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.
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.
In September, the Department of Labor announced a set of proposed rules designed to strengthen protections for H-2A workers. These include making the recruitment process more transparent and giving workers options to advocate for better conditions, like working with unions. The rules are open to public comment until November, and while worker’s rights advocates, including United Farm Workers, support them, it remains to be seen how effective they will be.
The H-2A visa is supposed to be a safe alternative to crossing the border illegally — a win for both farmworkers and farmers. With the visa, Gomez and Feliciano expected to earn $13.15 an hour picking sweet potatoes and blueberries — a fruit they’d never tasted before coming to the United States.
Instead, the men were exploited from the start. When they began working they were in debt, living in a squalid trailer, and were never paid the full wages they’d come all that way for. Then they died in a fire, the exact cause of which remains unclear.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the number of H-2A workers has grown steadily over the past decade. In 2022, some 300,000 came to the U.S., up 15 percent from the year before and more than triple the number of workers in 2012.
H-2A workers spend several months clearing fields, planting crops, and harvesting fruits and vegetables, often in exchange for wages that would be inconceivable in their home country. More than 90 percent come from Mexico, and without them much of the United States’ home-grown produce would not make it to the grocery store.
Yet problems like those that Gomez and Feliciano encountered have plagued the H-2A program since its creation, in 1986.
Cases of abuse and exploitation are well documented across the country. Examples from just this year include a 28-year-old man in Florida who died of heat exposure after employers failed to provide him with adequate water and rest. In Utah, the president of the local Farm Bureau was caught physically assaulting one of his H-2A workers and is now under investigation for human trafficking. And in California, workers had their visas recalled after speaking out about unsafe conditions. While these stories rarely make headlines, in 2021 a federal investigation, Operation Blooming Onion, brought the issue to the nation’s attention. The multiyear probe uncovered a transnational human trafficking operation, headquartered in Georgia, that forced more than 100 H-2A workers to endure deplorable living conditions and what investigators called “modern day slavery.”
From 2018 to 2020, a hotline run by the Polaris Project, a nonprofit that fights human trafficking, identified 2,841 H-2A workers who had been subjected to labor trafficking. Over half of these workers reported being threatened with deportation after demanding decent living conditions or the wages they were owed. Others alleged that their employers withheld or destroyed their immigration documents as a means of control. In addition, nearly a quarter of the workers said the debt they incurred in order to get their H-2A visa, including invalid recruitment fees, was used to coerce them into working against their will.
Yet experts say that these cases don’t capture the full scope of the problems with H-2A, in part because workers are reluctant to report abuse but also because the agencies responsible for preventing abuse are underfunded and understaffed.
According to research by the Economic Policy Institute, a nonprofit think tank, the Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division, which is supposed to investigate reports of abuse in H-2A, has seen little increase in funding since 2006. In the ensuing years the number of H-2A workers has increased more than 500 percent.
As a result, the odds that an H-2A farm will be inspected are less than 1 percent, which can lead to a low level of compliance with labor laws, said Daniel Costa, director of immigration law and policy research at the Economic Policy Institute and the author of the report. “Farms can pretty much do whatever they want and there’s a very low likelihood they’ll ever be investigated,” he said.
In a written response, a spokesperson from the Department of Labor said the agency makes “strategic use of the funds appropriated by Congress,” and that it “regularly carr[ies] out thorough investigations of employers and farm labor contractors.”
When it comes to housing, the H-2A program also has strict regulations in place, but the reality is that those rules are often poorly enforced by the state agencies that oversee them.
In North Carolina, for instance, there were just eight compliance officers in 2022 responsible for the pre-occupancy inspections of 2,061 farmworker housing sites, according to the North Carolina Department of Labor (NCDOL). Each officer was responsible for 257 sites. That’s in addition to their other duties, which include enforcing a host of federal farming regulations and running training sessions across the state.
In an email, NCDOL acknowledged the rapid expansion of the H-2A program in the state and said it had received funding this year for two additional inspectors: “As more agricultural employers rely on the H-2A program to meet their workforce needs, NCDOL ASH [Agriculture Safety and Health Bureau] expects the number of registered migrant housing sites to increase as well. We are grateful for the additional two positions given to us by the N.C. General Assembly in the last budget and of course, we would always welcome more inspectors to help the department meet its obligations.”
