A LOCAL MAN'S STORY ILLUSTRATES THE BROKENNESS OF AMERICA'S GUEST WORKER PROGRAM
What it's like to live in the shadows
The man I’ll call Hector was only looking for work when he boarded a flight from Guatemala to the U.S. in March 2012. He’d been here as a temporary worker several times in the past, and this trip was supposed to be no different — a few months of hard work for more money than he could hope to make at home. He planned to return in June, right around the time his wife would give birth to their first child.
But Hector hasn’t been home since. He hasn’t seen his wife in over two years. He never saw his baby. It’s possible that he will never go home again. His three-month stay turned into an open-ended hell.
On an April day when the skies were open and pouring I met Hector in a small conference room at Florida Coastal School of Law’s Immigration Clinic, where I worked as a clinician in 2008. The clinic represented Hector in his visa application; in January he received a T-visa, which allows immigrant victims of human trafficking to become lawful permanent residents of the United States.
I wasn’t surprised by Hector’s vague unease and fleeting eye contact when he politely shook my hand. It’s hard not to imagine what the slim, strong 27-year-old man, dressed neatly in a T-shirt and slacks, might think or feel about opening up to a white female stranger.
I offered him the guava empanadas I’d brought. James Carbonell, one of the clinicians who worked on his case, translated for us, kindly helping me with the Spanish pronunciation of “guava.” Guayaba didn’t roll quite right off my American tongue, but it made Hector smile.
Slightly more at ease, he began.
The story he told is, in a sense, quintessentially American, that of hard work and sacrifice and aspiration. But it’s also a story that highlights the dark side of American capitalism — an exploitative avarice that preys upon those with few good options.
When we think of human trafficking, our minds often go to sex workers — and for good reason. Most human trafficking cases — as many as 27 million people are trafficked worldwide each year, according to the U.S. State Department — especially in Northeast Florida, are related to sex, and the image of a poor teenaged girl forced to prostitute herself tugs at the heartstrings in a way few other things do.
But there is another, less-visible face of a human trafficking victim: Hector’s. He is a labor trafficking victim, one of too many people who has fallen through the cracks of the U.S.’s guest worker system.
Most labor trafficking victims in the U.S. are Hispanic immigrants. Some are brought here legally; others already live here illegally and are exploited by those who use their undocumented status against them. Too often, advocates say, these individuals aren’t seen as victims, and their plights are ignored.
As Tomas Lares, chairman of Greater Orlando Human Trafficking Task Force and executive director of Florida Abolitionist, puts it, “Somebody forced into sex: Wow, that’s awful. Somebody forced into labor: It’s probably their fault. They’re probably illegal.”
Hector’s ordeal began rather inconspicuously; a man approached his brother during a soccer game in Guatemala, saying he was a contractor for an American company that needed agricultural workers. Hector, his brother and several other men later met with him to discuss the opportunity.
The man’s promises were quite different from what Hector had experienced on previous trips as a guest worker. The pay was supposed to be higher, the treatment better. The recruiter also said their visas would be extended for as long as nine months, far longer than on previous trips.
“The contractor told me that the work would be continuous and if that, at any time, I wanted to come back home, they would pay for not only the airline ticket to come to the United States but also the return flight,” Hector says.
None of that happened.
The men had to pay a $150 application fee to be considered, Hector says. They didn’t know that that is a violation of U.S. federal law; companies cannot require a fee for a guest worker visa application.
After his application was accepted, Hector borrowed money from a loan shark and gave $2,000 to the company to buy his plane ticket from Guatemala to Atlanta. (A search on June 12 for flights from Guatemala to Atlanta in July found round-trip tickets ranging from $529 on CheapOAir.com to $539 on Expedia.com.) He was to be reimbursed $500 when work began. (He wasn’t.) Under federal law, companies can require workers to pay for initial travel costs, but must reimburse them in full upon completion of half the agricultural season.
The Central Georgia blueberry farm that Hector, his brother and between 75 and 85 other men would call home for the next three months is miles from a paved road, far outside of town. The recruiter traveled with them and remained with them throughout their stay. (Hector asked me not to identify the recruiter, whom he believes may still pose a threat to his family in Guatemala. Because I shielded Hector’s identity when I called the companies he worked for to ask about his allegations — he fears that the companies will share that information with the recruiter — I will not identify those businesses here.)
The day after they arrived at the ranch, Hector says, the men were summoned to the office, where a secretary asked for their documents to fill out paperwork.
“They didn’t explain to us what documents we were going to fill out,” Hector says, “but I think it was to pay for taxes and things like that. When we finished filling out the applications, the secretary kept all of our documents and didn’t return them. We didn’t have a problem with it at first.”
No other company had kept his documents before, he says.
Hector had heard stories from others who came to the U.S. as guest workers, stories of people crammed into deplorable living conditions and being paid much less than they were promised, while working far more. But other than the close quarters — they slept in bunk beds, 18 men to a room — and foul-smelling tap water, at first everything seemed acceptable, perhaps not ideal, but acceptable.
They went to work for a nearby pine straw company — 12 hours a day, seven days a week. Hector threw himself into it, packing as many as 150 to 200 bundles of pine straw a day, making 90 cents a bundle. The relationship between the berry farm and the pine straw company isn’t clear, says Jim Knoepp, deputy legal director of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which assisted the two companies’ guest workers. “It seems that they work pretty closely together,” Knoepp said, “The workers seem to be shared between the companies. Workers live in [the farm’s] housing but they work for [the pine straw company].”
Like many other aspects of Hector’s experience, that is illegal. H-2A visas are specific to the company that files them; the men should have been able to work for either the pine straw company or the farm, not both.
It wasn’t long before things started to go wrong.