Operation Blooming Onion and the Long Sordid History of the H2A Program
By Cindy Hahamovitch
In 2021, a multi-agency sting called Operation Blooming Onion netted two dozen alleged “human traffickers” who were charged with everything from grossly underpaying workers to murder. The law enforcement officials didn’t target a brothel or a massage parlor. They raided Georgia’s Vidalia onion fields, though their target might just as well have been an apple orchard or a berry farm. Human trafficking cases are surprisingly common on farms, as they are in shipyards, restaurants, and nail salons. Sex need not be involved.
You might expect that the trafficked workers were undocumented workers smuggled into the United States and then extorted for their labor, but they weren’t. The workers – Mexicans, Guatemalans, and Hondurans – were H2A visa holders. They had arrived in the United States, as do hundreds of thousands of others every year, under the auspices of a government-approved migration system meant to supply farms with temporary labor. The level of violence and the vigor of the law enforcement response made this case unusual, but abuse of workers in the H2A Program is not. False promises, underpayment of wages, inadequate housing, confiscation of travel documents, and threats of deportation have been documented in far too many other cases.
Don’t get me wrong. Fair and decent employers also use the H2A program; hopefully, most workers have been happy with their experiences in the United States. And yet abuses happen frequently because the H2A visa program (formerly “H2”) is set up to leave workers vulnerable to abuse and exploitation. By binding workers to one employer (or recruiter) and by giving employers the power to repatriate workers who complain or protest, the H2A Program is a human trafficking disaster waiting to happen. Unless workers return to the same farms again and again or work with recruiters they know and trust, they can never really know what they’ll experience in the United States. Likewise, even scrupulously honest employers can’t know for sure that the workers on their farms weren’t victims of force, fraud, or coercion–the hallmarks of human trafficking–somewhere along the labor supply pipeline.
A Model Program
The H2A program originated during World War II when farm employers (a tiny minority of farmers) began clamoring for President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to waive immigration restrictions. They didn’t want a complicated program, just the ability to drive up to the Mexican border and load people into trucks or shuttle workers from the Bahamas in boats as they had during World War I.
They ran into opposition, however, because the New Deal officials, whose job it was to measure labor need and the labor supply, thought most farm employers were crying wolf. There were clearly pockets of severe labor scarcity in the vicinity of army bases under construction and near centers of industrial war production. Still, after twenty years of agricultural depression – farm prices had been rock bottom since World War I – there was still a huge glut of homeless and destitute farmworkers. In fact, the New Deal had made matters worse for farm workers. Crop reduction programs, which paid farm owners to produce less, had inadvertently encouraged farm owners to evict tenants and sharecroppers, and New Deal labor laws (minimum wage, maximum hours, overtime pay, collective bargaining, social security, and child labor laws) had excluded farmworkers altogether. Given all that, officials in the Departments of Labor and Agriculture thought a little wage inflation would be a good thing, and they noted that the farmers complaining the loudest about labor scarcity - those in Florida and Texas - were paying the least. Importing workers from abroad to compete with the country's poorest and most marginalized workers seemed to people fighting poverty like a terrible idea.
A compromise resulted. US officials would arrange for the importation of labor from abroad but under such favorable terms for the foreign workers that they would elevate rather than depress wages and conditions for American farmworkers, who would remain the vast majority of the workforce.
The deal American officials struck with Mexican and British colonial officials (the Bahamas and the West Indian islands were still colonies) was thus unprecedented. The workers would get written contracts (unheard of in agriculture at the time) that set minimum wages and maximum hours. Housing provided by farm owners had to be inspected and meet certain standards and would be supplemented by mobile encampments run by federal officials. Employers had to pay workers for at least three-quarters of their contracted time (a term still in force), even if harvesting had to stop due to freezes or floods. The agreement prohibited racial discrimination and the use of guest workers as strikebreakers, and Mexican consuls and British “liaison officers” would accompany the workers on Uncle Sam’s dime! US officials would do the recruiting, screening, transporting, housing, feeding, and assigning of workers, everything short of employing and paying them. The last provision was the one big farm employers resented the most: any grower receiving foreign workers had to offer the same terms to US workers. Here, finally, was a New Deal for American farmworkers brought to the US from South of the Border.
The whole thing worked fabulously – for a few months. Mexicans and Bahamians arrived in 1942, Jamaicans in 1943, and other West Indians in the final year of the war, by which time foreign farmworkers in the “Emergency Labor Importation Program” totaled 106,000 (there were Canadians too, but no one bothered to count them). Some workers arrived at the sound of marching bands. Others enjoyed fiestas in their honor. Grateful community members gave foreign workers in New York the “keys” to Manhattan. Farmers in the Midwest paid workers advances so they could go shopping and invited them to church. Northern reporters were quick to point out that Jamaicans were not “American negroes” and had to be treated with kid gloves (the African American press was quick to condemn the notion that Black Americans could be treated less kindly).
