Melissa Harris-Perry: Welcome back to The Takeaway, I'm Melissa Harris-Perry.
The summer of 1942 was the US first summer since entering World War II. With so many young men fighting abroad or working in domestic factories to supply needs for the war, the country faced a critical shortage of agricultural laborers. It was in this context that President Franklin Roosevelt issued an executive order establishing the Mexican Farm Labor Agreement, or as it came to be known--
President Franklin Roosevelt: The term most commonly used is braceros. In Spanish, this means a man who works with his arms and hands.
Melissa Harris-Perry: This is narration from a 1962 film produced by the Council of California Growers. Now, the Bracero Program was a joint accord between the governments of Mexico and the United States. It provided temporary work permits to millions of Mexican men who were allowed to work legally in the US then return home to Mexico. In theory, the agreement eased the agricultural labor shortage for US growers and offered access to higher wages for Mexican laborers. 20 years after it was first established, the Bracero Program had become a target for nativist concerns about immigration and economic competition. As the 1962 Council of California Grower film illuminates.
Speaker 1: A typical dialogue pinpoints the major issues.
Speaker 2: With Americans on relief rolls, why bring in foreigners to work on our farms? It makes no sense.
Speaker 1: It makes sense to the farmer, though. These braceros work for lower pay than Americans would.
Melissa Harris-Perry: The Bracero Program officially expired in 1964, but the legacy of migratory farm workers from Mexico and Central America and the exploitation of that labor continues to shape our contemporary agriculture economy. This modern reality is the subject of a new investigation by Prism, Latino USA, and Futuro Investigates.
Tina Vasquez: We're talking about the hundreds of thousands of farm workers who come to work our fields every year with work visas under the US Government's H-2A program, a program where Diego and Mario say expectations don't match reality. My name is Tina Vasquez, and I'm editor-at-large at Prism.
Melissa Harris-Perry: What is the H-2A visa program? How's it supposed to work?
Tina Vasquez: Its latest iteration came about in the 1980s under Reagan. What it is is that there's always a problem finding agricultural workers, and so it's a guest worker visa program that allows American employers to hire and bring into the country foreign workers to do agricultural work on a short-term contract, usually between six and nine months. First, the American employer has to prove to the Department of Labor that it tried to hire American workers for these positions, and if it cannot successfully hire American workers, which employers often cannot, then they get the green light to bring in foreign workers to the US to do agricultural work.
I think there are more than 80 countries that you can bring workers in from, but overwhelmingly, it's Mexican men who come to the US to do this work.
Melissa Harris-Perry: As you write in your piece, it is often described as mutually beneficial, right? Media describe it this way. Even immigration advocacy organizations describe it this way. Is it mutually beneficial? Who are the mutual parties here for whom it's beneficial?
Tina Vasquez: What we really wanted to highlight in this reporting is what a lopsided agreement it is. Many advocates, including people in the government that oversee this program, essentially refer to this as indentured servitude. It overwhelmingly benefits employers, and it gives American employers just unprecedented control over workers' lives because their visa, a worker's visa, is tied to a single employer who is tasked with providing them with housing, with transportation, with food. If there is abuse or exploitation or wage theft, which is very, very common, that's happening, then that worker risks everything speaking out.
This is one of the rare ways that Mexican workers in particular can legally work in the US. Filing a wage theft complaint or speaking out about exploitation or abuse on the farm can subject them to immigration enforcement, it means that they lose their housing, they lose their job, they lose their status in the US, and very often they're also informally blacklisted from the H-2A program, which makes them unable to come back and to do agricultural work for American dollars.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I cringe at the thought of New York Public Radio having a say over my housing, my life, my status in the country, for goodness sake. Yet, there is still, I think, even among, again, as you point out, immigrant advocacy organizations, there's a sense of, "It's a job and it earns a decent income relative to nations of origin. Shouldn't we all just put up with maybe a little less control over your workplace than you would typically want to have?"
Tina Vasquez: That's a good question. I always thought it was really interesting that there's overwhelming bipartisan support of this. You even see some immigration advocacy organizations really trumpeting the H-2A program as a solution and the Biden administration, as the way to curtail migration to the southern border, is going to use the H-2A program and expand it into Central America. We're going to divert asylum seekers from their legal right to request asylum in the US and we're going to put them into this program.
