Recently, two dozen indictments were announced by the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Georgia. The indictments came as a result of a long investigation into human trafficking that defrauded the H-2A visa program, which was called “Operation Blooming Onion.” This criminal operation covered the Southeastern United States and defrauded the H-2A visa program, earning more than $200 million for the defendants. The announcement emphasizes the Biden Administration’s efforts to reduce the abuse of people in immigrant communities by targeting abusive employers.
The “Operation Blooming Onion” investigation involved several agencies and revealed a criminal operation that was involved in many illegal activities, such as money laundering, mail fraud, forced labor, as well as illegally using the H-2A visa program so as to smuggle foreign nationals into the United States from Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico with the stated intention of becoming an agricultural worker.
The conditions these workers were subjected to were horrible. They were held at gunpoint and forced to harvest onions from the ground using only their hands and were paid only $.20 a bucket. These workers were housed in camps where they had a lack of food, only limited plumbing, and unsanitary water. The workers were tempted by the idea of obtaining the American dream but treated similar to slaves by an organization earning large profits off of them.
The workers were typically obtained through the H-2A visa program. This program allows employers to bring in foreign national workers to fill agricultural jobs. The employers need to petition the U.S. government to obtain authorization for a non-citizen to fill an agricultural job. However, even though there are strict regulations for the federal program, which include providing minimum wages, the program has had problems with abuse.
The defendants, in this case, petitioned to obtain more than 71,000 foreign national workers over a period of only a few years through the H-2A visa program, but paid the workers almost no money for their work and yet charged them large fees and kept essential identification and travel documents from them to coerce them into continuing to work for them.
The Department of Homeland Security has stopped workplace raids as a way of enforcing immigration laws and has instead stated that they will focus on unethical workers who take advantage of workers. “Operation Blooming Onion” illustrates how the DHS has chosen to focus its efforts on employers performing illegal and abusive actions such as this one.