At the trailer where Gomez and Feliciano lived, the NCDOL inspector found no deficiencies in a pre-occupancy inspection. Investigate Midwest reviewed a copy of the report, which was completed on Feb. 24, 2021, just months before the fire. It included no details about the condition of the trailer; a single box was checked stating that it met all federal standards. (According to its annual report that year, 51.9 percent of housing inspected by the NCDOL were found to have no violations.)
But a worker interviewed by Investigate Midwest, who spent the previous summer in the trailer where Gomez and Feliciano died, described it as barely livable.
The worker, whose identity we are protecting because he fears reprisal, said the floor was full of holes and the water and electricity would often go out. Washing clothes and dishes took place out behind the trailer, he said, with a plastic bucket and water spigot. According to the worker there was no air conditioning or fans and the windows were covered with plywood. He said the trailer was infested with cockroaches and at night, as the workers lay on bare mattresses on the floor, the scurry of mice was loud enough to keep them awake.
Once workers are living in H-2A housing, a state inspector may return to make sure the housing is being properly maintained. However, follow-up inspections during the growing season are rare.
According to NCDOL’s 2022 annual report, only 16 of the state’s 2,052 permitted sites – just 0.7 percent – were randomly inspected once workers were living there.
Thomas Arcury is a public health scientist at Wake Forest University who has spent close to 30 years researching issues pertaining to farmworkers in the state. As part of his research, Arcury inspected many housing sites while workers were living there in the 2010s. He found that 41 percent of housing he inspected did not meet state safety standards due to everything from rodent infestations and broken appliances to having more occupants than the permit allows.
“Even if it passes inspection,” he said in an interview, “you wouldn’t want to live there. If you want my impression, farmworker housing is dangerous.”
It was only in the last 15 years that word of the visa program arrived in San Juan Mixtepec. Before that, a chance to work in the U.S. meant paying thousands of dollars to a smuggler and then risking your life to cross the border illegally. It was a path that many, mostly young men, chose as a means to escape the extreme poverty that plagues Oaxaca.
In 2019, Gomez learned about the visa through another cousin, Valentino Lopez Gomez, who worked as an H-2A recruiter and labor contractor. While U.S. farms will often hire H-2A workers directly through recruiters, increasingly they work through labor contractors, like Lopez, who function as the official employer. Worker advocates say this provides farm owners plausible deniability if things go wrong. Lopez, who was certified by the U.S. Department of Labor, hired men and women from San Juan Mixtepec and brought them to North Carolina where he contracted them out to local farms.
Gomez was 39, with a wife and two kids, and he needed to earn more money. Surviving in San Juan Mixtepec was becoming ever harder. Drought was killing the crops that had supported the community for millennia. He told Feliciano, who was in his early 30s and eager to start a family, about the opportunity. Initially, Feliciano didn’t want to go. He was scared to travel so far away. But Gomez reasoned that the visa was safe and that Lopez was family. Surely they could trust him to look out for them in America.
In 2020, the two men joined 38 other workers from their village who had been recruited by Lopez to harvest blueberries on Ronnie Carter Farms and Hannah Forest Blueberry farms in North Carolina. Gomez and Feliciano lived that summer in the same trailer where tragedy struck the following year, along with the worker who described the trailer’s decrepit conditions to Investigate Midwest. Not much is known about the cousins’ experience on that first trip. But family members said that they earned barely enough to cover the debts they incurred to get there.
In October 2022, 13 of the workers Lopez recruited that year filed a civil complaint in federal district court for the Eastern District of North Carolina alleging that Lopez charged workers recruitment fees that were between $1,200 to $5,245. Again, under Labor Department rules, these fees are prohibited. Many of the fees were paid with high-interest loans, meaning the workers started the harvest season in debt.
Once the workers arrived in North Carolina, according to the complaint, Lopez confiscated their passports. This is how he allegedly coerced the workers; if they didn’t do as he said, he’d call immigration enforcement. The workers claim he refused to reimburse them for the cost of travel from Mexico, as is required by DOL rules. He also allegedly pocketed some or all of their wages. In one instance, the complaint claims, Lopez tried to extort a female worker for sexual favors.
The case is pending, but if Lopez is found liable the workers may eventually be eligible to receive special visas that would allow them to remain in the U.S. permanently.
Neither Lopez nor his lawyer responded to multiple requests, via email and phone, for comment.
