Billionaires who have been buying up farmland across the country are using a controversial immigration program linked to labor abuses and human trafficking to find low-wage workers for their agricultural investments. 

The visa program, which is allowing a growing number of employers to pay rock-bottom wages, has been at the heart of recent modern slavery cases — and one in three workers in the program say the arrangement has limited their ability to leave their jobs.

While the industry claims the immigration program is necessary to help family farms find seasonal workers, companies affiliated with billionaires like Bill Gates, Rupert Murdoch, Stan Kroenke, Phillip Anschutz, and John Malone have used the H-2A visa program to staff their expanding agricultural holdings throughout the United States, according to records reviewed by The Lever

Records also reveal that one of the world’s largest financial firms, Toronto-based Manulife, owns farm properties in Washington state that hosted H-2A workers. Manulife is among several major financial firms that have gained control of hundreds of thousands of acres of U.S. farmland since the 1980s.

The billionaires’ farms and Manulife properties have only sponsored a few dozen workers at most each year via the H-2A program. But their use of the program demonstrates how some of the wealthiest people in the world are using an employer-sponsored visa system that exploits some of the poorest while putting downward pressure on wages — all in the name of helping struggling family farmers.

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The relatively small number of workers involved also understates the size of the billionaires’ and financial firms’ sprawling land portfolios, which rival the area of smaller U.S. states in terms of acreage.

Furthermore, some of these billionaire tycoons are connected to efforts to expand the exploitative visa program.

Anschutz and Malone, both of whom are based in Colorado and own significant media assets, support right-wing think tanks, including the American Enterprise Institute and the Cato Institute, which have published reports urging the U.S. Department of Labor to relax H-2A program rules for growers. The Cato Institute, where Malone serves as a director emeritus, supports controversial H-2A reform legislation that would expand the scope of the program while freezing wages and implementing immigration checks on farm workers.

While there has been reporting on former President Donald Trump’s use of H-2A labor at his vineyard in Charlottesville, Virginia, none of these other billionaires or Manulife have ever been publicly associated with the controversial immigration program. In most cases, profit made from H-2A labor flows upward through opaque corporate networks and investment vehicles. 

Manulife, Cato, the American Enterprise Institute, and entities controlled by each of the billionaires did not respond to The Lever’s requests for comment. 

“Any talk of using H-2A labor is a bad thing,” said Edgar Franks, political director for the Washington-based farmworker union Familias Unidas por la Justicia. “It gives way too much power to the employer… We’ve been involved in a lot of strikes where H-2A workers have been involved. We’re really familiar with the ins-and-outs of the program and how exploitative it is.”

“They’re Completely Reliant On Their Employer”

The H-2A visa program, established in 1986, allows U.S. farm owners to sponsor temporary visas for foreign workers to do seasonal work. The initiative effectively succeeded the Bracero Program, a Mexican guest worker program, which lasted from 1942-1964, and is often cited by historians as an example of the U.S. government encouraging systemic racial discrimination and poor working conditions.

Under the H-2A program, growers must demonstrate to the Labor Department that they “anticipate a shortage of domestic workers” after unsuccessfully attempting to hire through state governments’ workforce agencies. The growers then get certified by immigration authorities to sponsor H-2A visas. Guest workers, often recruited by contractors, apply for matching visas at U.S. embassies and border crossings. 

About 90 percent of all H-2A workers come from Mexico. Many live in rural poverty, and many are indigenous: In a 2019 survey conducted by the migrant worker advocacy group Centro de los Derechos del Migrante, 19 percent of  Mexican H-2A workers reported speaking a first language other than Spanish.

Growers’ participation in the program increased exponentially in the past two decades, as the political climate in the wake of 9/11 led to crackdowns on employers’ use of undocumented immigrants, many of whom work in U.S. agriculture. The number of H-2A jobs certified by the Labor Department increased sixfold between 2005 and 2021, from about 50,000 to 317,000. Eighty percent of those certifications typically lead to job applicants getting visas. As of 2020, about one in ten U.S. farm workers are part of the H-2A program.

