More than 100 migrant farm workers in the southeast U.S. were freed from the “shackles of modern-day slavery” when federal agents broke up a transnational crime ring.
Two-dozen people, including illegal aliens, were indicted last month on 54 counts of international forced labor trafficking, mail fraud, money laundering and other charges. The indictments, announced in Georgia, charged that H-2A agricultural visas were fraudulently used to smuggle foreign nationals from Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras into the United States.
Agents heading up “Operation Blooming Onion” (OBO) said workers in the field were forced to pay for transportation, food and housing while their identification documents were withheld. Laborers “performed physically demanding work for little or no pay … hous[ed]in crowded, unsanitary and degrading living conditions, and threaten[ed]with deportation and violence.”
“Exploitation of the workers included being required to dig onions with their bare hands, paid 20 cents for each bucket harvested, and threatened with guns and violence to keep them in line,” officials said.
Conspirators alleged to have reaped more than $200 million from the scheme were also accused of raping, kidnapping and attempting to kill some workers or their families. At least two laborers died while working.
The $200 million haul is intriguing, says David North of the Center for Immigration Studies, noting, “[It] was not taken from corporations or banks. It was extracted a few dollars at a time from wages not paid to farm workers and from other moneys extorted from those workers.”
That suggests OBO may be understating the number of workers abused in this scheme. “To get that much from farm workers there would have to be a lot of them,” North figures.
Whatever the number, the Biden administration deserves credit for bringing home this multi-agency investigation that began in 2018. Likewise, it’s encouraging that the Department of Agriculture (USDA) has backed off a misguided plan to halt collection of wage data necessary to establish pay rates for H-2A workers.
For all Donald Trump’s jawboning about immigration, his USDA under political appointees like former Secretary Sonny Perdue were hostile to positive enforcement changes on agricultural guest workers, says Preston Huennekens, FAIR’s government relations manager.
An NBC News investigation highlighted the problems last year, finding that while H-2A visas surged during the Trump era, the program subjected workers to “horrific abuse.”
Here’s hoping that Biden’s team turns over a new leaf, and gets serious about cleaning up the fields, starting with prosecuting the farmers who use slave-labor contractors. Until the ultimate employers are held criminally and civilly liable, operations like Blooming Onion will not root out the problem.