Far from home and nowhere to go. Part 1 of a duo on migrant workers. Read Part 2 here.
KENNETT — Dizzy, thirsty, with blurred vision, he kept working. In the field around him, others passed out in the suffocating summer humidity. They were hauled to the only shade available, under a bus. Coming to, they were directed back to work.
He was one of 107 workers from Mexico in the U.S. legally on temporary agricultural, or H-2A, visas, which allowed them to stay here for several months before returning to their home country. Day after day, the crew toiled long hours harvesting watermelons and other produce in Missouri’s Bootheel, but their paychecks didn’t reflect their labor, according to interviews and court records.
In Mexico, H-2A was sold to him as a golden opportunity, he said. He earned $80 a week in construction, and he was told he’d make about $13 an hour in Missouri — an increase he hoped would help provide for his wife and two-year-old daughter. His legal status carried other promises, such as three meals a day and an adequate place to live.
But that didn’t happen, according to court and local records; staffers for an advocacy organization, UMOS, who served as interpreters for federal agents investigating the case; and a member of the crew who agreed to speak anonymously for fear of retaliation.
The crew was forced to work on empty stomachs and with little water. They lived in a cramped and dirty motel with bedbugs and then a former county jail still surrounded by barbed wire. Some stayed in houses with a leaking toilet and no working refrigerator.
They were also threatened with deportation and blacklisting if they didn’t follow directives, said the worker, who was 20 at the time, through an interpreter. The threats intensified once investigators arrived, he said.
Missouri’s lax inspection system led to the workers’ ordeal, which changed only after the U.S. Department of Labor sued the employer, Jorge Marin of Florida. The case was dismissed in January (after workers returned home, the restraining order had become “largely moot,” DOL lawyers wrote), but Marin remains under investigation, a DOL spokesperson said. He declined further comment.
“My intent then was to comply with all the requirements, and that is still my intent,” Marin said in response to a list of detailed questions. “There are some claims that are simply incorrect.” Except for access to water, he didn’t specify.
Through it all, the worker said, he tried to remain strong.
“I never told them I felt bad,” he said, “because we weren’t very important to them.” Among themselves, the workers discussed their problems. H2-A employers are supposed to put up posters listing workers’ rights and a number to call to complain, but, he said, they didn’t know how to report their employer.
But then a friend’s unlucky break presented an opportunity.
Around 2 a.m. one day in late June 2018, a bus stopped in front of a single-story motel in Kennett, population about 10,000. On the ride from the U.S.-Mexico border, the mood was buoyant. In their late teens and early 20s, many had never been to America before. Rest up, the worker remembered being told upon arrival, you’re expected in the fields by daybreak.
Marin told state regulators his crew would work 36 hours a week, with Sundays optional. But their days started around 6 a.m. and ended at 8 p.m. or later. On the bus to the fields each morning, they were warned they’d never be hired again if they didn’t keep working, the worker said.
Water was scarce. The worker shared a container with about 1.5 gallons of water with several other men, he said. When investigators visited, one field had a water cooler, but workers had to drink from a shared Gatorade bottle.
Temperatures regularly topped 80 degrees and, sometimes, the heat index would rocket to 115 degrees. By the time investigators arrived, the crew had worked about 20 straight days in these conditions.
Marin said water was available.
“I want you to know that it appears that the DOL overlooked that I believe we had fresh water containers in the fields with every crew,” he said.
Food also proved scarce. Marin contracted with a Mexican restaurant in Kennett to provide lunch and dinner, but workers were denied breakfast.
“The employer felt he didn’t want lazy workers or he didn’t want sluggish workers,” Javier Acevedo, an UMOS interpreter, said workers told him.
To harvest watermelons, workers formed a chain: They bent down low, picked one and heaved it to the next person until it reached a hollowed-out yellow school bus.
“They would not give them breakfast so they had the mobility in the morning to be able to bend down and pick up the watermelons,” said Shirley Aviles, another UMOS interpreter.
“A lot of that just fed into that climate of fear that these workers (felt),” Acevedo said. “They felt exhausted. They felt hungry.”
According to local court records, the restaurant provided breakfast on three days, July 17-19. Investigators arrived July 16.
