A tell-tale tragedy | Food and Environment Reporting Network

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Two Mexican farmworkers died in a trailer fire in North Carolina. Their story illustrates how the nation’s most important agricultural visa program is failing the workers it is supposed to protect.

By the time the sun came up over the rolling green hills of Harrells, North Carolina, on June 23, 2021, a charred metal platform was all that remained of the old trailer. An investigation by the local fire department determined that the fire started at the electric stove in the kitchen. From there, it climbed the cabinets, spread to the living room, and tore through the two bedrooms. Within 30 minutes, the entire structure had been consumed by flames. A photo taken of the aftermath showed a pile of blackened debris, the charred coils of a mattress the only thing that suggested people lived there. 

Parked beneath a thicket of tall trees and surrounded by miles of farmland, the trailer was where two cousins, Vicente Gomez Hernandez and Humberto Feliciano Gomez, were meant to spend the summer of 2021. They had traveled there from their Mixteco Indigenous community in San Juan Mixtepec, a rural town in the Mexican state of Oaxaca. Now they’d be returning in body bags. 

Gomez and Feliciano were two of the hundreds of thousands of temporary agricultural workers who come to the U.S. each year through the H-2A visa program. It’s the federal government’s most important farm-labor pipeline — and it gets bigger every year. Yet for many visa recipients, the promise of steady work and decent pay quickly devolves into a nightmare of labor trafficking, wage theft, and unsafe living conditions that can lead to injury or even death. 

Federal law spells out numerous protections for H-2A workers. They are to be reimbursed by their employer for the cost of their travel, for instance, and be provided free and safe housing as well as a competitive hourly wage. 

The charred remains of the trailer on the morning after the fire. Photo by Sampson County Fire Marshal’s office.

But too often these laws are poorly enforced at both the state and federal levels. That lack of oversight creates opportunities for workers to be exploited, cheated, and abused.

Once workers arrive at their destination in the U.S., they’re at the mercy of a patchwork of enforcement that varies greatly depending on the resources available in a given state. For instance, previous reporting by Investigate Midwest found that in Missouri a lack of funding led to a lax inspection process that was easily abused and led to H-2A workers living in deplorable conditions.    

Should workers find themselves at the hands of an abusive employer they have few options. They are not allowed to seek employment elsewhere because their visa is tied to their original employer. If they leave that position, they forfeit their visa and risk deportation. If they report abuse, they can face retaliation and be blackballed by both H-2A recruiters and employers, making it difficult to ever return to work legally in the U.S. 

“H-2A workers, by the very nature of the program, don’t have any control over their work environment,” said Joan Flocks, an emeritus law professor at the University of Florida who specializes in agricultural labor. 

For these reasons, experts say, most abuse in the H-2A program goes unreported, as too often workers are forced to choose between fair treatment and financial opportunity.