The problem with that is that wage theft is baked into how this program operates, but not only that, labor trafficking has become very, very common in this program. This program is rife with abuse. Many, many H-2A brokers pay recruiters in their home countries illegal recruitment fees that are thousands of thousands of dollars to work in the US. Then they get here and they don't get the wages that they were promised. It's a program that isn't working, and it's not a solution without major reforms. It is very astounding how this program is discussed as beneficial and how we're going to expand this program without reforming.
The two men that we follow in our reporting went into debt to work in the US. They paid illegal recruitment fees of $2,500, and then they were essentially trafficked to a North Carolina blueberry farm where they were starved. The only reason that we know their story and that they exist is because, by some miracle, a local anti-labor trafficking organization was informed that some of the farm workers from their labor camp were begging on the main road for food. It's really, really hard for workers to speak out because of what we outlined previously, is that you risk everything to speak out against your employer, so many don't.
Melissa Harris-Perry: You report $7.2 million in unpaid wages due to thousands of H-2A workers. This is simply from the Department of Labor records, from the DOL. It's quite likely that it's even higher than this. What does it mean that their wages are stolen?
Tina Vasquez: For H-2A workers in particular, this means that they have a contract with an American employer, and they're supposed to get paid a certain amount per hour or a certain amount per bucket, and they're not paid that amount, or they're not paid the wages that were promised at all like in the case of the men that we showcase in our story, Diego and Mario. They worked in the US for two weeks, and I think they received a check for $45. Just outright stealing of workers' wages or not compensating them what was promised, but the larger picture-- I have to admit, I went into this reporting really ignorant about how this works.
Across the US, when a worker files a complaint with the Department of Labor for wage theft because they weren't paid overtime or they weren't paid the agreed-upon rate, there's this three-year window that the Department of Labor has to give workers that money back or for workers to go on workers' owed wages and to see if they're owed money. If that three-year window closes and the money wasn't obtained by the worker, the Department of Labor transfers that money to the US Treasury Department.
We're talking about millions and millions of dollars owed to workers across the US that never goes to them. It's particularly striking with H-2A workers given all of the context that we've outlined about there are so little benefit for them to participate in this program. They go into debt. They often experience exploitation. The bare minimum that the US can do is pay these workers, and we don't. That money went to Treasury. The records that we obtained through a tip from a former Department of Labor attorney is that from 2011 to 2021, more than $7 million owed to H-2A workers never made it back to them. It just got transferred to Treasury.
Melissa Harris-Perry: How is it that it is happening? You're talking about blueberry farms in North Carolina, right? This is within miles of my home. How is it that we don't see it?
Tina Vasquez: In reporting this story, I had this really striking experience where we wanted to see the labor camp where Diego and Mario were essentially held and starved. We should also say that they came to the US thinking that they were going to be here for six months and it's been five years because they were labor trafficked, because they experienced wage theft and filed a lawsuit, and that were waiting for special visas because they were trafficked. They've been separated from their wife and their children for five years and they were supposed to be here for six months.
We wanted to see where it started for them in North Carolina. It was really striking because I pictured this very rural area where nothing is around and we go and it's very close to Raleigh and the main road where workers were begging for food, in the audio, you just hear cars whizzing by because it's a very busy road. Within eyesight there's churches, there's an elementary school. It was so striking to me because it was like, "I'm never coming back from this moment. I'm not going to be driving anywhere."
To think anywhere there's agriculture there's labor trafficking or there are these kinds of abuse to farm workers happening all around us, especially in the southeast where we live because we have some of the most H-2A workers in the country.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Stay with us. More takeaway in just a moment. We've been talking about a recent investigative report from Prism, Latino USA, and Futuro Investigates. At the heart of the report are stories of two men, Diego and Mario. Both arrived in the US in 2018 on an H-2A guest worker visa. Now the H-2A allows us employers to bring in foreign workers to perform seasonal agricultural work. While it's often touted as mutually beneficial, this investigation reveals the extent of exploitation suffered by the workers.
