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César Chávez Day a time to reflect on protecting immigrant workers’ rights

This Sunday, March 31, is César Chávez Day, a time for me and my colleagues to reflect on the work the Southern Poverty Law Center is doing to represent immigrants who have been exploited in the U.S. while laboring in the fields as agricultural workers.

The commemoration, which coincides with the labor activist’s birthday, was proclaimed by President Barack Obama in 2014. Chávez is known for leading the grape strike and boycott on behalf of workers who toiled for meager wages under appalling conditions in the fields of California in the 1960s.

Several decades later, exploitation of immigrant workers remains an issue. The SPLC has long recognized the importance of agricultural workers in the United States and has advocated for their rights in various ways, such as publishing the Close to Slavery report, which highlights the systematic exploitation of immigrant workers in the H-2 guestworker program. The report was originally published in 2007 – attracting national media attention to the issue – and updated in 2013.

What’s more, the SPLC has filed dozens of lawsuits against employers for their roles in exploiting agricultural workers. More recently, we have represented workers who are survivors of a transnational human smuggling and labor trafficking operation that lured Mexican and Central American workers into brutal conditions on South Georgia farms. It’s not just the difficult work; it’s the dilapidated and unsafe housing, threats from bosses, underpaid wages – if any at all – broken promises and not having your passport in your possession, among other issues.

In 2021, the SPLC filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Labor after workers came forward about abusive practices on farms in South Georgia. The SPLC represents several survivors in their applications for immigration relief, restitution and other benefits due to the labor-trafficking scheme.

The common denominator among our clients is that they entered the U.S. on visas referred to as H-2A visas. These visa recipients are temporary agricultural workers who come to the U.S. to work for a limited time for the employer sponsoring their visa. Their immigration status is tied to a single employer, leaving them unable to seek better employment conditions elsewhere in the United States. This power imbalance leaves these workers vulnerable to exploitation by employers.

The same year we filed our Department of Labor complaint, the Department of Justice revealed a massive investigation into this trafficking ring. The DOJ investigation, “Operation Blooming Onion” – a nod to the onion farms in Georgia – resulted in 24 indictments. It also documented “dozens of victims of modern-day slavery while spelling out the illegal acts that brought these exploited workers into the United States and imprisoned them under inhumane conditions as contract agricultural laborers,” according to a DOJ announcement at the time.

Clearly, the H-2A visa program is in dire need of reform, as we outlined in Close to Slavery almost 20 years ago. And we’ve diligently fought on behalf of immigrant workers in the H-2A program during that time, a campaign inspired by the values embodied by Chávez. It’s a fight we will continue to wage until this program is reformed and the rights of these immigrant workers are truly protected.

Matt Boles is a senior direct services attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Illustration at top by the SPLC.