Forgotten in the Fields

Labor trafficking hides in plain sight across Texas, disproportionately affecting the thousands of farmworkers who visit the state on H-2A guest worker visas.

Labor trafficking hides in plain sight across Texas, disproportionately affecting the thousands of farmworkers who visit the state on H-2A guest worker visas.

A farmworker in Plainview.
dana ulLman

Labor trafficking hides in plain sight across Texas, disproportionately affecting the thousands of farmworkers who visit the state on H-2A guest worker visas.

Story and photos by Dana Ullman
July 1, 2019

In 2004, Javier traveled from Coahuila, Mexico, to Texas, where he worked hauling grains and cotton as a seasonal farmworker on an H-2A visa. Javier, who requested his last name not be used, endured significant hardship during his time as a farmworker. There were the miserable trailers he lived in across three states, at times without water, electricity or toilets; the physical and verbal abuse; and wages of less than $6 an hour after his employer forced him to pay for visa and transportation costs from his paycheck, in violation of his contract. When he injured his head while emptying hoppers at a South Plains cotton gin, rendering him unable to work, Javier told his boss he needed medical attention. “He said there was nothing he could do for me and that I had to work,” Javier told the Observer.

In pain and growing despondent, Javier said he wanted to leave. His boss demanded his passport and grabbed him by the throat when he refused, according to a complaint filed in federal court. “My sorrow was big … no one wanted to help me,” Javier said. He hitchhiked to Lubbock and eventually made his way to the Texas Workforce Commission office in Del Rio. He found a lawyer who helped him file a federal civil trafficking case, later settled out of court. “I wanted to complain to someone about what had happened to me,” Javier said. “So … other workers wouldn’t go through what I did.”

A Mexican farmworker in Plainview on an H-2A visa sits for a portrait. Because an H-2A visa is bound to one employer who controls housing and worksites, these farmworkers are uniquely at risk of being forced into labor.
A Mexican farmworker in Plainview on an H-2A visa sits for a portrait. Because an H-2A visa is bound to one employer who controls housing and worksites, these farmworkers are uniquely at risk of being forced into labor.  Dana Ullman

Javier’s case is an example of how forced agricultural labor hides in plain sight across the United States. Exploitative working conditions alone do not constitute labor trafficking; forcing a person to work against their will does. Most victims aren’t smuggled through “wide-open areas between our ports of entry,” as President Trump has suggested, or via semitrucks. They arrive legally through ports of entry, many on temporary work visas.

Sex trafficking is more frequently covered in the mainstream media, but research suggests that labor trafficking, which is more difficult to identify, may be more prevalent. In 2016, a University of Texas at Austin study estimated 234,000 Texans are victims of labor trafficking — with $600 million in stolen wages annually.

Labor trafficking happens across industries, but it’s especially common in agriculture. Polaris, a nonprofit that works to eradicate human trafficking, analyzed calls to its National Human Trafficking Hotline from 2015 to 2017 and found that more than 40 percent of labor trafficking cases were reported by foreign nationals working in agriculture on H-2A visas.

Annually, more than 200,000 farmworkers grow, harvest and pack the fruits, vegetables, grains and meat that make Texas the third-most-productive agricultural state in the nation. While roughly half of farmworkers are undocumented, they’re increasingly coming on H-2A guest worker visas — 4,278 workers were certified in Texas in 2018, a 37 percent increase over 2016, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

A farmworker begins his workday weeding sorghum fields in Plainview in the early morning.
A farmworker begins his workday weeding sorghum fields in Plainview in the early morning.  dana ulLman
Two and a half hours south of the U.S.-Mexico border, Monterrey is a gateway to the American Dream for many guest workers.
Two and a half hours south of the U.S.-Mexico border, Monterrey is a gateway to the American Dream for many guest workers.  dana ulLman
Men wait to receive their contracts and H-2A visas in Plaza de las Naciones in Monterrey, Mexico. Two and a half hours south of the U.S.-Mexico border, Monterrey is a gateway to the American Dream for many guest workers. As the agricultural season begins in the spring, thousands leave each week, bound for the United States. Employers depend on intermediaries who control access to jobs, which has created a lucrative labor recruitment industry. Many workers take out loans to pay thousands of dollars for the opportunity to work in the United States, arriving to their jobs already in debt. According to Polaris, this “leaves workers with little choice but to try to recoup their losses, regardless of the conditions in which they are working.” The U.S. Department of Labor prohibits employers or recruiters from seeking fees from prospective employees, and the U.S. State Department acknowledges that such fees put workers at risk for abuses such as debt bondage.
Men wait to receive their contracts and H-2A visas in Plaza de las Naciones in Monterrey, Mexico. As the agricultural season begins in the spring, thousands leave each week, bound for the United States. Employers depend on intermediaries who control access to jobs, which has created a lucrative labor recruitment industry. Many workers take out loans to pay thousands of dollars for the opportunity to work in the United States, arriving to their jobs already in debt. According to Polaris, this “leaves workers with little choice but to try to recoup their losses, regardless of the conditions in which they are working.” The U.S. Department of Labor prohibits employers or recruiters from seeking fees from prospective employees, and the U.S. State Department acknowledges that such fees put workers at risk for abuses such as debt bondage.  dana ulLman

Because an H-2A visa is bound to one employer who controls housing and worksites, these farmworkers are uniquely at risk of being forced into labor by the very system that brings them here. Employers sometimes commit fraud by violating the program’s requirements; in other cases, traffickers charge workers illicit recruitment fees, leading to debt bondage. The threat of deportation is powerful, too: A guest worker who leaves an abusive employer violates the terms of their visa and is automatically deportable, so victims are unlikely to turn to law enforcement.

