This story was originally published by InTheseTimes.

Using the pan­dem­ic as an excuse, the Trump admin­is­tra­tion has all but can­celed immi­gra­tion to the Unit­ed States. But while the pres­i­dent cracked down on fam­i­lies seek­ing asy­lum from life-threat­en­ing con­di­tions, he’s still allowed big indus­tries to hire low-wage labor­ers from oth­er coun­tries. Under the H2 visa pro­gram, record num­bers are enter­ing the coun­try, recruit­ed direct­ly by indus­tries such as meat-pro­cess­ing and agri­cul­ture, which deter­mine who gets into the coun­try and for how long.

In prac­ti­cal terms, a part of the U.S. immi­gra­tion sys­tem has been pri­va­tized, says Rachel Mic­ah-Jones, exec­u­tive direc­tor of Cen­tro de los Dere­chos del Migrante, a civ­il group that advo­cates for Mex­i­can migrant labor­ers. ​“The guest work­er pro­grams are con­trolled by com­pa­nies and employ­ers. They decide who gets in the coun­try and who does­n’t,” she says. 

“There’s a tran­si­tion in the U.S.,” Mic­ah-Jones adds, which means an ever-expand­ing use by cor­po­ra­tions of the H2 pro­grams while avenues for immi­grants to apply for their own visas are shrink­ing. ​“That’s very con­cern­ing because we see in these pro­grams a tremen­dous amount of dis­crim­i­na­tion in terms of age, sex and coun­try of origin.”

Through the H2 pro­gram, labor­ers are bound by law to work only for the employ­er that recruits them; they can­not bring their fam­i­lies along or, even­tu­al­ly, apply for per­ma­nent res­i­den­cy. Cor­po­ra­tions in labor-inten­sive indus­tries such as farm­ing, forestry, food-pro­cess­ing, land­scap­ing, tourism and con­struc­tion even decide if a work­er can come back to the U.S. in the future.

And abuse by employ­ers is rife with­in the H2 pro­grams. An April 2020 sur­veyamong 100 H2‑A visa hold­ers (agri­cul­tur­al labor­ers) detect­ed wide­spread dis­crim­i­na­tion, sex­u­al harass­ment, wage theft and health and safe­ty vio­la­tions by employ­ers. The sur­vey, con­duct­ed by Cen­tro de los Dere­chos del Migrante, found that all the work­ers expe­ri­enced at least one seri­ous legal vio­la­tion, and 94% suf­fered three or more. It is ​“star­tling,” con­clud­ed the report, the ​“lack of recourse” for guest labor­ers to denounce abuse.

Despite their well-doc­u­ment­ed exploita­tion, low-wage guest work­ers have nev­er been so cru­cial for the labor-inten­sive indus­tries in the Unit­ed States. 

More than 204,000 for­eign­ers obtained H2‑A visas in the fis­cal year 2019, a record num­ber. There are no lim­its on how many peo­ple can enter the Unit­ed States with this visa, and that num­ber has steadi­ly increased since at least 1992. The H2‑B visas, for low-wage work­ers in nona­gri­cul­tur­al indus­tries such as food-pro­cess­ing, also increased in 2019, to 97,623, its high­est num­ber in a decade.

Ben­i­to, an H2‑A visa hold­er, was recruit­ed in the state of Hidal­go, Mex­i­co to har­vest egg­plants, chiles, pep­pers and cucum­bers in Lake Park, Geor­gia for nine months. For six weeks in May and June, Ben­i­to (a pseu­do­nym used to pro­tect him from poten­tial reper­cus­sions from his employ­er) and some 100Mex­i­cans har­vest­ed and packed veg­eta­bles dur­ing 16-hour shifts with­out over­time pay and only every oth­er Sun­day off. They are expect­ed to labor as intense­ly in Octo­ber and Novem­ber. The rest of their 9‑month peri­od, these crews work for 10 hours a day with some Sun­days off, says Ben­i­to in Span­ish over the phone. He has come three times to the Unit­ed States with an H2‑A visa. 

Ben­i­to has also seen dis­crim­i­na­tion in the hir­ing process first­hand. He was the only one hired from his home­town, although sev­er­al of his neigh­bors also applied for jobs. Some were reject­ed because of their age; oth­ers because ​“they did not work hard enough,” says Ben­i­to. He has learned that com­pa­nies black­list work­ers who do not ful­fill their expec­ta­tions — like work­ing with­out com­plain­ing for 16 hours a day for sev­er­al weeks. ​“Many appli­cants do not make the cut,” he explains. ​“It is because they do not sat­is­fy the boss­es’ requisites.”

Unlike U.S. cit­i­zens or even undoc­u­ment­ed immi­grants, guest work­ers (the vast major­i­ty of whom are enlist­ed in impov­er­ished com­mu­ni­ties in Mex­i­co, fol­lowed by Jamaica, Guatemala and South Africa) do not enjoy the most fun­da­men­tal pro­tec­tion of a labor mar­ket in a demo­c­ra­t­ic soci­ety — the abil­i­ty to switch jobs if they are mistreated. 