The food Marin did provide was insufficient for their labor, UMOS interpreters said workers told them. “A lot of them did make statements like, ‘I stay hungry. Sometimes I go to bed hungry,’” Acevedo said. Some days, the 20-year-old said, he had nothing to eat.
Workers got to keep one paycheck for $340. But another, for $120, they didn’t. The crew was bused to a bank in a nearby Arkansas town, where they cashed their checks. After exiting, they were forced to hand the money back.
They also lost money before arriving in Missouri. The workers paid a fee of about $300-$500 to obtain the H2-A visas, Aviles said workers told her. Many workers took out loans to pay it. The 20-year-old said his wife’s family loaned him the money, interest free. He also spent between $100-$150 on travel from his hometown to Kennett.
Charging fees for visas and travel costs is illegal. It wasn’t the first time a Marin crew reported doing so.
In August 2015, Marin sat down with DOL investigators to discuss housing and work violations at an Indiana jobsite. Workers had said they paid about $230 to obtain visas. Marin said he reimbursed them, but, investigators noted, “there is no proof.”
Many employers hire firms that recruit workers, help them acquire visas and arrange transportation. Marin hasn’t used these services for the past several years, according to a federal registry of H-2A employers.
He paid a recruiter, he said, but he knew nothing about payments for visas.
At the meeting, investigators told Marin charging fees was illegal. According to the investigator, “Mr. Marin agreed to future compliance.”
He was fined $1,650.
In the Bootheel, the 20-year-old weighed whether to make a phone call. Earlier that day, his friend had missed the bus, forcing him to trek to the motel. When he’d arrived, he’d said a man who spoke Spanish — not unusual there — had offered him a ride. The driver had given the friend his number and told him he could help.
The H-2A program’s set-up does not incentivize workers to report abuse, advocates said. By design, employers control almost every aspect of their existence — housing, food, transportation, work hours and even whether they remain in America.
Complainers also get blacklisted, said Greg Schell, an attorney who has represented farmworkers for decades. “If they wanted to stay and have the right to come back to the United States in the future,” he said of Marin’s crew, “They had to go with the program and work under the terms given.”
In Missouri between 2015 and 2018, only one H-2A worker complained to authorities about working conditions, according to the state’s log of agriculture worker complaints. Being fired left the worker “homeless in a foreign country,” he wrote. “I now do not have any money to eat on while I travel home, nor do I have transportation to the airport.”
The situation is different in North Carolina. H-2A workers are members of a union organized by the Farm Labor Organizing Committee. In 2017, more than 700 farmworkers reported employer abuses, according to the committee.
Marin’s crew didn’t have that benefit. The friend didn’t have a cell phone, so he asked the 20-year-old to call the driver. He wasn’t sure he could trust the driver, but “it was like our only chance for us to be able to do something,” the worker said later.
The driver picked the two men up at the Walmart near the motel, and he took them to the UMOS office in town. Staffers listened to their story and gave them bottles of water and sanitary packs.
Soon, however, they felt they had to return to the motel.
“They thought they were being watched,” said Aviles, who oversees the Kennett office.
The driver dropped the men off at the Walmart. To avoid raising suspicion, the 20-year-old said, they made a purchase, placing the UMOS items in one of the store’s plastic bags.
Two days later, the friend dallied in the Walmart parking lot, a phone to his ear. Hungry from work, many on the crew would walk over there at night to buy snacks or bread or meat for sandwiches. Then, he wandered over to the building’s side and jumped in a car with Aviles and other UMOS staffers.
At the UMOS office, he told DOL investigators his experiences.
Others did not.
On July 17, Aviles and an investigator began interviewing workers at the two houses, which were southwest of Kennett. After several interviews, “the agent was like, ‘It’s obvious that they’re coached. They’re telling us the same story,’” Aviles said. “We later found out that Marin had already spoken to them before we got there. They were pretty much like, ‘Everything’s good. We get paid. We didn’t pay anything in Mexico to come here.’”
At one point, Marin drove up. He asked for their business cards, Aviles remembered.
“Don’t worry about this,” she said the agent told her before turning to Marin. “All you need is my card,” said the investigator, handing it over.
Marin took it and drove away.
With investigators in town, field conditions improved, according to UMOS. Water was more accessible. Tents were set up to escape the sun. Buses ran with A/C for breaks.
