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LibreOrganize 0.6.0 - Documentation

H2-A ‘Guestworkers’: No Way to Treat a Guest

from the Feb. 15, 2023 Bulletin

labor unions immigration & border issues agriculture practices & policy

The work of the acclaimed photojournalist David Bacon offers a window into the daily lives of immigrant workers. Among his books: More than a Wall/Más Que un Muro and The Children of NAFTA: Labor Wars on the US/Mexico Border. In his 2021 report on the US Department of Labor’s H2-A temporary visa program, Bacon documented the reasons why H2-A needs full abolition, not a mere fix.

In 2022, temporary farmworkers gained some new protections under the H2-A program. Your take on reforming the H2-A immigration policy?

We’ve always had a basic division among those who want to improve the situation of migrant farmworkers. I’m in the camp of those who want radical change. Others want to work within what they imagine can be politically possible.


The H2-A program resembles the old Bracero program, a system notorious for its maltreatment of farmworkers. Organizing by activists in the Chicano and immigrant civil rights movement — like Bert Corona, Ernesto Galarza, and Cesar Chavez — ended the Bracero program in 1965. But in 1986 the notion of a “guestworker” program — a cruel joke for a name — would revive with the creation of the H2-A visa. The new federal Immigration Reform and Control Act also included sanctions against employers using illegal workers. 

The response to this new H2-A program would illustrate the nation’s political division. Radicals opposed the entire H2-A program and especially its “employer sanctions.” These sanctions made it appear that employers would be punished for hiring undocumented workers. But the sanctions actually operated as a tool to punish workers. Under H2-A, employers could fire workers who organized or went on strike by suddenly “discovering” their own workers' undocumented status. 

The workers that employers bring into the US via the H-2A program labor at their complete mercy. These workers can work only for the employer that recruits them. If they complain, they're fired, lose their visa, and get deported back to México where they're blacklisted so they can't return in future seasons. The net result: Both undocumented and H2-A workers get deprived of their basic rights.

Some people claim H2-A deserves credit for giving farmworkers legal status. But the H2-A visa doesn’t provide real legal status like a permanent residence visa or "green card." It’s only short term, and workers who have H2-A status labor subject to the conditions the boss imposes.

How does H2-A affect undocumented farm workers already working? 

In 1992, the US issued only 10,000 H2-A visas. Last year, growers were certified to bring in 370,000 H-2A workers, a number that has doubled in just five years and tripled in just eight. At the same time, deportations of migrants — almost all workers — have jumped enormously, from 21,046 under Ronald Reagan to 383,307 under Barack Obama. We see a clear correlation between H2-A and deportations.

How has the H2-A program affected the US small and family farms allegedly so dear to the nation’s heart?

Farms getting H2-A workers have to provide housing, and even lousy housing costs money to put up. Small farms can’t afford that. The largest growers do have the capital. Their access to H2-A is leading to even more corporate concentration of agriculture. The National Corn Growers Association alone uses 10,000 migrant workers under this program.

Farms getting H2-A workers have to provide housing, and even lousy housing costs money to put up. Small farms can’t afford that. The largest growers do have the capital. Their access to H2-A is leading to even more corporate concentration of agriculture. The National Corn Growers Association alone uses 10,000 migrant workers under this program.

Private recruiting for agricultural workers in México has become a lucrative industry. Would it be better to have the governments handle the recruiting?

The Mexican and US governments administered the Bracero program, and corruption — bribe-taking and other abuses — thrived. The private labor contractors have been even worse. They’re also blacklisting activists.

The Farm Labor Organizing Committee did open an office in México to monitor corruption. The staff person sent to do that work was tortured and killed for threatening the private contactors’ enormous profits. But involving the governments isn’t going to fix this. Any system based on labor recruitment for growers will be inherently abusive.

What does México want?

México has argued that getting into the US with an H2-A visa will always be safer than crossing the desert. Neoliberal Mexican politicians have promoted H2-A visas, calling them a route to jobs in the US. And many Mexican families do depend on remittances from a family member working in the US.

But AMLO, in his inauguration speech, promised to make México a country Mexicans could be happy living within, rather than one they have to leave in order to survive, and many Mexican communities are demanding the right to stay home.” Achieving that right will require an economic development that guarantees everything from jobs at home and high farm prices for growing crops for domestic consumption to better health care and education. Economic development like that will always be incompatible with an economy based on remittances.

AMLO talks about “failed neoliberal policies” that have food produced for export rather than to feed México’s own people. Similarly, he’s criticized policies that have the Mexican people treated like products for export. But he’s proposed a new government-regulated labor export program that contradicts his promises. Work visas should be abolished and people should be treated as people, not as a commodity called “workers.”

What’s the solution?

A radical program would encompass, as the Frente Indígena de Organizaciones Binacionales demands, both “the right to migrate” and “the right to stay home.” This would include demilitarizing the border, closing detention centers, and ending immigration raids, as well as stopping trade agreements that force the massive displacement of communities.

We should reinforce an immigration system based on family reunification and community stability, while protecting the wages, rights, and health of farmworkers — the alternative advanced by the civil rights movement over half a century ago.