April 13, 2016

Blighted Housing: Visa program requires housing inspections for non-U.S. farmworkers

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A resident walks down a hallway inside the Nightingale migrant labor camp in Rantoul, Ill., in July 2014. Companies in Illinois received approval for only five H-2A workers from October to December 2015.

Photo by Darrell Hoemann/Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting

A resident walks down a hallway inside the Nightingale migrant labor camp in Rantoul, Ill., in July 2014. Companies in Illinois received approval for only five H-2A workers from October to December 2015.

Hundreds of migrant workers come to the United States from Mexico and other countries with special H-2A farm visas, but they make up only a fraction of the total number of migrant workers.

SEE RELATED: “BLIGHTED HOUSING: INSPECTIONS FAIL TO STEM POOR CONDITIONS FOR MIGRANT FARMWORKERS”

From October to December of 2015, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services agency approved company petitions for H-2A status for more than 24,700 workers.

Companies in Illinois received approval for only five workers during that time.

Employers are required to offer free housing for migrant laborers under an H-2A work visa for foreign workers.

In Missouri, housing is required to be inspected if it’s for H-2A workers but voluntary for employers that hire non-H-2A migrant workers.

SEE RELATED: “BLIGHTED HOUSING: A LOOK INSIDE EIGHT MIGRANT FARMWORKER CAMPS”

The H-2A program federally requires that workers live in free housing inspected by state and local authorities. That housing can include licensed labor “camps,” another common term for migrant housing, but does not have to.

At least six out of 10 farmworkers are undocumented, meaning they are in the country illegally, according to a study by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

“What we have is a group of disenfranchised people in this country, many of whom are third and fourth generation agricultural workers who live in some of the most impoverished counties in the United States where there isn’t enough employment to sustain them on a 12-month, year-round basis,” said Bobbi Ryder, head of the National Center for Farmworker Health, a Texas nonprofit organization. “It is a relatively invisible population.”

SEE RELATED: “BLIGHTED HOUSING: MUCH OF MISSOURI MIGRANT FARMWORKER HOUSING LEFT OUT OF INSPECTION PROGRAM”

The agencies that inspect housing for H-2A workers are not always the agencies that inspect housing for non-H-2A workers.

For example, the Illinois Department of Employment Security handles H-2A housing inspections, according to Melaney Arnold, state Department of Public Health spokeswoman. The health department’s inspectors cover housing for non-H-2A migrant farmworkers.


Reporting by Robert Holly, Acton H. Gorton, Claire Everett and Francisco Vara-Orta/for The Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting


The Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting is an independent, nonprofit newsroom devoted to coverage of agribusiness and related topics. Visit us at InvestigateMidwest.org.