At the same time, though, the threats on the morning bus rides escalated, the worker said. We know where your families live, they were told.
Ten days after investigators arrived in Kennett, the DOL requested its injunction: “The workers are compelled to endure the improper housing and field conditions during the remainder of their stay in the United States. Under the terms of their Visas, they do not have the option of finding alternative employment. It is up to the DOL to protect them.”
The judge approved it Aug. 6.
By that time, most of the crew had been moved from the motel to the former jail. They’d stayed there about three weeks by the time the judge granted the injunction. Marin had to move them to another motel in Kennett, the 84 West Motel.
By this time, though, the 20-year-old had had enough. He called a family member who lives in the U.S. and asked him to pick him up. He was one of several workers who walked off the job, he said.
In October, the crew’s contracts ended. In January, the case was dismissed. In May, regulators had approved Marin’s request for workers for harvests in Florida and Indiana. In June, his request for Missouri was approved, too.
“I intend,” he said, “for our operation to be fully in compliance with all the applicable laws and regulations.”
This project was produced in collaboration with the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting, a nonprofit, online news site covering big ag and related issues through investigative, enterprise and data-driven reporting. Read more at www.investigatgemidwest.org
JEFFERSON CITY — Missouri officials are citing an improved economy as one of several factors that led to close to 90,000 children being dropped from the state’s Medicaid health insurance program in the past year, although some lawmakers are still unsatisfied with the explanation.
Acting Social Services Director Jennifer Tidball sought to explain why those children and 23,000 adults have lost coverage since July 2018 in a letter Monday to Republican state House Speaker Elijah Haahr.
In the letter, provided to The Associated Press by the Department of Social Services, Tidball in part attributed the drop to a decrease in unemployment in the state.
Tidball also cited improved efforts beginning in 2018 to purge Medicaid rolls of people who are not eligible, and she wrote that about a third of people who lost coverage didn’t answer letters to renew their eligibility.
“DSS does not take lightly the caseload reductions seen since 2018,” Tidball wrote. “However the department feels confident in its administration of Medicaid eligibility.”
Tidball also noted that the agency ramped up staffing through a contractor to answer calls about Medicaid issues, but “is not satisfied” with the contractor’s work. She said the department is working with the contractor to improve call wait times.
Social Services officials, including Medicaid Division Director Todd Richardson, briefed a group of House lawmakers about Medicaid rolls on Monday.
Haahr said the drop in enrollment wasn’t a surprise to the agency, and that he’s glad the department admitted to issues with the call center.
“I have asked Director Richardson to do what he can or let me know how the General Assembly can expedite the transition to provide Missourians with tools that will make sure our children are not stuck on bureaucratic hold to receive basic medical care,” Haahr said in a statement.
But Democratic House Minority Leader Crystal Quade said she’s still not satisfied with the agency’s explanation and is concerned that Social Services is struggling to reach people to reauthorize their Medicaid enrollment.
She said when speaking with agency officials, it “was very apparent that there were lots of issues, from the call centers to folks not turning in their information.”
“We need to get to the bottom of what is the best way to ensure that folks who qualify are receiving care,” Quade said.
Quade renewed her call for a public hearing on the issue. Haahr did not immediately comment on whether he’ll call for legislative hearings.
WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump acknowledged Tuesday his aggressive China trade policies may mean economic pain for Americans but insisted they’re needed for more important long-term benefits. He insisted he’s not fearing a recession but is nonetheless considering new tax cuts to promote growth.
Asked if his trade war with China could tip the country into recession, Trump brushed off the idea as “irrelevant” and said it was imperative to “take China on.”
“It’s about time, whether it’s good for our country or bad for our country short-term,” he said.
Paraphrasing a reporter’s question, Trump said, “Your statement about, ‘Oh, will we fall into a recession for two months?’ OK? The fact is, somebody had to take China on.”
The president indicated that he had no choice but to impose the tariffs that have been a drag on U.S. manufacturers, financial markets and, by some measures, American consumers.
Trump was clear he didn’t think the nation is at risk of a recession, and that a boom was possible if the Federal Reserve would slash its benchmark interest rate.