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While advocates say the program is crucial for small farmers facing staffing troubles, critics say it has enabled a powerful industry to suppress wages. Workers participating in the H-2A visa program are paid 55 percent of the average wage received by other nonsupervisory workers in the United States, according to an analysis published by the Economic Policy Institute. 

One major challenge for H-2A workers is that their residency status is tied to a single employer. Bosses thus wield staggering power, worker advocates say, creating a culture of fear and silence. 

H-2A workers “often live in squalid conditions, in rural areas without access to services,” said Jim Knoepp, senior attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Immigrant Justice Project, which represents migrant workers in labor law litigation. “They’re completely reliant on their employer for everything: getting to the store, cashing their paychecks, daily living expenses. It’s not a great system for most of them.”

The H-2A program has been associated with workers’ rights violations, including numerous cases of wage theft. Many H-2A workers face threats of deportation or recruitment blacklists for lodging complaints about their housing conditions or for engaging in workplace activism.

H-2A workers are also often forced to assume substantial debt to get to the jobsite, even though  U.S. law bans recruitment fees. The 2019 Centro de los Derechos del Migrante survey found that 62 percent of all H-2A workers took out loans to partake in the program, while 73 percent weren’t fully reimbursed for their travel costs.

Employers have even been known to take custody of their workers’ passports for the duration of the job.

“H-2A workers are more vulnerable than undocumented workers in a lot of ways,” said United Farm Workers communications director Antonio De Loera-Brust. He explained that undocumented workers have more freedom to switch employers, and aren’t totally reliant on their bosses for housing and food. 

The 2019 Centro de los Derechos del Migrante survey found that 32 percent of H-2A workers “did not feel free to quit,” while 34 percent “experienced restrictions on their mobility.” 

What’s more, according to research on North Carolina-based farm labor funded by the U.S. Department of Justice, as many as 18 percent of H-2A workers face human trafficking-like conditions, defined as the “restriction of physical or communicative freedom,” or experiencing “intimidation, threats, and fear” on the job. The report described the estimate as “conservative,” noting that the definition of human trafficking didn’t include workers hired under false pretenses.

“They aren’t bringing in H-2A workers because there’s a lack of workers here,” said Rosalinda Guillen, lead organizer of the farmworker association Community to Community Development. “They want to treat people in such an undignified manner. The abuse in the agricultural industry is horrific.” 

The H-2A visa program has also played a key role in several recently exposed human trafficking rings. From 2015 to 2017, a Florida-based farm labor contractor called Los Villatoros Harvesting established a brutal forced-labor system using H-2A workers to staff farms supplying watermelons to supermarkets including Walmart and Kroger, according to the Labor Department and federal prosecutors.

And in November 2021, federal prosecutors in Georgia unsealed an indictment bringing charges against two dozen alleged co-conspirators for “using the H-2A work visa program” to trap “Mexican and Central American workers into brutal conditions on South Georgia farms,” in a scheme that allegedly netted its co-conspirators $200 million.

“The workers were held in cramped, unsanitary quarters and fenced work camps with little or no food, limited plumbing and without safe water,” noted the Justice Department. “The conspirators are accused of raping, kidnapping, and threatening or attempting to kill some of the workers or their families, and in many cases sold or traded the workers to other conspirators.” 

According to the Justice Department, at least two people died “as a result of workplace conditions.” 

“In its current form, the H-2A program exposes farm workers to serious and systemic exploitation that enables farm labor contractors to ensnare workers in debt bondage and forced labor through illegal recruitment fees and fraudulent promises about wages and working conditions,” a representative for the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a Florida-based farmworker advocacy group, explained in an email.

In most states, farm workers have few protections, if any, when bosses retaliate against them for pushing for better working conditions. 

The agriculture industry was exempted from key federal labor laws passed in the 1930s, including the National Labor Relations Act, leading to low unionization rates. In 2023, just 4 percent of farm workers were unionized, compared to 6 percent of workers in all private industries. 

Laws protect farm workers’ organizing activities in only three states: California, Hawaii, and New York. Protections in New York passed in 2019 have already led to an uptick in organizing by  United Farm Workers, including one prospective bargaining unit that contains H-2A workers. In Washington state, there has also been a recent push by farm workers, angered by working conditions during the pandemic, to win collective bargaining agreements. 

