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In Guatemalan towns along the Inter-American Highway, corn towers over the tallest men, and pickups swerve past small red fruits of coffee. But the crop has been ruined by fungus, with remaining beans selling for just half what they did five years ago.
So when supposed recruiters offered to help people apply for H-2A visas to the U.S., for short-term agricultural work, it seemed to many like a godsend: a legal route, without the perils of migration, that would have them back home in a few months. Some shelled out thousands of dollars in fees – only to learn, last January, that they had been scammed.
As U.S. immigration restrictions increase, the expansion of the agricultural visa program has quelled some concerns about labor gaps. But competition for visas, combined with weak regulation, has created a situation ripe for exploitation, migrant advocates say. Guatemala and the U.S. have taken steps to strengthen vetting of recruiters and warn would-be applicants of frauds.
“When they talked to us about a visa opportunity, we forgot how vulnerable we were,” says one man who lost money in the scam. “We were so excited about going there to work, of having that chance to go, that for a moment nothing else seemed to exist.”
Last January, more than a hundred people waited for their visas outside the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala City, only to find out that they had been scammed.
They had spent nearly a year meeting with job recruiters, shelled out thousands of dollars in fees, and traveled through the night from farming towns. The recruiters had stolen all the money and abandoned them at a gas station in the capital, forcing them to scout out the embassy on their own hours later. It was like watching their life savings go up in smoke.
Since last October, nearly 260,000 Guatemalans have been apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border. Many seek asylum. Others come looking for jobs, since they could not gain permission to work in the U.S. through common legal routes – such as a business sponsor, a close relative’s petition, or a rare win in the diversity visa lottery.
One of the only other legal options is just what the crowd in Guatemala City had done: placed their faith in recruiters to secure a coveted H-2A visa, the ticket to short-term agricultural work.
For many months, the supposed recruiters’ offer had spread by word-of-mouth through towns along the Inter-American Highway, where corn towers over the tallest men and pickups swerve past small red fruits of coffee, but people struggle to make ends meet. It seemed, to many, like a godsend.
“Emigrating to another country is difficult and risky, and the route is full of suffering,” says Jeremías*, a victim of January’s scam. “My intention had been to return home, after a limited period of time.” [Editor’s note: Jeremías, like other names followed by an asterisk, is a pseudonym used to protect the source and his family.]
At a time of increasing immigration restrictions, the expansion of the agricultural visa program has quelled some U.S. growers’ concerns about labor gaps. But competition for visas in the 85 countries where they are offered, combined with laws that favor employers and weak regulation of middlemen, has created a situation ripe for exploitation, migrant advocates say.
“It’s just the wild west. There’s no oversight to it. The recruiters can charge anything they want,” said Cathleen Caron, founder of Justice in Motion, a nonprofit that protects migrants’ rights.
The State Department declined to release statistics on scams, which have existed for years. In Guatemala, the public prosecutor’s office was investigating cases that included almost 5,000 victims at the end of 2016, according to a report from a coalition of migration organizations.
Some critics see the temporary visas system itself as a recipe for abuse. But Osmeri*, one of the victims of January’s scam, says at a minimum, H-2A visas help people invest in their hometowns, without the hazards of unauthorized migration. “How many people have instead risked their lives, and those of their children?” she asks.
This year, as apprehensions of migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border have reached a 13-year high, the U.S. government has touted temporary work visas as an alternative for immigrants, while moving to restrict asylum. It has proposed expanding the definition of “agriculture,” and even eliminating a rule that makes employers hire qualified American workers if they apply in the first half of each season.
But the State Department is also aware of the pitfalls. In July, the same week Guatemala signed a controversial “safe third country” agreement – which would require asylum-seekers who travel through it to apply there instead of in the U.S. – it also promised to strengthen vetting of farmworkers’ recruiters.
A State Department official wrote in an email that consular representatives meet regularly with community leaders to warn against “fraudulent recruiters,” and work closely with law enforcement to assist in criminal prosecutions. Past information campaigns, organized by the embassy and nonprofits, have peppered municipal offices with posters warning of fraud.
The visa petition has a flat rate: $190. People might have to pay for transportation to the U.S. out of pocket, but they’re supposed to be reimbursed once they’re on the job. Yet even real recruiters, hired by U.S. companies, often illegally charge much more, which makes it easier for scammers to ask for money without raising red flags.
