Mario planned their escape, they knew they’d have to leave their labor camp in the middle of the night, when their bosses were less vigilant and all the other workers were in their rooms sleeping.
It was a warm night in May 2018 in a town near Raleigh, the capital of North Carolina.
It was eerily quiet as they each packed a single bag for their long walk in the dark.
It could be risky getting out onto the main road. Two foreign guys alone; they could seem suspicious.
They were terrified.
But once they were near the main road, they spotted the getaway car. The people who had promised to help them escape were actually there… Diego and Mario were finally safe.
The nightmare they experienced working in a US farm as part of a government program was over. Their struggles, however, wouldn’t stop there.
The H-2A program was created in 1986 as a response to the shortage of agricultural workers in the U.S. In the last decade, the number of foreign farm workers under this program has more than tripled. Just last year, more than 300,000 workers came to the U.S. this way — about 90% from Mexico.
As a work visa, H-2A ties workers to their employer. So if the employer fails to pay workers or provide them adequate housing, or food, the worker can’t go find a better job because quitting means not only losing their visa and their ability to legally remain in the United States. Losing the visa also strips workers from housing and meals.
On one hand, the program has been beneficial for entire families in Mexico. Workers can make double or triple what they would earn on a Mexican farm, and they don’t have to risk crossing into the U.S. without authorization.
But on the other hand, the program, which is overseen by the Department of Labor, is rife with serious problems that make it easy for employers to exploit their foreign workforce. H-2A workers often live in inhumane conditions, they are underpaid and overworked; some have been trafficked and abused, and an overwhelming majority of them say wage theft is simply a reality of the program. A reality that starts in Mexico, away from the U.S. government’s oversight.
For Diego and Mario, leaving the H-2A program meant they had to remain undocumented in the United States. But this didn’t stop them from taking action against their former employers.
For more on this investigation, visit futuroinvestigates.org
Featured illustration by Iliana Galvez.