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Inside the Immigration Abuses of America’s Little-Known Guest Worker System

Every year, thousands of foreign workers come to the United States using H-2 visas, a little-known guest worker program that fills some of the nation’s most menial jobs. As BuzzFeed journalists Ken Bensinger, Jessica Garrison and Jeremy Singer-Vine recently exposed in their award-winning series investigating the program, countless H-2 workers are vulnerable to exploitation – deprived of payment, locked up, beaten and raped, among other horrific abuses. The series recently won the American Society of Magazine Editors’ Ellie Award for public interest journalism.

On this week’s podcast, BuzzFeed investigative reporter Ken Bensinger talks with ProPublica senior editor Tracy Weber and senior reporter Charles Ornstein about how he and his colleagues stumbled upon this story, the unique circumstances that make H-2 workers susceptible to abuse and why cracking down on the exploitation is so difficult.

Mexican workers on the H-2 visa program process crabs in Maryland. (Reuters/Jonathan Ernst)

Highlights from their conversation:

  • Under the terms of the H-2 visa, workers aren’t allowed to work for anyone but their designated employer, or else be deported.
    Bensinger: Imagine having a job where it's the only place you can work for, and you couldn't be unemployed because if you're unemployed you have to leave the country. … Imagine going to that boss and asking for a raise with him knowing full well that there's absolutely nowhere else you can go. You have no leverage against him whatsoever. That's the basic working condition of these workers.

  • The program is supposed to be for companies that can’t find Americans to take jobs, but some employers pass over American workers using deceitful practices.
    Bensinger: It's sort of a shocking list of sneaky stuff they do. The legal requirement is that they put out newspaper ads. They'll put out a “help wanted” ad, but they’ll put it in the wrong newspaper in the wrong state. The job will be in Iowa and they'll be advertising in New Mexico. … They will try to persuade workers on the phone not to apply, that it would be dangerous for them. They'll lie to the Department of Labor about how many people applied. They will have people show up at some crazy hour to do some crazy test that they won't be able to pass. Then they can claim to the government that no one was capable of the job, or no one showed up. They'll say, "Applicants must apply in person at 6:00 a.m. on Tuesday." There's no public transport there, many of them don't have cars.

  • In spite of the exploitation, foreign workers don’t want the H-2 program to shut down.
    Bensinger: The workers aren't asking for this program to end. When we first went into this thing, we thought maybe the way to solve this is just get rid of the H-2 program. If you talk to workers, universally, they want the program to continue to exist. Workers are a little reticent to raise their voice – out of fear and also because, despite the abuses, they consider this to be their best economic option.

Listen to this podcast on iTunes, SoundCloud or Stitcher. For more, read the full BuzzFeed series on the W-2 guest worker program.

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