Caitlin Ryland, who represents the workers in the case, has spent the last 15 years at Legal Aid of North Carolina, a nonprofit that offers pro bono legal services. In that time she’s seen H-2A workers increasingly become targets of criminal behavior, including debt bondage, fraud, and human trafficking.
“Year after year we hear the same gruesome set of facts from farmworkers that are recruited to work on North Carolina farms and our docket of federal trafficking cases reflects that,” Ryland wrote in an email to Investigate Midwest.
Gomez and Feliciano were not plaintiffs in the civil complaint, but according to Ryland they were among the workers from 2020 whom the federal Department of Labor had identified as being owed either wages or travel costs that Lopez never paid or reimbursed.
Nevertheless, the two men decided to return the following year. According to interviews with their families, going to North Carolina was still the best option they had. This time, the families said, the cousins each needed around $2,000 up front for Lopez’s recruitment fee and for travel costs. In a town where most people earn around $12 a day, this was a small fortune. The cousins borrowed money from several community members at 5 percent interest. It was a gamble, but if everything went as planned they could pay off the debt and still bring home around $3,000 each.
The cousins’ experience is fairly common in the H-2A system. In 2019, Centro de los Derechos del Migrante (CDM), an international workers rights organization, interviewed 100 H-2A workers about their experience in the program. More than a quarter said they had paid a recruitment fee. Abigail Kerfoot, an attorney with CDM, said the real number is likely much higher, and that this abuse is so pervasive in part because U.S. authorities are unable to police this activity because it takes place in a foreign country.
“Obviously, there’s a country-to-country relationship with Mexico that the United States has to take into account,” she said.
In a written response, a Department of Labor spokesperson said that while the agency can fine and debar labor recruiters caught charging illegal fees, “the division has no enforcement authority over entities located outside of the U.S. and its territories.”
On a Tuesday afternoon in late June 2021, Gomez and Feliciano got back to their trailer after a long day spent digging sweet potatoes. A third worker, Luis Rojas, was staying with the cousins at the trailer. Rojas slept in the living room, while the cousins each had a bedroom. According to a statement Rojas gave to the county fire marshal, the men marked the end of the day with three beers each. Then, as they often did, they called their families over WhatsApp.
Around 8 p.m., the men made a dinner of fried fish and, according to Rojas, they each had two more beers before going to bed.
At about 1:30 a.m, according to his statement, Rojas awoke feeling an intense heat on his face. The trailer was filling with smoke, and he saw that the kitchen was on fire. He ran to the back door of the trailer, but it wouldn’t open. As Rojas struggled with the handle, he said he heard Feliciano shouting and saw him go to the bedroom where Gomez slept. Then the door swung open and Rojas stumbled into the night air. He ran across the street to a house where other workers lived to get help.
What happened that night has been pieced together from the Sampson County Fire Marshal’s Fire Origin and Cause Report, Rojas’ account, and several statements from other workers who witnessed the fire. It isn’t clear whether Feliciano went to bed or stayed up, but at some point he apparently decided to make something else to eat. He turned on the electric stove, which had only two working burners. According to the report, the fire “most likely” originated in the front right burner. The investigator said two possible causes of the fire that he could not rule out were “failure of a component of the stove” and “occupant negligence.” So it’s possible that Feliciano accidentally started a grease fire that quickly spread out of control. Or it could have been the stove that was faulty and sparked the first flame.
We know that Feliciano caught fire, and investigators suggested he might have run to the bathtub to try to extinguish his burning clothes. There is nothing in the report about whether the trailer had running water that night. All the while, Gomez apparently remained asleep in his room. The pre-occupancy inspection, carried out just months before, doesn’t note whether the smoke detectors were tested, but Rojas said he doesn’t remember hearing them. When Investigate Midwest asked to speak with the inspector for clarification, the request was denied.
Both the deputy and chief fire marshals also declined Investigate Midwest’s request to interview them about the case.
At 1:35 a.m. a worker living in a house next to the trailer ran to alert Lucas Carter, who lived nearby. Carter, who owned the trailer and was listed as the farm’s president in its annual report, called the fire department. Carter did not respond to three phone calls seeking comment.
Other workers attempted to rescue Feliciano and Gomez but were repelled by the heat and flames. Mobile homes, especially older ones, are made of lightweight synthetic materials and burn quickly. Their narrow layout can trap people inside. The workers pulled off a section of the trailer’s siding, creating an opening into Gomez’s bedroom. He was unconscious, so the men dragged him out on his mattress. Thirty minutes after the fire began, paramedics and firefighters arrived but were unable to resuscitate Gomez. Feliciano was found dead in the bathroom.
