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Community to Community Development

H2A Visa Program: Legalized Slavery

A heartbreaking story of how a farmworker died in the fields and how we let this happen

Kris LaGrange's picture
Aug 10, 2017

In the wake of everything going on with Trump, immigration and building the wall, we often forget that these men and women are coming to the United States for better lives. Some come here to live, while other come as guest workers. These legal immigrants receive an H2A Visa to work as farmworkers, working long days in the hot sun to provide the food that we eat every day.

In the United States, farmworkers don’t have the same rights that other industries provide. In most states, they can be fired for organizing and as H2A visa workers, they have even fewer rights. Since they are bound to their employers, they are forced to leave the country if they are fired, and have no standing to sue their employer, they have very little leeway to stand up to a bad employer. It’s really sad how we treat farmworkers, it’s a form of modern day slavery and few people realize or even care. Remember, our nation’s white population elected Trump because they hate Mexicans.

Like Cesar Chavez’s farmworkers in California, workers in Washington have begun to stand up.  Following the death of Honesto Silva Ibarra, a father of three who was working as a guest worker at Sarbanand Farms, 120 workers decided to join Washington states new Farmworker Union.

According to Ramon Torres, president of the Farmworkers Union, H-2A workers at Sarbanand Farms had been complaining for weeks about bad food, temperatures in the nineties with no shade, warm drinking water, and dirty bathrooms in the fields. In the last two weeks, the air near the border became smoky from forest fires just to the north in Canada, making it hard to breathe. Some workers fainted amid the blueberry plants where they were picking.

Miguel Angel Ramirez Salazar, another farmworker, says Honesto Silva went to his supervisor at Sarbanand Farms last week, complaining that he was sick and couldn’t work. “They said if he didn’t keep working, he’d be fired for ‘abandoning work.’ But after a while he couldn’t work at all.” Silva finally went to the Bellingham Clinic, about an hour south of the farm where he was working, in Sumas, close to the Canadian border. By then it was too late, however. He was sent to Harborview, where he collapsed and died.

To protest the working conditions and the death of their coworker, the workers held a symbolic one-day strike. When they returned the next day, they were informed that they had all been fired for insubordination. Once they were fired, the workers refused to leave instead contacting the union who found them local places to camp out and continue their protest. Currently 120 workers are camped out around the ranch protesting their conditions. According to the union, the company not only forced their employees to work in dangerous conditions but they also violated federal immigration law by refusing to pay the employees when they fired them, instead saying they would send payment to their addresses in Mexico while refusing to pay for transportation back to Mexico. Federal law requires that all workers be paid before they leave and that employers cover transportation costs both to and from the United States. In a way our government supervises and regulates human trafficking.

Other guest workers who have worked with Sarbanand and their recruiter CSI Visa Processing tell a story of a company that cuts corners, takes advantage of workers and puts their freedom on the line.

I think we have to get organized, one of the workers named Ramirez said. I’m willing to work hard, but they put such pressure on us—that’s the biggest problem. I have a 16-year-old son back home in Mexico. What would happen to him if I died here, like Honesto did?

Farmworkers like Ramirez and the 120 that are camping out and striking are workers who are trying to do the right thing and follow the rules. Yet companies like Sarbanand are putting their lives and their ability to make a living on the line. Three children now are living without a father, because Sarbanand forced Honesto to continue to work when he needed medical assistance. For Ramirez, after 15 years of legally working in the United States, he may no longer be able to get a H2A Visa since immigration will deem him as having overstayed his Visa. With little legal recourse and a dysfunctional White House in a nation stained with inept immigration policies, the only option these farmworkers have to stop the abuse is to get organized and take matters into their own hands.

You can read the full story of what is happening at the Sarbanand Farm by clicking here.

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