Ryan Murphy is a Gary Marx Journalism Fund intern. 

This story is supported by the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting.

Joseph Cantu ran Big River Honey with his mother until 2022, when the federal government banned the Florida apiary from hiring guest visa workers for three years because of alleged wage violations. Nine months after the ban started, the government allowed Cantu’s mother to hire the labor force the apiary needed — at the same address.

Cantu was surprised his mother could hire guest workers at the same location. “Well,” he remembered her saying, “they’re not gonna be working for you.” Cantu’s mother declined to comment.

The employees were on H-2A visas, which allow foreign nationals to work in the U.S. for short time periods. Many H-2A workers face mistreatment from some employers, and the federal government can temporarily ban, or debar, employers from hiring H-2A workers. But the bans rarely occur and are easy to evade, according to government reports, experts and Investigate Midwest’s analysis of H-2A data. 

A crew of farm workers picks cantaloupe on Thursday, July 4, 2019 north of Kennett, Missouri. photo: Julia Hansen, for Investigate Midwest

It is unclear how the U.S. Department of Labor determines which employers receive a temporary ban rather than a fine. As of August, 33 businesses are banned in the U.S. In six instances, employers with the same address, owner or phone number as the actively banned companies were approved for H-2A workers. The federal government approved one business for workers despite its name and location written verbatim on the banned list.

“The debarment mechanism really is a joke,” said Gregory Schell, a longtime farmworker advocate and attorney with Southern Migrant Legal Services. “It’s not much of an enforcement system.”

The H-2A visa is the country’s largest temporary work visa program, bringing in just under 300,000 people in 2022.

Employers who bring in H-2A workers have to follow specific rules. Workers must be provided with safe housing, adequate meals and transportation to their worksites.

Despite these legal protections, many workers report problems. According to a 2020 survey by Centro de los Derechos del Migrante, a migrant worker advocacy organization based in Mexico, 100% of respondents said they had experienced at least one major legal violation, including sexual harassment, threats of deportation or seizure of identity documents during their employment.

Housing is also a concern for H-2A workers. In some cases, farmworkers have been forced to live with shattered windows, leaky doorways and broken fridges. Some are crammed into trailers. Bed bugs are a common concern. One person responded to CDM’s survey by saying they lived in an “iron chicken coop” with bunk beds.

Trent Taylor, a staff attorney at Farmworker Justice, said it’s often more cost effective for employers to not fulfill legal requirements.

“The financial gain of non-compliance is much more than the penalty, or the risk of the penalty, that would be imposed if (the violations) were investigated,” he said.

Less than 1% of all U.S. farms are audited for labor law compliance each fiscal year, according to a 2023 Economic Policy Institute report co-authored by Daniel Costa, the director of immigration law and policy research. Even though this figure accounts for all U.S. farms — not just those who hire H-2A workers — more than half of investigations uncover H-2A violations. 

“(The wage and hour division of the Department of Labor) is underfunded and understaffed,” Costa said. “Employers can pretty much do whatever they want, and there’s a very low likelihood they’ll ever be investigated.”

There are relatively few workplace investigators, and they focus on all industries. As of 2022, the latest figures available, there were about 800 labor department staffers who investigated allegations of wage theft and workplace crimes. That amounts to about one investigator per every 200,000 U.S. workers. 

The U.S. Department of Labor did not respond to multiple requests for comment, including written questions, over a month.

2015 watchdog report: Debarred employers may ‘reinvent’ themselves

The federal government has known for years that its system to ban H-2A employers has loopholes. In 2015, the Government Accountability Office found enforcing the bans can be difficult.

“Debarred employers may ‘reinvent’ themselves by starting new companies and submitting applications with slightly different information in order to continue hiring workers,” the report states.

The GAO found the labor department was not reviewing all identifying information, such as phone numbers or street addresses, when considering employers’ applications for H-2A farmworkers.

After the labor department certifies a business’s application, the employer applies for their workers’ visas through the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. According to the 2015 report, the labor department was not sharing complete information about banned employers with homeland security.

The labor department has since implemented some of the GAO’s recommendations. For example, the labor and homeland security departments agreed to data-sharing protocols in 2017 and 2020 to prevent banned employers from slipping through the cracks.

However, one banned employer stole about $3,600 from workers, investigators found. Investigators found another employer had not paid workers the equivalent of about $340,000. That employer has not been banned.

Feds banned one H-2A employer permanently, but not its owners

Only one employer has ever been permanently banned from the H-2A program.

North Carolina businessman Craig “Stan” Eury owned International Labor Management Corporation, which connected U.S. employers with foreign jobseekers. The company assisted with the visa application process and arranged transportation to the U.S.

ILMC’s clients included agricultural and non-agricultural businesses, whose workers needed H-2A and H-2B visas, respectively. An unlimited number of H-2A agricultural visas are available each year, but there is an annual limit of 66,000 H-2B non-agricultural visas.