Not everything went as planned. Some men arrived to find no food or shelter ready for them. Some were not paid for any idle time caused by bad weather as the contract promised. However, US and foreign officials were quick to intervene to resolve conflicts, and they moved workers when they couldn’t.
Despite this hopeful beginning, the treatment of foreign workers declined rapidly. The fall began in Florida at US Sugar, the biggest sugar cane company in the country and one of the biggest in the world. Although the company had been founded during the depths of the Great Depression, it had always had a hard time securing labor. Cane cutting was dirty, dangerous, and poorly paid, so when African American workers recruited from the Black Belt arrived and realized there was much less onerous and better-paying work to be had picking beans nearby, they would leave. US Sugar tried building model housing, but when that didn’t work the company’s labor bosses traded the carrot for the stick, locking people in at night and threatening them with violence if they tried to escape. In 1942, the Department of Justice indicted US Sugar’s managers for violating the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which banned forced labor.
The case was dismissed on a technicality, but the experience inspired US Sugar to seek out foreign workers through the federal importation program and use threats of deportation instead of threats of violence to keep them in place. Jamaicans began arriving to cut sugarcane in the fall of 1943. They were not greeted by marching bands nor public officials bearing the keys to Clewiston, “America’s Sweetest Town,” but by former chain gang bosses brandishing guns and blackjacks. The barracks were filthy. Beds were bare mattresses without pillows or blankets. Jamaican workers were charged for the clean water that the white sugar mill workers drank for free, and they were expected to sign a document promising that they were aware of, and would not break the tenets of white supremacy. So much for a model program.
Within two weeks, 700 Jamaicans were in jail for refusing to accept the housing conditions and sign the “Jim Crow Creed.” From there they didn’t get transferred to more accommodating employers; they were shipped home to Jamaica, where other people were standing by to replace them. That was the turning point that transformed the program into what it remains today.
After the war, US officials allowed the labor importation program to continue in this new form on a privatized basis. Federal officials authorized the importation of workers but otherwise withdrew from the program, turning the work of recruiting, transporting, housing, and deporting workers over to employers and allowing them to pass these costs onto the workers themselves. US Sugar slashed wages in half, driving out nearly all of its local workers. Jamaicans kept coming. For decades to come, Florida’s sugar industry relied almost exclusively on temporary workers from the Caribbean who became known as “H2 workers” after the subsection of the 1952 law that authorized the program in this form. The separate and much larger Mexican program became known as the Bracero Program (for brazo, Spanish for arm). Government oversight was over. In fact, Congress allocated zero dollars to enforce the terms of the Bracero Program. The H2 Program didn’t involve federal oversight.
Only a tiny fraction of farmers used these “guest workers programs”- perhaps two percent - but those who did frequently took advantage of the workers’ vulnerability to deportation and blacklisting. Braceros and H2 workers endured leaky, bug-infested barracks, piece rates so low they had to harvest crops at a run, skyrocketing injuries, and paychecks that often represented less than the workers’ contracts had promised. The National Committee for Manpower Policy called it “near-combat conditions.”
American farmworkers – Black, White, Mexican American, Filipino American and others – still the vast majority of the seasonal workforce–found themselves competing with foreign workers who could not quit nor strike without being sent home. As James Paulk, a labor manager for the Florida Sugarcane Growers’ Cooperative put it, “The offshore knows his contract binds him and that he has to please to stay…We have leverage over that West Indian that we don’t have over American workers.”
Not all officials ignored this imbalance. Unconvinced that foreign workers were necessary since American farmworkers were lucky to get a few months of work spread out over a year, James Mitchell, the Secretary of Labor under Dwight D. Eisenhower, required growers to advertise more widely for American farmworkers and pay guest workers an “adverse effect wage,” a wage above the prevailing wage. The idea was to make guest workers more expensive than Americans so employers would use them only if they were truly unavailable. That rule is still hotly contested today.
Criticism of the use of guest workers to undermine farmworker unions continued to grow. The huge and controversial Bracero Program peaked at half a million guest workers a year in 1960 but was canceled in 1964 in a hail of controversy. With the legal route to American fields cut off, unauthorized migration from Mexico began to tick upwards.
The much smaller Caribbean Program nearly ended too. Willard Wirtz, Lyndon Johnson’s Secretary of Labor, thought about canceling the H2 Program entirely, but he worried that no American in his or her right mind would cut sugarcane if they had any other option. Instead of killing the H2 Program, he limited it to sugarcane and apples and added many of the other rules employers now object to. He raised the adverse effect wage and required growers to absorb the cost of workers’ housing and flights to and from the United States. What he didn’t predict was that Florida’s sugar producers, who hired the bulk of H2 workers at that point, would recoup these new costs by increasing the quota of sugar each man had to cut by hand (the norm per day soon became two rows, each a half a football field long). As cane cutters sped up their pace serious injuries became very common, thirty percent by one estimate. Many Jamaicans preferred to return year after year to Appalachian apple orchards where they had personal relationships with the farm owners.