Speaker 3: An official from the Department of Justice called what happened to workers "modern-day slavery".
Speaker 4: The structure is certainly akin to indentured servitude.
Speaker 5: There's a pretty glaring disparity between the program on paper and what happens in practice.
Speaker 6: Are we going to just keep on this path because farmers are saying they need the labor?
Speaker 7: You're literally buying people to come do terrible work.
Melissa Harris-Perry: After arriving in the US, Mario and Diego were trafficked to a blueberry farm in North Carolina. Once there, they, along with dozens of other men, were given filthy, dangerous living conditions, deprived of sufficient food, water, and rest, and routinely threatened if they spoke publicly about their circumstances. A report produced last year by the Economic Policy Institute indicated American employers have a preference for using H-2A program workers over US workers because these foreign workers are "exploitable". It's a reality which harkens back to the Bracero program, which reshaped American agriculture in the 1950s.
Speaker 1: Makes sense to the farmer though. These braceros work for lower pay than Americans would.
Melissa Harris-Perry: The US and Mexico are currently planning expansion of the H-2A program. It's part of the Biden administration's efforts to address the changing immigration landscape as Title 42 ends later this week. Still with me is Tina Vasquez, investigative journalist and editor-at-large at Prism.
Tina Vasquez: I find it truly alarming that as a way to divert people from seeking asylum, the Biden administration is considering expanding programs like the H-2A program which we now know is known for abuse and exploitation and even trafficking. We're going to put people who are fleeing those conditions in their home countries in a program that has become known for that and as one of the attorneys we interviewed in the radio story, Daniel Costa from the Economic Policy Institute, said, "We're going to put people in situation where they're in this exploitative program, and then we're going to return them to the country that they were trying to flee with dollars in their pockets."
That's very dangerous. There's another attorney we spoke to named Aaron Jacobson, who oversees the Farmworker Unit for Legal Aid of North Carolina. He already has Central American clients who were terrified of pursuing wage theft claims in which they were owed thousands and thousands and thousands of dollars, just unimaginable money, because they were afraid that the person who recruited them in their home country would find out that they took legal action and that they would kill them. These are the kinds of things that we're going to see more and more as this program expands in the Central America as a way to stop people from seeking asylum. We're only going to do more harm.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Do you think that the American public cares?
Tina Vasquez: I struggle with that so much. I would like to think so. I can't imagine a world in which you listen to Diego and Mario talk to their wives over FaceTime, have relationships with a child that they've never met because their wife was pregnant when they were separated as part of this program, and hear that and to know that men like this came to the US to work and are essentially doing us a favor. We cannot find people to do this work in this country and they are feeding us.
To think that people don't care that these workers are being abused and exploited and stolen from, I don't want to live in that world, but I really struggle with whether people care that this is happening because of the population it's happening to which is migrants.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Currently, the state of North Carolina denies abortion access after 20 weeks. Last week, state lawmakers passed a bill that will ban abortions at 12 weeks. Additionally, it requires three separate doctor's visits prior to termination procedures and limits access to abortion medication after just 10 weeks. Now, Republican lawmakers in the state have described the bill as a compromise because it does allow exceptions for pregnancies resulting from some acts of sexual violence and exceptions for some medical conditions that threaten maternal life.
The state's Democratic governor Roy Cooper will veto the bill but Republicans control enough seats in the State House and Senate to override it. Here's Governor Cooper talking with CBS's Face the Nation.
Roy Cooper: It'll effectively ban many abortions altogether because of the obstacles that they have created for women, for clinics, and for doctors. They have tried to disguise the disastrous impacts of this bill, but we're going to expose them. This bill has nothing to do with making women safer and everything to do with banning abortions.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Still with me is Tina Vasquez, editor-at-large at Prism. Tina is a North Carolina resident and an investigative journalist who spent more than a decade reporting on the intersections of immigration justice and reproductive justice for multiple media outlets. What does all of that mean for the context of human rights in the broadest sense here in the state of North Carolina?