“We’re very far from a recession,” Trump said. “In fact, if the Fed would do its job, I think we’d have a tremendous spurt of growth, a tremendous spurt.”
Yet he also said he is considering a temporary payroll tax cut and indexing to inflation the federal taxes on profits made on investments — moves designed to stimulate faster growth. He downplayed any idea that these thoughts indicate a weakening economy, saying, “I’m looking at that all the time anyway.”
Asked about his remarks, White House spokesman Judd Deere said “the president does not believe we are headed for a recession. The economy is strong because of his policies.”
Trump faces something of an inflection point on a U.S. economy that appears to be showing vulnerabilities after more than 10 years of growth. Factory output has fallen and consumer confidence has waned as he has ramped up his trade war with China. In private, Trump and his advisers have shown concern that a broader slowdown if not an outright recession could arrive just as he is seeking reelection based on his economic record.
Trump rattled the stock and bond markets this month when he announced plans to put a 10% tax on $300 billion worth of Chinese imports. The market reaction suggested a recession might be on the horizon and led Trump to delay some of the tariffs that were slated to begin in September, though 25% tariffs are already in place for $250 million in other Chinese goods.
The president has long maintained that the burden of the tariffs is falling solely on China, yet that message was undermined by his statements to reporters Tuesday prior to a meeting in the Oval Office with the president of Romania.
“My life would be a lot easier if I didn’t take China on. But I like doing it because I have to do it,” Trump said.
The world economy has been slowing in recent months, and recent stock market swings have added to concerns that the U.S. economy is not immune. A new survey Monday showed a big majority of economists expecting a downturn to hit by 2021.
Addressing that possibility, Trump focused anew on pressuring the Federal Reserve to cut interest rates. Presidents have generally avoided criticizing the Federal Reserve publicly, but Trump has shown no inclination to follow that lead. Rather, he’s positioning Fed Chairman Jerome Powell to take the fall if the economy swoons.
“I think that we actually are set for a tremendous surge of growth, if the Fed would do its job,” Trump said. “That’s a big if.”
Trump recommended a minimum cut of a full percentage point in the coming months.
Efforts to limit regulations on concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs, came to a temporary halt Tuesday when a Cole County judge issued a restraining order on Senate Bill 391.
The bill, signed by Gov. Mike Parson in May, prevents county commissions and health boards from instituting regulations that are stricter than state law, according to previous Missourian reporting. The law would have gone into effect Aug. 28.
Proponents of the bill argue that uniform statewide regulations make it easier for rural landowners to conduct business, especially for those whose property crosses county lines.
The Cedar County Commission, Cooper County Public Health Center, Friends of Responsible Agriculture and three Missouri farmers sued Parson, the Missouri Air Conservation Commission and Missouri Clean Air Commission this summer arguing that Senate Bill 391 is unconstitutional.
The plaintiffs in the suit allege that the law does not have the power to override existing county health ordinances, according to a statement released by the Missouri Rural Crisis Center.
The debate over Senate Bill 391 centers on what regulations the companies establishing CAFOs in Missouri should adhere to.
According to the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, CAFOs are defined as feeding operations that reach a specific threshold of farm animals — for example, 2,500 pigs or 700 dairy cows.
About 500 CAFOs already exist in Missouri, and opponents of Senate Bill 391 are quick to clarify that they are not anti-CAFO.
Melanie Hutton, an administrator at the Cooper County Public Health Center, said the manner in which the CAFOs dispose of manure can be dangerous for the surrounding communities if not done properly.
Hutton said that while there are “manure management plans,” weather patterns such as big storms that create runoff can impact whether manure is being disposed of safely.
“That’s important with cases when they spread these millions of gallons of manure. And some people do it very well,” said Hutton. “However, there’s no monitoring by the state of Missouri that says, ‘X CAFO is doing a good job.’”
The temporary restraining order issued by Judge Patricia Joyce will be in effect for 10 days. A hearing on the matter has been scheduled for Sept. 19.
State Rep. Chuck Basye, R-Rocheport, voted for the bill in May. Despite backlash from his own constituents, Basye said he stands by his decision. He said it is better overall for landowners to have statewide health codes to follow.
“If they don’t like it,” Basye said of his detractors, “they can vote me out of office.”
Supervising editor is Mark Horvit.