In the coffee-growing town of La Libertad, where many of the scammed people lived, the crop has been ruined by a fungus called la roya. Remaining beans have sold for as little as 86 cents per pound, less than half what they did five years ago.
Weeks before the Guatemalan recruits went to the embassy, there was already a whiff of a scam, according to Osmeri. Crowds of prospective laborers swelled at meetings the four Guatemalan recruiters convened in soccer fields, private homes, and schoolyards. But nobody knew how much they would be paid. Nobody knew the names of the companies they’d be working for.
The scam may have affected as many as 300 people, who each lost about $1,300, according to Guatemalan officials with knowledge of the investigation. Carpenters, teachers, nurses, bill-collectors, and farmers responded to the calls.
“When they talked to us about a visa opportunity, we forgot how vulnerable we were,” says Raúl*, who also lost money in the scam. “We were so excited about going there to work, of having that chance to go, that for a moment nothing else seemed to exist.”
He snapped when he learned, at the embassy’s door, that it was fake. “I started laughing, because I wouldn’t gain anything from being angry.” The recruiters had already made their escape.
So far, only one person in the case has been apprehended, and is facing trial. According to Guatemalan prosecutors, it’s rare to recoup money. Average earnings in Guatemala are about $280 per month. For those who have put up their homes or their land as collateral on loans, the cost can be staggering.
Marcelino Pablo Martín, a lanky farmer who lives in a rural wood-slat home a few hours from La Libertad, is in debt to three people, and nearly lost the title to his land, because of a scam in 2015. He had picked strawberries on a farm in California for four months; when he took out a loan to pay the recruiter an illegal fee to go again, he never got a visa.
“Where am I going to get that kind of money here in Guatemala?” he says. “I want to go back and work in the U.S. – it’s beautiful there – but getting there is the hard part.”
Four years later, his case is still under investigation, but he cannot afford to go to the state capital, Huehuetenango, to talk with prosecutors.
Roadblocks to justice
In August, a U.S. official said the number of H-2A visa slots for Guatemalans could triple from the nearly 4,000 granted last year. Cindy Hahamovitch, a history professor at the University of Georgia, says that temporary worker recruitment programs tend to expand during periods of national uproar over immigration.
“Guestworker programs are devised essentially as a state-brokered compromise between employers, who want the immigrant workers they’ve already had, and nativists, who say there are too many immigrants,” she says. “You’re telling the nativists … we don’t have to educate them. We don’t have to deal with them when they’re old. And we can deport them at any time.”
Laborers hesitate to complain about abusive conditions or stolen wages if they know they can be replaced in a heartbeat. Reporting recruiters for charging fees can bring threats, as well.
Jeremías says that when he left the prosecutor’s office, he and others were followed by a pickup with tinted windows; it pulled over when they did, and they escaped through a local eatery. One of his friends later received a call from someone claiming to be police who asked to speak in person about the case, but investigators told him they had not sent anyone to conduct interviews.
In other cases, fear has prevented people from coming forward. Liliam Poroj Fuentes, a stay-at-home mom who rented a patch of her backyard to a towering advertisement sign to make money after she was scammed, said she brought prosecutors receipts from the church and women’s-assistance organization that promised her a visa. But of the hundreds of people who came to recruitment meetings with her, she knows no others who filed a criminal complaint.
Prosecutors involved in previous cases say they do not have resources to investigate even more severe crimes.
“Even if a hen were stolen from somebody, that’s their property and they deserve to be helped,” says Amanda Gutiérrez, a prosecutor in the government’s office in Huehuetenango. “But we have a mountain of cases to handle.”
The impunity rate in Guatemala is 94.2%, according to a report by the now-defunct International Commission Against Impunity, a U.N.-backed body that the Guatemalan government shuttered last month.
Some victims dream of being compensated through U.S. courts. In one case being heard in the U.S., 19 people allege that they were forced to pay $1,000 to a recruiter in Georgia in 2014. Most illegal recruitment, however, involves local cash payments in Guatemala. There’s no paper trail. Amid debt, and fear of their scammers, many Guatemalans decide they have to leave.
Mr. Pablo Martín eventually left for the U.S., but was deported as soon as he crossed the U.S. border last year. Jeremías sought asylum and is now working to pay off his looming debt. Raúl returned to his day job for several months, but tired of never earning enough for the kind of life he had imagined.
“If you don’t hear from me next week, it’s because I’m traveling by land to the U.S.,” he says.