ILMC circumvented the annual H-2B cap by applying for H-2A employees and sending them to H-2B sites, according to court records.

In 2014, ILMC pleaded guilty for its misuse of the visa system in exchange for fines, forfeiture and permanent debarment from both H-2A and H-2B programs.

The labor department certified 11 of ILMC’s H-2A applications for more than a week after the company’s plea.

A farmworker walks past boxes of donated supplies from the Migrant Farmworkers Assistance Fund at an apple orchard just outside of Waverly, Missouri. The organization gives out donated school supplies, food, eyedrops, insulated bags for cold water, baseball caps and thin long sleeve shirts for the heat. Credit: Zach Perez/KCUR 89.3

In June 2015, Eury was sentenced to 13 months in federal prison after he pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to obstruct government functions and one count of conspiracy to defraud the U.S. government.

Sarah Farrell, who was in charge of the company’s daily operations, was given two months’ probation after pleading guilty to two misdemeanor charges of referring unauthorized aliens for employment. 

Eury also co-owned another company, ASAP, with Kenneth White and Harry “Lee” Wicker Jr. ASAP collected fees from employer clients to reimburse a Mexico-based visa processing company. Its fees included an undisclosed markup that Eury, White and Wicker profited from.

White and Wicker were sentenced to five and two months, respectively. ASAP was not named in court documents.

Neither Eury, White, Wicker nor Farrell were prohibited from working in the immigration industry in the future.

Wicker was released from prison on Feb. 16, 2016. On Feb. 17, he returned to his job at the North Carolina Growers’ Association.

“I made a mistake,” Wicker, now the association’s executive director, told Investigate Midwest. “I’m glad that the government hasn’t held it against NCGA.”

ILMC was dissolved in 2015.

Eury did not return requests for comment through his attorney. White’s attorney said she no longer had his contact information. Neither Farrell nor her attorney responded to requests for comment.

Previously banned individuals part of human trafficking investigation

In 2021, 24 people were indicted in connection with Operation Blooming Onion, a massive federal human trafficking investigation. Between 2014 and 2021, conspirators facilitated more than 71,000 H-2A visas and made at least $200 million by withholding workers’ wages, renting workers out to farmers, and charging illegal recruitment fees, the indictment alleges.

Five people named in the indictment were already banned from the H-2A program during some of the same years that they are alleged to have participated in human trafficking. Two had been banned for administrative reasons; two had been banned for unspecified labor law violations. Labor department documents do not provide a reason for one person’s ban.

The operation’s alleged ringleader, Maria Leticia Patricio, previously had been banned for one year between 2013 and 2014. Labor department documents do not provide information about the reason for the ban.

A crew of migrant farm workers picks cantaloupe on Thursday, July 4, 2019, north of Kennett, Missouri. (Julia Hansen/Investigate Midwest)

Patricio, an H-2A agent, filed fraudulent petitions with the labor department. According to the indictment, the first petition was filed on Nov. 3, 2014, which was six weeks after her debarment ended.

The indictment alleges that members of the trafficking ring held workers at gunpoint as they harvested onions with their bare hands for little or no pay. Victims were housed in “crowded, unsanitary, and degrading living conditions” without drinking water or plumbing. One work camp was surrounded by an electric fence.

Some workers were warned that their families would be harmed, according to court records. Several workers were kidnapped and one was repeatedly raped. Two workers died in the heat.

Charging documents allege that one of the employers who was on the debarment list aided and abetted the sale of 30 human beings for $21,481.

As of August, none of the two dozen people charged in Operation Blooming Onion have been debarred from the H-2A program. 

Debarred businesses

Thirty-three businesses are currently banned by the U.S. Department of Labor from participating in the H-2A worker visa program. Six of those companies share addresses, phone numbers or owners with businesses that were approved for H-2A workers during those bans.

The labor department’s publicly available debarment list does not provide detailed information about the reasons for these bans, though the list does note whether bans arose from administrative issues or wage and hour division investigations.

The labor department sometimes publishes a press release following its decision to ban a business, but does not issue one after each ban.

Investigate Midwest filed multiple records requests with the DOL seeking detailed information about the investigations that led to each of the following bans. Those requests remain pending as of August 2023.

Becerra Enterprises, Inc.
Arcadia, FL
Debarred 10/20/22 – 10/20/25

Becerra Enterprises, Inc. was approved to bring in workers on Dec. 19, 2022, even though the business had been debarred under that same name two months prior.

In January, March and August 2023, three more job orders were issued to Luis Alfonso Becerra, Jr. 267 workers were approved for entry by these three orders.

Luis Alfonso Becerra is listed as the registered agent of Becerra Enterprises, Inc. through Sunbiz, Florida’s public LLC search. Becerra and Becerra Enterprises list the same mailing address in job orders. Worksite addresses and worker housing addresses also overlap in several cases.

The labor department lists Becerra’s ban as a wage and hour division investigation.

