BuzzFeed News wins August Sidney for Exposing the “New American Slavery” of the H2B Visa Program | Hillman Foundation

BuzzFeed News wins August Sidney for Exposing the “New American Slavery” of the H2B Visa Program

BuzzFeed News wins the August Sidney Award for “The New American Slavery,” an exposé of the rampant abuse of guest workers in the H-2 visa program.

The United States hosts over 100,000 guest workers a year under the H-2 visa program. They are among the most vulnerable workers in the country. H-2 workers are routinely cheated out of their wages, confined to squalid housing, and subjected to illegal debt peonage. Some workers have been threatened with guns, beaten, raped, and starved.

H-2 workers can only work for one employer. If wages and working conditions aren’t as promised, they have no recourse.

“There’s a big power imbalance there, and the worst guys get away with everything,” Kalen Fraser, a former federal inspector, told BuzzFeed News.

The federal government is well aware of the abuses, but the program has been allowed to grow by 50% over the past five years. The Department of Labor’s own records show that 800 employers have subjected 23,000 H-2 workers to violations of federal law since 2005.

“The BuzzFeed News team used old-fashioned investigative reporting to expose an exploitative system that stretches from Vermont to Louisiana and Colorado,” said Sidney judge Lindsay Beyerstein.

Jessica Garrison is a senior investigative editor for BuzzFeed News. She joined BuzzFeed News in May 2014 after 14 years at the Los Angeles Times.

Ken Bensinger is an investigative reporter for BuzzFeed News. He came to BuzzFeed News from The Los Angeles Times and he is the author of a forthcoming book, Houses of Deceit.

Jeremy Singer-Vine is the data editor for the BuzzFeed News investigative unit. He came to BuzzFeed from The Wall Street Journal.

H-2 visa-holders shelling crayfish in Louisiana
Jessica Garrison
Lindsay Beyerstein interviewed Ken Bensinger and Jessica Garrison by email

Q:  What is the H-2 visa program, and why does it make workers so vulnerable?

A: H-2 visas allow more than 100,000 foreigners to enter the United States each year on temporary guest worker visas. Workers come in, work for up to 10 or 11 months for the employer who sponsors their visa, and then return home. Because workers’ permission to be in this country is tied to their employer, they have very little leverage to demand better treatment or advocate for higher wages. While some workers speak highly of the program, many find that their pay, housing and other conditions are not what was promised, but have little ability to do anything about it. What’s more, many workers speak little English and are saddled with large debts before they arrive here, further limiting their options.

Q: FOIA requests were a big part of your investigation. Tell us about the process.

A: We filed numerous requests to several agencies under the Freedom of Information Act as well as requests under some state public records acts. That allowed us to get important case files and databases that informed our reporting.

Q: The story opens with a double date gone horribly wrong. How did you meet Travis and Trey?

A: We learned about Travis and Trey because their names came up in a police report that officers wrote on the night [the local police] detained two workers from LT West. We located them and spoke with them.

Q: Many workers arrive deeply in debt, having paid recruiters larger amounts of money to secure spots in the H-2 program. Is anything being done to reign in abuses by recruiters?

A: In some countries, workers say it is virtually unheard of to be able to secure a visa without paying bribes or other fees, despite laws in the U.S. and in their home countries prohibiting such practices. U.S. embassy officials are aware of the problem, but find it is extremely difficult to police because workers have little or no incentive to admit they are paying bribes in the first place and indeed often lie about doing so when questioned.

Q: What could be done to make the H-2 program safer and fairer for workers?

A: A lot of advocates for H-2 workers say that one of the best things for workers would be to allow workers to change employers while on the visa, thus giving them negotiating power to demand better conditions. However, others say that such a change would fundamentally alter the structure of the H-2 program and would face very strong resistance from industry. Others, including the Department of Labor, argue that resources for enforcement should be augmented substantially so that bad actors can be held to account.

Jessica Garrison
Ken Bensinger
Jeremy Singer-Vine