“Guest work­ers have been com­pared to mod­ern-day inden­tured ser­vants,” states the Immi­grant Jus­tice Project of the South­ern Pover­ty Law Cen­ter, a non­prof­it that com­bats dis­crim­i­na­tion and pro­motes human rights. ​“But unlike the inden­tured ser­vants of old, today’s guest work­ers have no prospect of becom­ing U.S. citizens.”

Pref­er­ence for exploitable workers

While the num­ber of guest work­ers under the H2 pro­grams is surg­ing, the Trump admin­is­tra­tion has sus­pend­ed both employ­ment-based and fam­i­ly-based immi­grant visas, even for rel­a­tives of U.S. cit­i­zens. With the excuse of shield­ing the coun­try from the coro­n­avirus, the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment has also can­celed appli­ca­tions for non­im­mi­grant visas for vis­i­tors, stu­dents and skilled workers. 

The pan­dem­ic made trans­par­ent a trend that was already inten­si­fy­ing dur­ing the Trump admin­is­tra­tion. The Unit­ed States issued 625,344 immi­grant visasin 2016 before Trump took office; last year, it grant­ed 462,422. In July 2017, it issued 42,550 immi­grant visas. As of July, that num­ber was down to 4,412. Mean­while, H2 visas are soaring.

The demand for H2‑B work­ers was so high even before the pan­dem­ic that the pro­gram reached its year­ly cap on Feb­ru­ary 18. The Depart­ment of Home­land Secu­ri­ty announced that it would grant 35,000 extra H2‑B visas but reversed course after anti-immi­grant groups’ criticisms. 

The Trump admin­is­tra­tion, how­ev­er, did make sub­stan­tive changes to the H2pro­grams. Since April, it has allowed com­pa­nies to retain these labor­ers for longer than the three-year max­i­mum. The pur­port­ed objec­tive was to ​“main­tain the integri­ty in our food sup­ply” dur­ing the pan­dem­ic, despite the enor­mous health costs paid by work­ers, most of them peo­ple of color. 

As of July, 86 work­ers in meat and poul­try pro­cess­ing facil­i­ties had died of Covid-19, out of 16,233 cas­es in 239 facil­i­ties, accord­ing to the Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol and Pre­ven­tion. Among cas­es where race and eth­nic­i­ty was report­ed, 87% were racial or eth­nic minori­ties. In some farms, all work­ers have con­tract­ed the coro­n­avirus. The sever­i­ty of Covid-19 among agri­cul­tur­al work­ers could be gross­ly under­count­ed. Ben­i­to has seen ​“five or six” of his co-work­ers with Covid-19 symp­toms being quar­an­tined and treat­ed in-house in Park Lake, with no wages. Sev­er­al more, he says, have con­tin­ued to work when sick to avoid los­ing income. 

Addi­tion­al­ly, the wide use of these pro­grams depress­es the wages in the indus­tries that cap­i­tal­ize on them, con­tends the South­ern Pover­ty Law Cen­ter. The pro­grams pro­vide com­pa­nies with lots of con­trol over the labor mar­ket. They also give the Trump admin­is­tra­tion the chance to restrict immi­gra­tion while assur­ing cheap labor for corporations.

“The admin­is­tra­tion has also used the Covid-19 out­break to pur­sue pol­i­cy changes that it has sought to imple­ment for many years,” accord­ing to a May report by the Amer­i­can Immi­gra­tion Coun­cil, a non-par­ti­san think tank. These changes include a near elim­i­na­tion of asy­lum at the south­ern bor­der and a reduc­tion of fam­i­ly-based immi­gra­tion. ​“While these pol­i­cy changes have been described as tem­po­rary in nature, they may remain in place into 2021,” stat­ed the report. 

These mea­sures have been cou­pled with a resump­tion of depor­ta­tions of undoc­u­ment­ed immi­grant work­ers, even amid the health emergency.

Mean­while, cor­po­ra­tions are pres­sur­ing both the Trump admin­is­tra­tion and Con­gress to keep incre­ment­ing the num­ber of visas for guest work­ers. The agribusi­ness sec­tor, which includes a large vari­ety of sec­tors such as crop, live­stock and meat pro­duc­ers, tobac­co, food man­u­fac­tur­ers, and stores, spent $140 mil­lion in lob­by­ing efforts last year, spear­head­ed by more than 1,000, accord­ing to OpenSe​crets​.org, a non­par­ti­san non­prof­it that track mon­ey in pol­i­tics. The meat-pro­cess­ing indus­try spent $4.5 mil­lion.

Leg­is­la­tors’ aides told Mic­ah-Jones that pri­vate inter­ests are con­tin­u­al­ly pres­sur­ing them. ​“They hear every day from these com­pa­nies,” she recounts. With­out a voice in the Unit­ed States polit­i­cal sys­tem, guest work­ers depend on civ­il soci­ety orga­ni­za­tions to push for fair con­di­tions. These groups face ​“very well-resourced busi­ness asso­ci­a­tions and com­pa­nies who like the guest work­er pro­gram because it gives them the pow­er,” Mic­ah-Jones says. ​“It gives them a lot of con­trol over work­ers’ lives.”

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