Tina Vasquez: I can't stop thinking about the press conference, the kind of surprise press conference in which this abortion ban was announced. It was like all white Republican women standing on a stage and presenting this as progress, characterizing the bill as pro-women and saying that this is a very mainstream approach to the issue. I found that so jarring because as a person who's had an abortion and as a journalist who covers reproductive injustice, I know how harmful and dangerous abortion bans are.
I also know that, overwhelmingly, it's Black and Latina women who access abortion care because it is a healthcare issue and these are the populations of people that don't have the same access to sexual reproductive healthcare and to contraceptives. They access abortion in higher numbers. Overwhelmingly, these are Black and Latina women who are parents. Presenting an abortion bill as pro-woman and pro-family was just so disturbing to me. Especially, when people discuss the exceptions, we know that the exceptions often don't come into play. People aren't allowed to access abortion care despite the exceptions.
Forcing people to remain pregnant or have children that they don't want, or cannot afford, or cannot physically have, to paint that as progress and pro-women is breathtaking to me. It's astounding. To ram this through when nobody is asking for it, truly nobody, North Carolinians overwhelmingly were in support of abortion at 20 weeks and even beyond. This is a very fringe group that's following this larger trend which is taking advantage of the fall of Roe to push these bans that people are outright vocalizing against or rejecting. It's unbelievable.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I watched that press conference as well and I was also fascinated. There was a moment when they said, "Oh, we have it at 12 weeks because we've looked at polling data." Literally said, "We looked at polling data and 12 weeks is where people want it." I thought, "We're talking about healthcare. Who does healthcare decisions by polling data? How is this--" If you have a certain anti-scientific but yet you understand as moral or ethical or religious belief that tells you something about the start of life, then polling data shouldn't matter. If you care about science, then polling data shouldn't matter. I couldn't comprehend where polling data should be part of this story.
Tina Vasquez: The framing is unbelievable. I cannot also believe Representative Tricia Cotham, who last year campaigned on reproductive rights, was a Democrat, publicly shared her abortion story last month, decides to switch parties, become Republican, basically hands this veto-proof super majority to Republicans in the state, and then last night votes in favor of the abortion ban after sharing her abortion story in 2015, after advocating for abortion rights in the state. It's too much to process. It's really astounding.
Melissa-Harris-Perry: To bring both of those things together, both this world that neither of us want to live in, but that we may in fact live in, where someone could talk with Diego, could talk with Mario, could see them in conversation with children who they have not known because they have basically been held in a labor enslavement in our modern time down the road from where we live, and to connect that with what feels like, in this case, an elected representative who simply is pursuing whatever their own personal goals are, having not just made a different decision, but directly lied to their constituents in order to be elected.
I'm wondering how you're thinking about the role of media in this moment in terms of trying to break through, speak some truth, and also, I don't know, be a little bit of a cheerleader for, I don't know, democracy. I'm wondering if contemporary US media is up for this fairly serious task.
Tina Vasquez: Oh, Lord. This is also something that I struggle with. I think that we are. You just can't-- I identify as a movement journalist, and I think that shapes the work that I do. I think it matters that I'm the only person in my family to do this kind of reporting. Over the course of this reporting, I learned that I had an uncle who was in the Bracero program, which was suspended because of exploitation and all the things that are wrong with the H-2A program, which it was modeled after. That's why the Bracero program ended.
All of that is just to say is that I carry all of that with me in the work that I do. I know that a lot of journalists have a lot of hangups about coming across unbiased or objective, and now is not the time. There is, obviously, a right side and a wrong side to history. As a journalist, we should be committed to justice and democracy. I think that is our job. I think people in different newsrooms struggle with that in different contexts, but I feel like that has to remain a pillar because there was a lot of applause of journalists under the Trump administration and how hard we went after Trump for various subjects, including immigration, including abortion, and we're seeing just horrendous injustices under the Biden administration.
I don't know if it's because the American public stopped paying attention because of who the president is, but I think, in part, it's because we're not covering things the same way. It's our job to always shine a light on those injustices.
Melissa-Harris-Perry: Tina Vasquez is editor-at-large of Prism and co-host of Head Down. Tina, thank you so much for taking the time with us today.
Tina Vasquez: Thank you so much, Melissa. I really appreciate you.
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