A new multiyear study reveals that the United States’ so-called “guestworker” system has become a complex transnational web of fraud that looks legal on paper but turns out to be brutal in practice. The H2A and H2B labor-visa programs, which in theory at least offer a legal pathway to coveted temporary jobs in this country, have instead led countless migrant workers, mostly from Mexico, to sink their savings into recruiters’ fees and other schemes.
Since 2005, the group that published the analysis, Centro de los Derechos del Migrante (CDM) “received reports of fraud affecting 6,497 people who have each paid an average recruitment fee of $9,300 pesos—the equivalent of three and a half months’ worth of a minimum wage salary in Mexico—for a false or non-existent job offer.”
Adareli Ponce Hernandez, a CDM organizer, recalled a routine pattern of fraud that has festered in her hometown, Hidalgo. Over the 10 years she’s spent milling through seasonal jobs in the seafood-processing and chocolate-manufacturing industries, she’s been defrauded four times:
A friend of mine put me in touch with a recruiter who said he was hiring people in several industries; he was offering us work packing vegetables in Georgia. My friend and I deposited $150 dollars each. Then, he provided dates for the interviews with the Consulate in June and then cancelled. The same thing happened with the alleged dates in July and August. Afterwards, he stopped answering our calls and responding to our messages, and we realized that it was a fraud.
But to Hernandez’s community, the brazen exploitation is seen as simply the price of working in the United States: “Almost everyone in my community goes to the United States,” she continued. “That’s the only way to subsist. There are no labor opportunities here; the few options have a lot of requirements of many kinds, including gender and even age; being between 18 and 30 years of age…That’s all we have.”
Discrimination is also rife in the visa system, however, and perhaps even more explicit in the application screening process, which often tracks women, who make up a small portion of the H-2 workforce, into lower-paid jobs, such as factory and cleaning work, while men are prioritized for higher-earning positions.
Because job openings tend to focus on male-dominated jobs like farmwork and forestry, Julia Coburn, CDM’s director of operations for Mexico argues, “rampant sex-based discrimination in H-2 labor recruitment makes women uniquely vulnerable to fraud.”
This fraud has only been abetted by new technologies: Flashy Facebook ads, featuring bucolic fields and fat paychecks, enable scammers to target huge networks of workers and extract payments instantly. Last May, for example, workers in Guanajuato and Veracruz were lured by a Facebook post that “promised work in a nonexistent company in California called Strawberry Paradise. Although the post did not disclose a recruitment fee, people who responded to the post reported having to deposit $5,800 pesos in a personal bank account in order to secure the job offer.”
The Obama-era Labor Department did attempt to check fraudulent visa operations by barring recruitment fees. However, the rules have been tied up in litigation by the business lobby for years. Besides, many advocates say that such rules on paper are essentially unenforceable anyway. So while extortionate fees may be technically prohibited by both Mexican and US labor regulators, the legal complexities of the claims process make such rules virtually meaningless to poor migrants without legal advocates in the United States. Groups like CDM have been mobilizing guestworkers through reform advocacy and grassroots community education campaigns. But under the current system, according to Coburn, “employers and recruiters can, and do, continue to charge fees without consequence…for many prospective workers, paying recruitment fees are just part and parcel of H-2 employment to this day.”
If they do manage to secure a US visa, even graver threats may await them across the border. Since their legal status depends on a single employer’s approval, they labor under the perpetual risk of deportation, which locks them in to contracts with poverty wages without standard safety and job protections, and deters them from reporting violations or union organizing—rendering them vulnerable to rampant exploitation and labor trafficking.
Despite these abuses, the migrant workforce powers the engine of the hemispheric remittance economy, which sent some $26 billion in US earnings back to Mexico in 2017. The weakest link of this human supply chain are the aspiring workers themselves, who often end up paying more money just to secure the promise of an American job than what they could actually earn in wages across the border.
To protect migrants rights and uphold workers rights for all, advocates say the H2 visa system must be overhauled to provide real transparency and meaningful accountability. Mexican labor authorities should improve oversight of labor recruiters; and in the United States, the federal government has an even greater responsibility to protect immigrant workers by enforcing federal labor standards, informing job seekers with comprehensive background information on all certified recruiters and labor agencies, and providing a mechanism of justice for defrauded and exploited workers, so that victims of theft and fraud have a some modicum of compensation or recourse.
Still, the real bottom line of the visa economy is the toll it takes on workers, which is fundamentally not worth the burden carried by migrants who spend their lives trafficked between two vastly unequal economies. Radical migrant-rights advocates argue that in the long run, only equitable cross-border distribution of jobs, wealth, and legal protection across communities would comprehensively reduce the need for intrinsically corrupt contract labor schemes.
Over the years, each story of abuse that CDM has collected exposes the injustices suffered by thousands of workers, but also attests to the global suffering of whole communities, who are held hostage to the dream of “papers” that bring prosperity abroad. In reality, the price of admission, legal or not, comes at the expense of justice.