One January afternoon in 2012, two hundred men and women gathered at the Captain Morgan Bar in the sunny, Mexican coastal town of Topolobampo, Sinaloa. Their spirits were strong; recruiters had arrived to sign up workers for temporary H-2 visas to the United States. In a region where unemployment is high and the minimum wage is less than $5 a day, the recruiters brought hope. Applicants handed over deposits of several hundred dollars, representing years of savings or serious debt.

Weeks went by, and then months, as recruiters promised the Sinaloans that the visas were “almost ready.” But there were no jobs, and no H-2 visas. By April, it became clear: hundreds of applicants had been defrauded.

Atzin Gordillo, at left, an organizer with ProDESC, gives a presentation to the workers of the Sinaloa Coalition about their rights under the H-2 visa program.
Atzin Gordillo, at left, an organizer with ProDESC, gives a presentation to the workers of the Sinaloa Coalition about their rights under the H-2 visa program.

This summer, I had the opportunity to support the Sinaloan workers as a fellow with Proyecto de Derechos Económicos, Sociales y Culturales (ProDESC), a human rights organization based in Mexico City. Having lived in Mexico and studied social movements there, I was drawn to ProDESC’s model, which balances a broad international vision with a focus on meaningful participation and leadership from local, marginalized communities. I contributed this summer to the organization’s Transnational Justice for Migrant Workers project, which seeks to promote humane, legal migration by protecting migrant workers’ human rights.

My work focused specifically on the H-2 temporary worker visa program, one of the few avenues for Mexicans to work legally in the United States without advanced degrees or immediate family members with status. ProDESC has been tackling abuses related to the program since 2007. Due to fear of reporting and lack of oversight, it is impossible to know how many applicants were promised visas and never received them, but ProDESC believes the problem is widespread. Even when job offers are legitimate, workers often go into debt to pay illegal “recruitment fees,” and fear blacklisting or violent retaliation if they speak up about their rights.

For years, both the Mexican and American governments turned a blind eye to these abuses, leaving workers vulnerable to exploitation, human trafficking, and forced labor. But ProDESC and the Sinaloan workers have been collaborating to change the status quo. In 2013, with support from ProDESC’s community organizers and attorneys, the workers formed a coalition and brought a groundbreaking collective criminal complaint against the fraudulent recruiter operating in Sinaloa. That coalition, in turn, strengthened ProDESC’s domestic and international policy advocacy to prevent abuse in the H-2 visa program overall.

Together, their activism captured the attention of both the Mexican government, which recently issued new regulations targeting recruiters, and the U.S. Departments of Labor and State, which have committed to cooperate with their Mexican counterparts and with NGOs to educate migrant workers about their rights.

With attention turning now to implementation of Mexico’s new recruitment regulations, I worked under the guidance of ProDESC Director Alejandra Ancheita (Harvard Wasserstein Fellow 2012-13) this summer to draft a policy memorandum requested by Mexico’s Secretary for Labor and Social Welfare. The memo, now published in English and Spanish, was co-authored with undergraduate intern Mica Pacheco Ceballos (Harvard ’16) and with support from Fordham Law Professor Jennifer Gordon, JD ’92.

I also conducted research on creative legal strategies to hold American companies accountable for their recruiters’ human rights violations. ProDESC’s attorneys consistently challenged me to think outside the box and draw from diverse fields, from international human rights law to contracts and negotiation.

In my last week at ProDESC, the mood at the office was jubilant: the Mexican government had considered the Sinaloan case, and imposed a substantial fine on the fraudulent recruiting agency for violations of the Federal Labor Law and related regulations. Still, it will take significant additional work to ensure that the rights of other workers seeking H-2 visas are truly protected. Now that the Mexican and American governments have committed to taking this issue seriously, ProDESC and its allies are pushing for both governments to work together to hold U.S. companies accountable for abuses in recruitment.

Learn more about how to support that movement at ProDESC’s website or follow through work on Facebook.

Lily S. Axelrod, JD ‘15, is Co-President of the Harvard Immigration Project and Review Editor of the Harvard Latino Law Review. After graduation, she plans to practice immigration law.