“There are so many ways to put a guest worker in a position where they don’t feel like they can leave,” says Stacie Jonas, managing attorney for Texas RioGrande Legal Aid’s human trafficking team. “Precisely because there’s no transferability, because they have documents that can be held, and because … they’ve really tried to comply with the law and they’re nervous about doing anything that would break rules that might make it difficult for them to get another visa again in the future.”

Task force outreach coordinator Lus Serrano describes her job as being “two different people” — a migrant youth service provider and a fledgling human rights investigator. A guest worker on an H-2A visa is contracted to one employer for a specific worksite. But, Serrano says, “This often doesn’t happen in practice. Though it may not be the farmer's intent to traffic them, they start working for different crew leaders who start taking them around to different places where they're not supposed to be going and negotiating their wages. And that definitely does leave it open for them to be taken advantage of.”
Task force outreach coordinator Lus Serrano describes her job as being “two different people” — a migrant youth service provider and a fledgling human rights investigator. A guest worker on an H-2A visa is contracted to one employer for a specific worksite. But, Serrano says, “This often doesn’t happen in practice. Though it may not be the farmer’s intent to traffic them, they start working for different crew leaders who start taking them around to different places where they’re not supposed to be going and negotiating their wages. And that definitely does leave it open for them to be taken advantage of.”  dana ulLman
Zacarias came to Texas for a second year on an H-2A visa. In order to support their families in Mexico, many men leave home for up to eight months. The separation can be difficult. Looking at photos of his 3-year-old daughter brings tears to his eyes. "I could just leave this place right now. I miss her so much," he says.
Zacarias came to Texas for a second year on an H-2A visa. In order to support their families in Mexico, many men leave home for up to eight months. The separation can be difficult. Looking at photos of his 3-year-old daughter brings tears to his eyes. “I could just leave this place right now. I miss her so much,” he says.  dana ulLman

Labor trafficking cases are harder to prosecute than sex trafficking cases because prosecutors must prove a trafficker’s intent to force a person to work at an ostensibly legal job.

In 2018, the Buffett-McCain Institute Initiative to Combat Modern Slavery launched an anti-trafficking task force in the Texas Panhandle and the Rio Grande Valley to identify, investigate and prosecute cases of forced labor in agriculture — the first of its kind in the nation.

Brandi Reed is the task force supervisor and director of education for Amarillo’s Family Support Services, the only services provider for victims of human trafficking in the Panhandle. “Inevitably we need people to come here and work our farmlands,” she said. “We need them as much as they need us.”

Adequate oversight from state and federal agencies in charge of the H-2A program “would solve a lot of these issues,” Reed says, but “there’s no services to address labor trafficking at all in our area.” Until now, that is.

The task force coordinates monthly farmworker outreach, trains law enforcement to identify labor trafficking and is hiring a prosecutor to litigate cases. When working with trafficking victims, Reed says, the task force has “to change what justice really feels like for them. It’s about that empowerment for the victim, to feel like they have a family of resources, to feel like someone is there to take care of their needs.”

Javier wishes he had known where to seek help. “First of all, they invite you to work. They tell you how much you’re going to earn per hour or day, [but] they never told us about our rights or the help we could get in case of emergency or illness. To this day, I still struggle with my neck.” His former employer is still certified for the H-2A program.

After a long day in the fields, Juan gives his colleague a haircut in the dwindling daylight. "My wife does this [hairdressing] in Mexico, and I'm actually pretty good," he says. With no cars or connection to the local community, and most of their earnings sent home, the men depend on each other for support.
After a long day in the fields, Juan gives his colleague a haircut in the dwindling daylight. “My wife does this [hairdressing] in Mexico, and I’m actually pretty good,” he says. With no cars or connection to the local community, and most of their earnings sent home, the men depend on each other for support.  dana ulLman
In Plainview, a farmworker watches the rain and tries to come up with a plan. Only three months into his six-month contract, he received a call from his boss, who told him his last payment would arrive on Friday, and to arrange transport back to Mexico. He and others from his community in Michoacán were devastated. Most had taken out loans before coming to the U.S., and had painstakingly calculated the amount they would need to earn to repay the debt and send money to their families. Because their H-2A visas only allowed them to work for the employer who contracted them, their only option was to go home.
In Plainview, a farmworker watches the rain and tries to come up with a plan. Only three months into his six-month contract, he received a call from his boss, who told him his last payment would arrive on Friday, and to arrange transport back to Mexico. He and others from his community in Michoacán were devastated. Most had taken out loans before coming to the U.S., and had painstakingly calculated the amount they would need to earn to repay the debt and send money to their families. Because their H-2A visas only allowed them to work for the employer who contracted them, their only option was to go home.  dana ulLman
A farmworker waves a red bandana as a visual marker for others working sorghum fields in Plainview.
A farmworker waves a red bandana as a visual marker for others working sorghum fields in Plainview.  dana ulLman

Top: A farmworker in Plainview.

This article was reported with support from the International Women’s Media Foundation.

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Dana Ullman is a New York-based photojournalist documenting social issues internationally.


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