According to the indictment, seasonal agricultural workers at a South Carolina farm had their passports confiscated to keep them from fleeing. Stock photo by Getty Images
Two people in South Carolina allegedly conspired to traffic seasonal agricultural workers, confiscated their passports and immigration documents to keep them from fleeing, and failed to pay them their due wages for sometimes excessive working hours. One of the accused even allegedly brandished and fired a gun as a show of force.
Elizabeth Balcazar and Enrique Balcazar of Batesburg-Leesville and the company Balcazar Nature Harvesting were federally charged last month with conspiracy to commit labor trafficking and fraud in foreign labor contracting, as well as confiscation of workers’ passports and immigration documents, according to an announcement from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of South Carolina last week.
At least one individual, a migrant from Mexico described as “Victim 1” in the indictment, was also allegedly made to believe they’d be deported if they failed to work hard enough, according to the indictment.
According to the indictment, that worker was recruited last spring. The indictment did not elaborate on the current status of the workers.
“Our nation’s visa system is an asset that provides much-needed resources to our communities and valuable opportunities to those foreign workers seeking a new life here in the United States,” U.S. Attorney Corey Ellis said in a statement. “Although the indictment speaks for itself, those who exploit the system and abuse these vulnerable workers will find no refuge here in South Carolina.”
Court records show Enrique Balcazar, who was additionally charged with two counts of labor trafficking, has pleaded not guilty to the allegations against him. His attorney did not respond to VICE News’ request for comment.
According to a motion filed in federal court on Wednesday, however, Enrique Balcazar’s family has allegedly contacted witnesses since the indictment, “having conversations about who he believes are the victims with witness.”
“At least one of those victim/witnesses feels intimidated by these contacts,” the motion filed by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of South Carolina read.
A work order for Balcazar Nature Harvesting posted to the U.S. Department of Labor’s website shows the firm had previously hoped to hire 80 workers, with 40 of those being seasonal migrant guest workers to harvest fruits and vegetables from April 2021 through January of this year. The order, signed by Elizabeth Balcazar, offered $11.71 per hour.
A person who answered the phone at the farm from that work order, Clayton Rawl Farms, declined to comment, saying they didn’t know enough about the allegations. They refused to provide their name.
The U.S. attorney’s office didn’t immediately respond to VICE News’ inquiry about whether the farm was under investigation, or whether this was the only farm the Balcazars sought workers for.
While the farm hasn’t been accused of any wrongdoing, the indictment described the barracks-style housing provided to workers as being subject to forfeiture. County tax records show the owner of that property as Rawl Farm Lands LLC.
The federal indictment announced last week doesn’t specify whether the allegedly exploited workers in South Carolina were brought to the U.S. on H-2A visas, which allow farm operators who can’t find workers domestically to bring in foreign nationals temporarily. But the H-2A program has been accused of being ripe for abuse for the same reasons alleged in the Balcazar case: though employers aren’t supposed to seize passports, it’s not uncommon among exploited guest workers, in addition to underpayment and excessive hours.
Still, the program is popular enough to have expanded rapidly in the past few years. The Labor Department certified 317,619 H-2A visas in fiscal year 2021, for example—up 15 percent from the year prior, according to the National Farm Worker Ministry, which supports worker-led campaigns to improve farm laborers’ conditions.
In a particularly extreme migrant worker abuse case, the feds busted what was described as a “modern-day slavery” operation in Georgia, largely built on the backs of H-2A workers, last year.
In November, a federal indictment alleged some of those workers were forced to dig onions with their bare hands for mere pennies, held at gunpoint, made to live in cramped and dirty conditions with little food, and threatened with violence. At least two people died as a result of the conditions.
A federal investigation into the crime ring, called “Operation Blooming Onion,” freed more than 100 of the allegedly abused workers.