Visa Holders Displace Black Mississippi Ag Workers

Mississippi cotton field

For decades, agriculture employers have claimed that an inability to find willing American workers forces them to hire foreign-born labor. Sometimes the foreign-born workers are legally authorized and hold State Department H-2A, temporary, nonimmigrant visas. Other times, they’re illegally employed in the cash-only, under-the-table market.

The “jobs Americans won’t do” meme is convenient for employers who prefer to hire temporary visa holders who they know will work for lower wages than Americans. But too often, foreign labor displaces proven, long-standing American workers; they become cheap labor-addicted employers’ victims. Employers realize that the H-2A is a visa they can easily exploit, and for years, the unscrupulous among them have taken full advantage. Farm labor shortages nationwide, in part COVID-19 related, created an H-2A visa spike from 55,384 in FY 2011 to 213,394 in FY 2020.

In the Mississippi Delta heartland, where the unemployment rate hovers around 10 percent, H-2A ag visa workers from South Africa, mostly white, have slowly replaced American blacks who, for generations, have toiled faithfully in the fields. In a federal lawsuit filed by Richard Strong and five other ag workers against Pitts Farm Partnership (PFP), the plaintiffs allege that not only did they lose their jobs to South Africans, but the overseas workers earned higher wages than they had previously been paid. Paying the visa holders more than the displaced Americans is a variation from the norm, but more about that later.

The Mississippi Justice Center (MJC), whose mission it is to dismantle the policies that have kept Mississippians at the bottom of nearly every social and fiscal indicator of human advancement, charges that many corporate farms in the Delta cheat the local black workforce by illegally exploiting the H-2A visa program and that owners defrauded the government, violating U.S. immigration and civil rights laws.

Indeed, PFP directly violated one of the H-2A’s most fundamental requirements. Employers must, according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services website, “Demonstrate that there are not enough U.S. workers who are able, willing, qualified, and available to do the temporary work.” Demonstrating a shortage of available U.S. workers is impossible since dozens of farm workers were on the job when the South Africans arrived. Indisputably, that’s an obvious crime committed by the ag employers.

The other egregious employer crime that MJC should investigate is whether the visa holders are labor exploitation victims. A veteran black farm worker, grown older, cannot work as long or as quickly as younger South Africans. An employer can hire two overseas employees at $11.00/hour, work them extended hours, and thereby get more production from international hires than he likely could from three older $7.25 U.S. workers. How many hours and under what conditions the H-2As work are rarely investigated by the U.S. Department of Labor. Laborers are uncomfortable reporting abuses to the DOL since their employers can allege the overseas worker is not fulfilling the conditions of his visa, and deportation proceedings can begin. Over time, the link between a controlling employer and subservient employee becomes modern-day indentured servitude.

To American workers’ detriment, numerous industries staff H-2As as part of their business plans for landscaping, forestry, amusement parks, recreation, housekeeping, construction, au pairs and camp counselors. As long as Congress makes overseas workers readily available and keeps few tabs on their employers, U.S. workers will be shunned. Congress should mandate that ag employers mechanize, like so many other Western countries have done. Technological advancements in farming have helped decrease the amount of labor-intensive work and have increased yields by up to 100 percent. Machines, after all, can work 24/7, seven days a week, and 365 days a year.