U.S. government strengthens measures to combat fraud and abuse of temporary employment visas

U.S. Secretary of Labor René Alexander Acosta this week warned that more aggressive measures will be implemented to combat possible cases of fraud and abuse of temporary visa programs for the hiring of foreign workers.

Acosta emphasized that individuals or companies who commit visa fraud harm U.S. workers and that it is his duty to protect them. Therefore, he ordered enhanced investigations, "every type of action available against those who abuse these programs," and increased criminal prosecution for those who violate existing laws that are designed to protect U.S. workers.

The U.S. Department of Labor will strictly enforce all laws related to the administration and enforcement of nonimmigrant visa programs, such as the H-2A visa, which allows agricultural producers to bring in temporary workers to work in fields and on farms.

Among the measures:

* Direct the Wage and Hour Division to use all of its tools to conduct investigations to enforce the protections of the visa programs.

* Modify the labor certification process to identify violations and potential fraud.

* Coordinate efforts among the various federal agencies to investigate, detect fraud and visa program abuse and refer cases for criminal prosecution.

The measures not only protect U.S. workers, but also foreign nationals coming to the country on temporary employment visas such as H-1B and H-2A.

Tough on abusers of temporary employment visas

In announcing a new crackdown on abusers of temporary employment visas, the Department of Labor said it has already begun to crack down on companies that have violated the laws and terms of these programs.

He cited as examples G Farms in Arizona, accused of providing unsafe housing to farm workers, and Christner Farms LLC in Pennsylvania, accused of denying employment to a U.S. worker.

Legal action against company accused of subjecting foreign workers to inhumane conditions

For the first time in its history, the Department of Labor obtained a preliminary injunction order (preliminary injunction) against G Farms in El Mirage, Arizona, its owner Santiago Gonzalez, his supervisor Arturo Valdez Castro, and LeFelco and Raul Leon (G Farms agents who prepared the H-2A applications and recruited the foreign workers).

All are accused of providing farm workers under the H-2A program with illegal, unsanitary and dangerous housing and paying them illegally low wages.

unsanitary housing at G Farms
Investigators found unsanitary and hazardous conditions in precarious farmworker camps at G Farms (Photo: U.S. Department of Labor).

Investigators found that Gonzalez had workers living under inhumane conditions, in violation of the terms of their application for H-2A visas, and had apparently lied to them about their housing before arriving at the farm.

G-Farms bus
One of the buses where G Farms housed its farm workers.
(Photo: U.S. Department of Labor)

Gonzalez had approximately 70 workers in a makeshift camp made up of school buses and trailers without windows or adequate ventilation, exposed to daytime temperatures exceeding 100°F (30°C).

Workers were crammed into the substandard housing, with beds stacked end to end with only one foot of space between mats, when federal regulation requires at least 40 feet of space per person.

showers at G-Farms
G Farms trailer with showers without a drainage system, with an electrical cord that exposed workers to electrocution (Photo: U.S. Department of Labor).

The only bathroom facilities consisted of shower stalls that did not have a sewer system "illuminated by a single power cord exposed to standing water," putting them at risk of being electrocuted.

Upon inspection of the site conditions, investigators also discovered that the farm workers were working overtime and were not being paid their full wages.

Under the preliminary injunction, G Farms, Gonzalez and their agents:

* Farm workers cannot be accommodated in the precarious bus camp.
* Must house workers in an apartment complex for the remainder of the 2017 season, subject to inspection by the Department of Labor.
* Wages cannot be deducted from wages to pay for housing or food.
* Must provide safe transportation to the job site.
* Cannot prohibit workers from speaking to investigators and cannot be held against them if they report violations of the terms of the H-2A visa.

Under the terms of the H-2A visa program, the employer or company bringing foreign workers to the United States must provide them with free housing.

Pennsylvania farm fined

In response to a complaint filed by a state employment services agency, Department of Labor investigators determined that Christner Farms LLC, a Pennsylvania farm, did not attempt to recruit and hire U.S. workers before resorting to bringing in workers under the H-2A visa program.

According to investigators, Christner Farms illegally denied employment to a U.S. worker and also failed to cooperate with the state employment services agency by refusing to accept referrals of potential U.S. employees to work on the farm.

The Immigration and Nationality Act prohibits denying jobs to qualified workers within the country in favor of foreign workers.

The company also failed to provide housing for farm workers that met required health and safety standards.

Department of Labor ordered Christner Farms to pay nearly $$22,000 in fines and salary to the non-contracted employee.