MILWAUKEE — Foreign nationals who enter this country legally to work and send money back home to their relatives may become victims of illegal practices and disgraceful treatment.
TMJ4 News broke the story this August, following a federal investigation into the Walworth County Fairgrounds. According to federal court documents, workers from Mexico and Honduras landed at Chicago's O'Hare Airport expecting a ride to Michigan, where they were promised work as landscapers for more than $15 an hour. Instead, they traveled the wrong way, towards Wisconsin. Some workers ended up at the fairgrounds, where they were asked to clean up after livestock.
They were told the pay would instead be less than $10. Some workers were only paid wages closer to $5 an hour.
A recruiter named Denis Leonel Rodriguez Oyuela was charged with federal labor trafficking crimes this summer. Fair officials say he was part of a third-party group that brought foreign nationals to work the grounds as part of the H-2B visa program.
The I-Team spoke with a man who escaped a similar trafficking situation in Georgia and came to Wisconsin with the help of a local organization. We are not naming this man for his protection. He spoke to us with the help of a translator.
Watch the video below for an extended look at the I-Team's interview with this survivor:
"I came here and we're living in a small house," he said through a translator. "It was about six people to one room. It was overwhelming. There were a lot of people there so we had to wait our turn to do things, like use the bathroom or use the kitchen. It wasn’t the conditions that I was expecting."
The man was recruited to the U.S. with the promise of an H-2A visa, which would allow him to work the summer on a Georgia farm.
He paid the recruiters in Mexico about $1,000, a small fortune for him. He was told the fee would cover his travel costs to Georgia. But that wasn't the case.
"They also promised us that once they picked us up by the border they were going to cover the cost of food and any expenses on the road to Georgia," he said. "That wasn’t true either. We had to pay for food and things that we needed on the road."
Once he got to Georgia, things got worse. He was crammed into living quarters with other workers, five people to a room. The bathrooms did not work, and the kitchen appliances barely did. Some workers' beds were infested with bugs.
Out in the field, he said things got even tougher.
"There were times while I was working in Georgia where they would send us to the field at 6 a.m. and we were out there until 9 p.m.," he said. "There were no lights. We were in the dark. They had orders that they had to fulfill that they were behind on. So they didn’t care how long it took. We had to be there until the orders were finished."
"There were times when we were in the field when it was very hot, in the peak of summer, and they would take a very long time to bring us water," he also said. "I’m not sure where they got the water from but it didn’t feel like it was sanitary. We basically drank it because it was so hot we had to have something to drink."
One of the workers on his team died after working in those conditions.
"It was on a field where they were picking tomatoes," he said. "The worker had told the supervisors there that he felt ill, that he needed to leave, but they didn’t let him leave."
Some workers simply left, but it made the situation even tougher on those who remained. Once the supervisors stopped paying the workers. When they refused to work for no pay, the supervisors threatened the workers with deportation.
"Basically we were forced to work," he said.
The man we spoke with said he had to get out. He joined three other workers in escaping the farm, past the armed supervisors. They were able to travel to Wisconsin, where he got in touch with the UMOS Latina Resource Center in Milwaukee.
Mariana Rodriguez, the director of the Latina Resource Center, said they helped him find legal help and other necessities to keep his status legal in the U.S.
The visas are tied to the worksite, so he could have been vulnerable to deportation after leaving.
She said the work visas are, "a perfect way to exploit a worker, and it’s to traffic a worker."
"It’s a great way to threaten them and say if you don’t do what I say, I can send you back and I can deport you and I can blacklist you so that you’ll never come back as a worker," Rodriguez said. "Those are the ways of how contractors use that coercion and force that we are seeing in traffic victims."
Last year, the U.S. Department of Labor's Office of the Inspector General (OIG) identified a number of vulnerabilities in the H-2A and H-2B visa programs last year, saying they are both susceptible to fraud in a report to the Employment and Training Administration (ETA).
In the report, the department cited one company accused of inflating, "...the total number of foreign workers needed by one client and sent the surplus of H-2A workers to other clients in exchange for illegal under-the-table payments.”
Another company was accused of “...falsifying documentation for nonexistent jobs with fake companies to be able to obtain foreign worker visas.”
Which is close to what investigators found in the case involving the Walworth County Fair.
According to the affidavit, federal investigators cite a practice called "petition padding" done in 2008 by someone whose name was redacted, as part of a separate investigation.
"[REDACTED] told law enforcement that he padded petitions because workers would frequently abscond, and he preferred to have workers ready for various other employers and projects than to have to restart the petition process to replace them," the affidavit said.
Wisconsin has had a number of cases in recent years. According to the most up-to-date FBI data on indentured servitude cases, from 2017 to 2019 there have been 20 cases federally investigated.
"A lot of these businesses are legit businesses," Rodriguez said. "We’re not talking about businesses that are off the radar."
Rodriguez said the attraction of work in the U.S. is worth it to a lot of foreign nationals looking for a better life for their families.
"The standard [wage] in Mexico would be a little over $100 a month," she said. "To making $15 an hour, making $200-300 a week? It is a great opportunity."
And there's a high demand for the workers. The Department of Labor did not make anyone available for an interview. However, they said in an email statement that specifically agricultural workers are "... critical to ensuring the nation’s food supply."
In that statement, they also said, "Although ETA verifies a number of the employer’s attestations (e.g., adequacy of housing, workers compensation coverage, minimum wages) during the course of processing the H-2A application, the OIG report fails to acknowledge that many employer obligations must be verified after workers are employed and through post-certification audits or WHD [Wage and Hour Division] field investigations. Both of these are program compliance activities that are resource-sensitive."
From 2017 to 2021, the DOL reports their efforts have resulted in securing $66 million in back wages for 42,000 workers in the H-2A, H-2B, and the H-1B specialty occupation visa programs.
The foreign national who spoke with us now has long-term residency. And for the first time since 2018, he was reunited with his wife and son.
"I dream for my son is just for him to have a good opportunity to study, to have a good career," he said,
The farm that he once worked at appears to have dissolved, according to online business records.
- UMOS Latina Resource Center Crisis Line: (414) 389-6510
- National Human Trafficking Resource Center: 1-888-373-7888.