Today, there are high rates of H-2A workers in Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, Louisiana, and Texas, all so-called “right to work” states, which means they feature some of the most anti-labor regulatory regimes in the country aimed at undermining workplace organizing. 

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Purely Business

Industry lobbyists defend the H-2A program as an affordability issue, claiming family farms need the tool to address labor supply shortages. In April, Zippy Duvall, owner of a farm that raises 1.5 million chickens annually and president of the country’s most prominent agriculture trade association, the American Farm Bureau Federation, excoriated the Biden administration for proposing increased pay for some H-2A workers. 

“These new wage increases only make it harder for farmers to remain competitive,” said Duvall, who was paid more than $600,000 for his farm-bureau work in 2021. “On my family farm, some of my employees have been with me for decades and they are like family.” 

But his claims are undermined by records revealing that some of the richest people in the world are harvesting the proverbial fruit of H-2A labor. 

“It’s very enraging to hear that the tracts of land where these folks are employed are owned by these billionaires, because the narrative around H-2A is that it’s justified because it supports struggling farms,” said Fabiola Ortiz Valdez, lead organizer with the Food Chain Workers Alliance, a federation of labor unions and other worker-led food industry organizations.

In recent years, billionaires’ growing farmland portfolios have stoked broad concerns about widening inequality. And agricultural properties are becoming increasingly attractive to powerful investors, with climate change set to upend agricultural markets over the coming decades, threatening the worldwide supply of arable land. Farmland investments outperformed the S&P 500 as a long-term investment in the 25 years leading up to 2021, according to one financial industry analysis.

Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates’ land ownership, in particular, has drawn attention because of his staggering wealth and influence (he is currently worth $111.4 billion, according to Forbes). Critics say that Gates’ farmland investment strategy bleakens the prospects of an entire generation of younger farmers, while simultaneously undermining his own stated philanthropic aims on climate change. 

That strategy has apparently involved using H-2A visas to staff Gates’ farm property in Louisiana, using two holding companies: Oak River Farms and Angelina Ag. 

Oak River Farms applied to sponsor H-2A visas for seven workers this year on Gates’ Louisiana land, and has been certified to sponsor H-2A visas every year dating back to 2020, according to Labor Department records, when it received approval to hire 29 migrant guest workers at $11.83 per hour. 

Angelina Ag, meanwhile, received permission in 2018 to sponsor visas for 22 guest workers at an hourly wage of $10.73. In 2019, the company was certified to sponsor H-2A visas for 25 guest workers making $11.33 per hour.

Gates has defended his farm purchases, saying that they improve farm output, that he owns “less than 1/4000th of the farmland in the U.S.,”  and that “these decisions are made by a professional investment team.” 

Fox Corporation chair Rupert Murdoch, who has a net worth of $8 billion, used the H-2A program at Beaverhead Creek Ranch, a 360,000-acre land tract cutting across scenic mountain tops and expansive valleys that makes up one percent of Montana. He purchased the land in December 2021 from another company with deep ties to the Republican Party, Koch Industries. 

When it last owned Beaverhead Creek, in 2021, the Koch family was certified to employ one H-2A guest worker at $13.62 per hour. It made similar requests every year dating back to 2018, when Beaverhead sought to hire a guest worker for $11.75 per hour. 

Managers at Matador Ranch and Cattle, the parent company managing Beaverhead under Murdoch’s ownership, applied to hire four H-2A workers for $15.68 per hour this year and $14.68 per hour last year, according to Labor Department filings. 

Real estate investor and prolific sports team owner Stan Kroenke, who married an heir to the Walmart fortune and is worth an estimated $12.9 billion, has similarly relied on H-2A workers at W.T. Waggoner Ranch — a 535,000-acre Texas property he bought in 2016, evicting 200 longtime tenants who lived in cabins on the land. 

