Early summer is watermelon season in the Harquahala Valley, about an hour west of downtown Phoenix. After a day of harvesting, white buses brought migrant workers to the Rio Valley Market. The family-owned restaurant and general store sells anything from cooking spices to underwear.
The farmworkers came to the United States on a temporary visa called an H-2A. On a recent afternoon, when the temperature hovered around 105 degrees, they filed into Rio Valley Market wearing sweat-stained clothes from the fields. Their mood was light as they paid for popsicles, soda, chips and beer.
“Farm work here is easier because you make more money,” said 38-year-old Marco Raul Medrano, who grew corn and beans in his native Guatemala.
The farm Medrano works for gives him food, shelter and transportation, which means the Rio Valley Market might be his only contract with the outside world.
Experts say total dependency on the employer leads to isolation, making H-2A workers vulnerable to abuse. Demand for migrant farmworkers has grown in recent years, stretching government resources to oversee the H-2A program.
The U.S. Department of Labor has touted a civil lawsuit filed in May against an Arizona farm as part of increased efforts to punish bad actors. Authorities have accused G Farms of mistreating migrant workers.
“We would have been looking at a mass fatality,” said Janet Herold, regional solicitor for the Labor Department’s western region. “(G Farms') housing situation wasn’t even close to safe.”
In the G Farms case, the Labor Department used a preliminary injunction issued by the U.S. District Court in Phoenix to take immediate action to help workers, and punish their employer, Herold said.
“It’s a lot of work and it requires a lot of resources,” Herold said.
After G Farms, Secretary of Labor Alexander Acosta ordered the entire agency to work with its Office of Inspector General, or OIG, to seek criminal charges against abusive employers.
Officials have said the G Farms probe is ongoing. But Herold would not say if the G Farms case is now a criminal probe.
“OIG is aware of the case,” she said. “That’s all I can really say.”
A lawyer for G Farms said the Labor Department had no reason to bring the civil case.
“By the time they filed the lawsuit, the things alleged in the lawsuit had been corrected,” said attorney Mike King with the Phoenix firm Gammage & Burnham.
The Industrial Commission of Arizona cited G Farms for seven violations, but only issued fines for three.
Documents show there were overcrowded sleeping areas inside converted school buses, electrical cords near showers, and a water supply that had not been approved by the state.
“(That) doesn’t mean anything was wrong with it,” said King, who added that workers were given the same water used by the owners of G Farms. “It was not inspected first. That's what that means.”
The safety violations at G Farms added up to a $2,250 fine from the state, which King says does not match the accusation of inhumane conditions.
“I would prefer not to say that the government is making an example of my clients,” King said. “But you do see it in any range of regulatory matters. There (are) not enough resources to prosecute everyone.”
The Labor Department has to police a lot more farmers than in the past. In Arizona, the number of H-2A farmworkers jumped 156 percent in five years. But the agency currently has no plan to hire more enforcement agents, which leaves more than 5,000 temporary workers in the state vulnerable to exploitation.
“I think (the Labor Secretary’s order is) really talking about better optimizing and better utilizing the resources we already have to make sure that (information sharing between the Labor Department’s various divisions is) seamless,” said Herold, who’s based in San Francisco.
Arizona’s employee verification rules have led to an increase of demand for H-2A workers. So has a lack of U.S. citizens willing to do manual farm labor.
“Our population of domestic workers that have traditionally worked this crop are aging out,” said Amanda Caldwell, managing attorney for the Farmworker, Employment and Tax Unit at Community Legal Services, which has offices in San Luis and Phoenix.
Farms see temporary foreign labor as the answer to all of their needs, Caldwell said.
“(H-2A workers) don’t have their families here,” she said. “They don't have to call in sick. They don’t have to take the day off to take their kid to school. So they don’t have the needs that other U.S. workers have.”
The unique relationship between H-2A workers and their employers is a key reason why advocates support increased enforcement. With their visa tied to the farm, many migrant workers fear they'll be fired if they speak up about issues like wage theft or poor housing.
“They may even be blacklisted, and find it difficult to return to the United States in the future,” said Adrienne DerVartanian, director of immigration and labor rights at Farmworker Justice in Washington D.C.
Advocates like DerVartanian worry H-2A enforcement will suffer, if agribusiness gets what it wants, and the program gets put under the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
“It would be a step backward for enforcement on these visa programs,” said Herold, regional solicitor with the Labor Department.
“There is a lot of tension here between the business interest and the business in protecting workers,” DerVartanian said.
One of the biggest employers of H-2A workers is Fresh Harvest, a family-run group of companies with operations in California and Arizona.
“We as a company and as a family want to do everything legal and follow the letter of the law and we do whatever it takes to do that,” said Matt Scaroni, director and vice president of production for Fresh Harvest.
Government oversight is important because it keeps the playing field level, he said.
“Sometimes regulation gets so absurd that it raises cost,” Scaroni said. “There’s a balance as a country that we need to find.”
Back at the Rio Valley Market, Medrano looked forward to an evening of television and rest. It's his fourth trip to the U.S., and he hopes there will be more.
“God willing,” he said.
Medrano gave short answers to questions. It might be because he’d never been interviewed, he didn’t want to miss the bus, or because there were bosses within earshot.
Does the farm treat him well?
“Yes,” he said. “It’s good.”
Medrano has two kids in school in Guatemala. His goal is to help them get ahead, and his H-2A visa gives him until November to earn enough money to make it happen.