In "The New American Slavery," the first story in the series, Jessica Garrison, Ken Bensinger, and Jeremy Singer-Vine focused on the hundres of thousands of foreign workers who come to America, using what are known as H-2 visas, to fill short-term, menial jobs. According to the rules of the visas, the workers have to stick with their designated employer — or else get deported. And that leaves them vulnerable to every imaginable form of abuse.
Countless H-2 workers have been cheated out of their wages, locked up in horrifying conditions, threatened, beaten, even raped. And the government, which is supposed to make sure employers are treating them fairly, admitted there just isn't much it can do.
“All you black American people, fuck you all." That was the explosive opening line for the second article in the series, which took a close look at the American workers — in particular black workers — whom the H-2 system cheats out of jobs. By U.S. law, employers are supposed to give people who live in this country preference for all jobs. To request guest worker visas, companies must first prove that the positions in question are otherwise impossible to fill.
But some employers prefer H-2 workers, who are more vulnerable, more afraid of deportation, and more desperate for the money — and therefore less likely to complain about low pay and unfair conditions. So unscrupulous companies have found an array of tricks by which to get around the rules. Obligated to place help wanted ads, they put them in tiny newspapers hundreds of miles away from the actual job site. Or they post the job at government employment centers, but neglect to include any contact information or whereabouts. Sometimes to please regulators they hire Americans, then almost immediately fire them, en masse. And that's where our story begins.
The guest worker program exploits foreign workers and displaces American workers. Whom does it benefit? The third story in the series, "The Coyote," introduced Stan Eury, who has done more than anyone else to shape the way H-2 visas work. After a marijuana bust cost him his government job, he built an empire connecting American employers with foreign workers and taking care of all the logistics (for a considerable price). Meanwhile he successfully lobbied lawmakers to expand the H-2 program again and again. But sometimes the jobs he said he was arranging bore no connection to the jobs where he was actually placing the workers. Sometimes there were no jobs at all. And what about the thousands of people he bused into America who seem simply to have disappeared?
After documenting the myriad abuses that employers have perpetrated, Garrison, Bensinger and Singer-Vine use the last installment of this series to ask an important question: just what would an American company have to do to lose the privilege of bringing in foreign guest workers? The shocking answer they found is there is almost no mistreatment so severe that it would make the Department of Labor cut off the flow of H-2 visas. Not even to companies that have been accused of lying to the government, cheating workers out of their pay, feeding them rotten food and untreated water, even endangering their lives.
Employers are “more likely to get hit by lightning” than to be debarred, said one lawyer who has represented guest workers. “There are not meaningful deterrents for most bad actors,” he added. “And as a result, the abuses continue.”
Ariel Kaminer is a senior investigative editor for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.
Contact Ariel Kaminer at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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