In their report, investigators speculate that Feliciano likely started the fire as a result of being intoxicated. The county medical examiner determined that Feliciano had a blood-alcohol level of 0.3 percent, or nearly three times the legal limit in North Carolina, suggesting he was “acutely intoxicated.” Gomez’s blood-alcohol level was around half that.
The scenario outlined by investigators is certainly plausible, but there are reasons to think that the trailer’s condition could have played a role in what happened that night — not least of which are the well-documented problems with H-2A housing around the country. In this case, investigators were unable to rule out the possibility that the broken stove started the fire. And the condition of the trailer, as described by the worker who lived there with Gomez and Feliciano the previous summer, differs significantly from what is suggested by the pre-occupancy inspection report approved by NCDL which found no violations. Rojas, too, in his witness statement, described the trailer as “disgusting,” said they had gone a week without hot water, and that he had never been told how to use the fire extinguisher or given any instruction on what to do in case of a fire or other emergency. Finally, while the NCDL inspection cited no problem with the trailer’s smoke detectors, Lucas Carter, the owner of the trailer, told the fire marshal’s office that he could not confirm that it had working smoke detectors on the night of the fire.
According to the workers’ families in Oaxaca, neither Lopez nor Lucas Carter called them after the fire. It was another worker, also from San Juan Mixtepec, who called a member of Gomez’s family to tell him the news. The disaster was so far away and so abstract that for weeks many family members didn’t believe it had actually happened. They would anxiously check their phones, hoping for a WhatsApp message from one of the men to clear up what must have been a misunderstanding. But a month later, when their bodies arrived home, everyone was forced to accept the new reality.
In San Juan Mixtepec it’s customary to pray over the body of the deceased for eight days while the family receives mourners. Each day, some 200 people came to pay their respects to Feliciano, and the family poured sodas and served menudo and sweet breads. Similarly, Gomez’s family mourned his passing by hosting loved ones and praying over his remains.
At the end of eight days, Feliciano was buried, and the family could finally find some closure. But now, in addition to the cost of funeral services, they had to contend with Feliciano’s debt, which was around $11,000.
Feliciano’s family borrowed money, interest-free, from relatives in the U.S. to pay back what he had borrowed from neighbors. Now Feliciano’s father is working on other farms to pay back the family, leaving his own crops and animals unattended.
Each year, as many as 250 people are recruited from San Juan Mixtepec for H-2A visas. Like Lopez, the recruiters are locals, and they charge their neighbors anywhere from $1,000 to more than $5,000 for visa applications that are supposed to be free. The town’s leaders agree that the H-2A program provides much needed economic opportunity, but they’ve grown concerned about abuse.
According to Rey Martinez Lopez, who spoke as a representative of the San Juan Mixtepec community, many workers will return from a season in the U.S. without having earned enough money to repay the recruitment fee. “When this happens, the recruiters extort them, and in the worst scenarios they are blackmailed and threatened, even though the companies in the U.S. already pay the recruiters for each person they bring in,” he said.
Martinez says that none of the families of workers who die while working on H-2A visas is compensated by the U.S. government or by the farms that hired them. He believes the workers should receive life insurance so that their families will be taken care of financially. More importantly, Martinez said, he wants the U.S. government to investigate and punish corrupt recruiters.
In December 2022, the U.S. Department of Labor debarred Lopez from working as an H-2A foreign labor contractor for three years after an investigation determined that he “confiscated workers’ passports … failed to pay weeks of wages to more than a dozen workers, did not pay the inbound and outbound transportation expenses for workers, and charged workers fees between $150 and $8,000 to participate in the federal program” during the 2020 and 2021 growing seasons. It also fined him $62,531 in civil penalties. The investigation also led to the recovery of $58,039 in wages owed to 72 workers. His debarment will last until 2025, at which point he could be allowed to resume his work as a labor contractor.
In San Juan Mixtepec, meanwhile, where most homes have dirt floors and no indoor plumbing, Lopez’s house sits prominently on the side of a hill. The two-story structure, built of cement and white stucco, is surrounded by a tall cinder block wall with an imposing iron gate. People in the community said it’s been years since Lopez has visited. In his absence, the house is a reminder for community members and neighbors of dreams that ended in misery.
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