Report: Traffickers prey on guest workers through temporary work visa system flaws

Migrant farmers with visas harvest romaine lettuce in King City, Calif., April 17, 2017. (CNS / Reuters / Lucy Nicholson)

Traffickers prey on guest workers in the U.S. through the temporary work visa system, according to a report released June 5 by Polaris, a nonprofit organization dedicated to eradicating modern slavery.

Analyzing data from the National Human Trafficking Hotline from 2015 to 2017, the report found that human traffickers heavily rely on gaps in accountability within the temporary work visa system. That is actually cause for optimism in terms of enacting change, said Bradley Myles, the CEO of Polaris, because it's fixable.

"We know that human trafficking is a dynamic and complex crime, and it's challenging to come up with strategies to prevent it and disrupt it in scale, but this issue is an exception to that," he said on a conference call.

A lack of effective record keeping, data, accountability and oversight taints a program that the Departments of Labor, State and Homeland Security run. And while traffickers thrive in those situations, Myles said, "We know exactly how to make this system better. And we know we can end human trafficking that exists within a legal U.S. government stamp of approval, and we believe that now is a time to act."

In the three years' worth of texts, calls, emails and web forms that the hotline has received, 797 individuals are believed to be victims of severe forms of human trafficking — the majority of whom came from Mexico and work in agriculture.

The visa categories with the most reported abuse were the H-2A visas, issued to employers to bring in agricultural workers on a temporary basis; H-2B visas, for temporary nonagricultural, low-skilled labor (such as construction or landscaping); and the J-1 visas, which is a cultural exchange visa (such as for au pairs, interns and students who travel).

About 75 percent of all victims identified were recruited through what appeared to be legitimate job offers, Polaris reported.

The most common type of coercion and control is economic abuse, including taking or withholding earnings, threatening to blacklist workers and requiring workers to pay off a debt or meet a quota, Myles said.

"The other most significant form of control that we learned about is threats — threats to report the worker's immigration, threats to have the worker arrested or deported, and workers who experienced threats with harm to themselves or family if they didn't continue working," he added — all "textbook definitions" of human trafficking.

Also on the call was Elizabeth Mauldin, policy director at Centro de los Derechos del Migrante. She recalled Gustavo, a Mexican who came to the U.S. under an H-2A visa to pick strawberries. He, along with 400 workers, were eventually charged $1,400 in the form of recruitment fees, plus additional costs of travel, and was threatened with blacklisting after complaining about the abuses.

"I'm thinking about Lisette, recruited in Mexico City to work aboard a cruise ship in California and Hawaii," Mauldin said, adding that the employers grossly misrepresented her terms of employment.

Aboard the ship, she worked 13 to 14 hours a day without a single day off and was paid less than $4 an hour. Her passport and documents had been confiscated. "I felt enslaved, trapped on a boat, far from everything," Lisette had told Mauldin, whose organization offers legal support for migrants in these situations.

Naomi Tsu, senior supervising attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center, noted that it's not just traffickers who are interested in using guest worker visa programs, but also "legitimate businesses" that see an advantage to hiring guest workers.

"Guest workers are far less likely to complain about low wages and long hours, and even wage theft or sexual harassment and assault, than workers who aren't faced with these systemic problems," she said.

Government agencies have increasingly issued more of these visas in the past three years visas, primarily in the categories that Polaris has identified as most prone to trafficking. Tsu noted that Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen recently announced that the department would be issuing an additional 15,000 H-2B visas over the set cap, because the cap has already been met.

Though a number of legal loopholes allow opportunity for exploitation, Polaris offered a few recommendations that the government can take to reduce the number of trafficked guest workers in the country.

First is the "untying" of all visa categories, in which the worker is required to work for a single employer as a condition of their work visa, "so if they quit, they immediately become illegal," Myles explained. "It can be a weapon for human traffickers to control workers." By untying the visas, workers can shop for different working conditions, he said.

Government should also enforce bans on recruitment fees so foreign labor recruiters are barred from collecting any money in any step of the worker visa program.

And to incorporate more oversight in the process, Polaris is advocating for the passage of the Visa Transparency Anti-Trafficking (VTAT) Act, currently pending before Congress. The bill would create a uniform system for reporting data that the government already collects on the temporary visa program, and expand those reports to include information that government, advocates and the public can use to offer protection and prevention.

"All workers are safer when each worker is safe to stand up to mistreatment, and these flaws in the guest worker program can be fixed, and we know how to fix them," Tsu said. "Congress needs to remove those elements of the program that creates vulnerability to human trafficking and other labor abuses."

[Soli Salgado is a staff writer for Global Sisters Report. Her email address is ssalgado@ncronline.org. Follow her on Twitter @soli_salgado.]

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