In 2018, W.T. Waggoner was approved to hire two guest workers for $11.87 per hour minus deductions. Subsequent annual certifications increased the number of seasonal guest workers that W.T. Waggoner could hire. By 2023, Kroenke’s ranch had approval to hire 27 H-2A workers for $14.87 per hour minus deductions, an amount that pales in comparison to the $131 million that Kroenke paid this summer for the rights to a single defensive midfielder, Declan Rice, to play on his prominent English Premier League club, Arsenal FC. 

Kroenke additionally owns the 2023 NBA champion Denver Nuggets, the 2022 NHL Stanley Cup champion Colorado Avalanche, and the 2022 NFL champion Los Angeles Rams. 

Philip Anschutz, a billionaire and prominent Republican donor who inherited an oil and gas company from his father, owns Overland Trail Cattle Company in Wyoming, which received permission to sponsor four guest workers this year at $15.68 per hour minus deductions. The company has filed similar requests for certification every year going back to 2018, when it sought to hire workers for $11.66 per hour.

Anschutz’s family foundation has donated more than $1.4 million to the American Enterprise Institute, which has criticized the H-2A program’s regulatory burden, arguing that “many growers cannot readily comply with its myriad requirements.”.

Billionaire John Malone, who amassed a net worth of $9.2 billion in mass media ventures, which include control of SiriusXM and significant influence at CNN, is the country’s largest private landowner with some 2.2 million acres in his portfolio, an area almost as large as Delaware and Rhode Island combined. 

“People say to me, ‘Why don’t you own a bunch of gold because of how you feel about the government?’” Malone said in a 2012 interview with Forbes, referencing his libertarian ideology. “But I have a really hard time owning assets that aren’t productive.” 

This year, two of Malone’s ranch properties received permission to host six foreign guest workers at an hourly wage of $15.68 in Wyoming and $17.33 in Nebraska, minus deductions. Malone’s Nebraska’s operation was also certified to sponsor three H-2A workers in 2022, and his Wyoming ranch has been certified to sponsor H-2A visas annually going back to 2019. 

In response to such findings, Knoepp at the Southern Poverty Law Center likened the H-2A program to a wage-fixing scheme that the rich can use to avoid relying on market forces to tackle their staffing challenges.

“Rather than competing for labor, you go to the government and ask for an artificial supply,” said Knoepp. 

“Why do they support a program that restricts workers’ freedom to move around and work?” he asked rhetorically, noting that some of the billionaires flagged by The Lever “are big time libertarians.”

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“Just The Tip Of The Iceberg”

The finance industry also profits from the system. Though the extent of the industry’s benefit is hidden behind murky networks of contractors and subsidiaries, ventures tied to at least one of the largest financial firms in the world, Toronto-based Manulife, received permission to sponsor up to 96 guest worker visas through the program this year and last for land it owns in Washington state.

Manulife manages more than 302,000 acres of farmland in the U.S. across 18 states, and is among several financial firms, including Prudential Financial, UBS, and TIAA, to have expanded its agricultural portfolio over the past few decades. 

In 2020, the finance industry as a whole managed about $26 billion of farmland in 2020, after only gaining a toehold in agriculture in the 1980s. 

Some experts say lawmakers are enabling the rich and powerful to abuse the H-2A visa program by failing to adequately fund regulators who enforce wage-theft laws. Daniel Costa, director of immigration law and policy research at the Economic Policy Institute crunched the numbers and found that the probability of a farm being investigated by the federal labor regulators is just 0.7 percent, despite 70 percent of such probes leading to enforcement actions.

“From the data, it’s clear a lot of people are getting their wages robbed every single year and that’s just the tip of the iceberg,” said Costa. “[Regulator] staffing levels are at near-record lows. They have to prioritize what cases they take… If you’re a farmworker who gets a few hundred bucks stolen, who are you gonna complain to?” 

The growing chasm between billionaire farm owners and workers has also complicated farm labor organizers’ efforts to win concessions from growers, such as workers compensation payouts. 

“It’s hard to confront faceless transnational capital. Who are you even mad at?” said United Farm Workers’ De Loera-Brust. “In Cesar Chavez’s days, the grower would be ideologically dead-set against recognizing the union, but at least you could confront him on the picket line.”