The U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Georgia recently announced two dozen indictments in a years-long human trafficking investigation dubbed “Operation Blooming Onion.” The criminal enterprise, which spanned the Southeastern United States, defrauded the H-2A visa program, allegedly earning defendants over $200 million. This announcement underscores recent efforts by federal law enforcement under the Biden administration to target employers to quell the abuse of immigrant communities.
According to the newly unsealed 54-count indictment, the multi-agency investigation uncovered a criminal enterprise that profited from a slew of illegal activities including mail fraud, forced labor, money laundering, and fraudulent use of the H-2A visa program “to smuggle foreign nationals from Mexico, Guatemala, and Honduras into the United States under the pretext of being an agricultural worker.”
The conditions described in the indictment were deplorable. Foreign workers were regularly forced at gunpoint to dig up onions from the ground with their bare hands, for which they were paid a mere 20 cents per bucket. The workers were held in camps with little food, unsanitary water, and limited plumbing. The organization deliberately manipulated foreign workers with the promise of the American dream, only to subject them to slavery-like conditions to maximize profit. The indictment goes on to allege multiple instances of rape and death under these tragic conditions.
The primary mechanism by which the illegal enterprise allegedly operated was the H-2A visa program, which allows foreign nationals to enter the United States to perform agricultural work.
The H-2A visa program allows qualifying employer-sponsors to petition the U.S. government for the authorization of a noncitizen to perform agricultural labor. Despite strict federal regulations surrounding the program, including requirements of standardized minimum wages, the program has witnessed considerable abuses.
According to the indictment, the two dozen defendants petitioned for over 71,000 foreign workers under the H-2A program in the last several years, often paying them little-to-no money for their labor. Moreover, the defendants allegedly charged exorbitant fees and withheld important travel and identification documents from workers to force them to continue working under disgraceful conditions.
Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas recently issued a memo directing law enforcement agencies to cease worksite raids and emphasize the utilization of prosecutorial discretion when evaluating DHS support for ongoing workplace investigations by the Department of Labor (“DOL”). The new guidance intentionally departs from that of the Trump era, which supported the use of regular workplace raids as a mechanism for immigration enforcement.
The recently announced “Operation Blooming Onion” highlights these refocused efforts by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (“ICE”) to assist immigration victims and focus their resources on abusive and law-breaking employers. By reevaluating the historically fractured relationship between immigrant communities in the United States and ICE, the Biden administration is seeking to reach a point where workers will finally feel comfortable reporting violations and aiding investigations.