In contrast, the cane fields had hundreds of work stoppages every year. Company managers, who kept their distance from the “offshores,” as guest workers were called, would quickly deport outspoken workers and sometimes entire camps of workers, calling in sheriffs’ departments to do the deed. The Sugar Cane Growers Cooperative even maintained its own terminal at the Miami airport from which striking H2 workers could be flown home en masse—no questions asked.
The Bracero Program Revived
Despite many exposés into the H2 Program’s myriad problems, the labor supply system only got bigger after the passage of the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA). IRCA (pronounced “ur-ka”) made it possible for millions of unauthorized immigrants to get green cards—that was the reform part of the bill–but it also aimed to reduce undocumented migration. That was the control part. The law created the first penalties for knowingly hiring unauthorized workers (a provision almost never invoked) and it was supposed to result in much greater enforcement at the border.
The powerful farm lobby nearly scuttled the bill. Farm employers were convinced, not without reason, that farmworkers who qualified for green cards under the “amnesty” law would abandon the fields for better-paying work. To allay their fears, Congress lifted regulations that had kept the H2 Program small and limited to apples, sugar, and men from the Caribbean. Legislators also allowed women to come and split the program into agricultural and non-agricultural wings, thus H2A and H2B (carrying none of the H2A regulations over to the new non-agricultural program). The H2A program was soon ten times bigger than its predecessor and workers came from anywhere in the world–Peru, Thailand, South Africa–but the overwhelming majority were from Mexico and still are.
The vast increase in workers, sending countries, and participating farms involved in the H2A program created more opportunities for foreign workers but also an insidious change: the rise of for-profit recruiting agencies, which charge workers ever-growing fees to participate and whose promises farm employers can’t control. H-2A recruits are not supposed to be charged for jobs in the United States, but it’s unclear how to stop the practice. The result is that workers increasingly arrive deeply in debt, which makes it even less likely that they’ll push back against mistreatment. Labor advocates scramble to respond to reports of workers underpaid or never paid, underfed or housed in storage sheds, sexually harassed, or threatened with violence. Lawsuits mushroom.
Enforcement remains weak and inconsistent (and often depends on who is in the White House). Despite gross violations of H2A rules in the 1990s, for example, the Labor Department cited only one company and still allowed it to get more guest workers the following year. Indeed, the Government Accountability Office reported in 1997 that “the Department of Labor had never failed to approve an application to import H2A workers because an employer had violated the legal rights of workers.” Never. It’s worth noting that even if enforcement were more robust, there would never be enough inspectors to visit every farm. Most employees in other sectors enforce labor laws by pointing out problems with our paychecks and complaining about our workloads or unsafe conditions. People who fear deportation and dire consequences if they can’t repay their debts are simply not in a position to do so. In this context, the crimes alleged in Vidalia, Georgia, were tragically predictable.
Lack of enforcement has meant that H2A workers alleging wage violations, broken promises, and threats of deportation have had to go to court, and they have won a long list of court cases. Still, those cases are undoubtedly the tip of the iceberg. Workers must find a public interest lawyer who will represent them without pay in a civil case that may take years to get to court. In the meantime, they end up out of status and cut off from their families back home unless they can get one of the infrequently awarded “T visas,” which are supposed to go to victims of “serious” human trafficking but rarely do.
How do we solve all this? Surely no employer should have the power to call a county sheriff and have a worker escorted to an airplane. All workers must have the right to walk away from an employer without fear of deportation. They must have the right to speak up, bargain collectively, make use of Legal Services if necessary, and sue in federal court–rights H2A workers lack. Longer contracts would at least mean less need for recruiters.
So, what is an honest employer to do? Some employers (in all kinds of industries, not just agriculture) think the less they know about how the labor supplied by contractors got to them the better. But that's not a good idea if you don’t want trafficked people working on your farm. Employers using recruitment companies should find established firms – the most exploitive contractors frequently change their company names. Farmers could ask H2A workers and farmworker unions what companies they should use or avoid. Unions have sometimes served as labor recruiters (this was true during World War II and much more recently). Getting together with neighboring farmers, farm labor unions, and other advocacy organizations to create non-profit recruitment agencies could be transformative. Friends, relatives, and worker advocates should be able to visit workers. At the very least, employers can get to know their workers, learn their histories, and plant seeds of cooperation.
Cindy Hahamovitch is a professor of history at the University of Georgia and the author of The Fruits of Their Labor: Atlantic Coast Farmworkers and the Making of Migrant Poverty and the triple prize-winning No Man’s Land: Jamaican Guestworkers in America and the Global History of Deportable Labor.