Becerra did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Big River Honey, LLC d/b/a Big River Honey
Wewahitchka, FL
Debarred 5/28/22 – 5/18/25

Joseph Cantu, the owner of Big River Honey, said his business was debarred over bookkeeping errors. The labor department’s wage and hour division database shows two separate enforcement cases against Big River Honey, both for violations that occurred in 2021.

One investigation found that the company treated H-2A and domestic workers differently, and failed to provide workers with required paperwork. The company was fined $7,265, according to a department of labor press release. In the second investigation, Big River Honey agreed to pay $12,777.15 in back wages to six workers.

In February 2023, the labor department certified a job order for Cantu Apiaries of Florida. Cantu Apiaries is located at the same address as Big River Honey.

Beekeeper Joseph Cantu was surprised to learn the federal government allowed his mother to hire workers using the same address. “Well, they’re not gonna be working for you,” he remembers his mother saying as he recounted the conversation to Investigate Midwest.

A filing with the Florida Division of Corporations indicates that its manager, Leslie Cantu, was a principal of Big River Honey until 2018. She is the mother of Joseph Cantu, who owns Big River Honey.

Joseph Cantu said that he has relocated to another part of Florida and that his business is no longer affiliated with his mother’s. He no longer employs H-2A workers.

Leslie Cantu declined to comment.

Clark G. Rodriguez
Tampa, FL
Debarred 12/4/21 – 12/4/24

Clark Rodriguez listed two phone numbers on a 2020 job order. One of the phone numbers did not appear on subsequent H-2A job orders, and the other was later used in four different job orders by J&S Leonardo Harvesting and Hauling, after Rodriguez had been banned from the H-2A program.

When Investigate Midwest called the phone number, Jorge Leonardo answered.

Leonardo said he has previously worked with Rodriguez, but said he does not know why they share a phone number on H-2A application documents. Leonardo said that his business is separate from Rodriguez’s.

While Leonardo had more work orders than Rodriguez, both contractors sent workers to the same Indiana farm.

The labor department’s debarment list shows that Rodriguez was banned by the wage and hour division. Records received and researched by Investigate Midwest did not offer further detail about the case.

Rodriguez did not respond to requests for comment via email.

Lawrence Secor d/b/a Secor Nursery
Perry, OH
Debarred 5/11/22 – 5/11/25

According to a labor department press release, Lawrence Secor was debarred over “allegations that they intimidated and threatened workers, and denied them their full wages.” Secor was assessed more than $76,000 in fines. He had previously been investigated three times by the wage and hour division.

A.F. Secor, which shares an address with Secor Nursery, was first approved for H-2A workers on March 9, 2022. A.F. Secor Nursery, which is run by Lawrence Secor’s nephew, was again approved for workers in February 2023.

Aaron Secor said his business is entirely separate from his uncle’s operation, but that its administrative office is located at the same address because the property is a family home.

Lawrence Secor did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Steve Boyum
Wanamingo, MN
Debarred 3/2/21 – 3/2/24

Steve Boyum, a Minnesota hog farmer, began a three-year debarment period on March 2, 2021. About 10 days before the debarment, Kari Boyum created Kat Farming, LLC, to run a farm on the same property. Kari Boyum is Steve Boyum’s daughter. She was approved to bring in workers in 2021 and 2022.

The labor department’s debarment list shows that Steve Boyum was banned by the wage and hour division, but does not provide further detail.  

Kat Farming, LLC, is now “inactive” with the state of Minnesota. Kari Boyum and her father could not be reached for comment.

Vision Landscaping & Associates Inc.
Arnoldsville, GA
Debarred 1/28/21 – 1/28/24

Days after Vision Landscaping was debarred, the department of labor received an application for workers from Andrew’s Nursery. Andrew’s Nursery has the same address and owner as Vision Landscaping. The job order was approved on Feb. 16, 2021.

The website for Vision Landscaping contains a link to Andrew’s Nursery’s website that reads “click to view our nursery.”

The owner of Vision Landscaping, Andrew Majsztrik, said he cannot remember why he was debarred from the H-2A program. The labor department’s debarment list says that Vision Landscaping was banned by the wage and hour division, but no further detail was listed. Majsztrik said he has not had recent contact with labor department investigators.

Johnathan Hettinger and Mónica Cordero contributed to this story.

Citations & References:

Interviews with Greg Schell, attorney for Southern Migrant Legal Services, July 20 and Aug. 4, 2023

Interview with Trent Taylor, attorney for Farmworker Justice, Aug. 9, 2023
Interview with Daniel Costa, Director of immigration law and policy research for Economic Policy Institute, Aug. 4, 2023
Interview with Harry “Lee” Wicker, former ILMC consultant and current NCGA executive director,  July 26, 2023
Interview with Jorge Leonardo, owner of J&S Harvesting & Hauling LLC, Aug. 8, 2023
Interview with Aaron Secor, owner of A.F. Secor Nursery, Aug. 2, 2023
Interview with Andrew Majzstrik, owner of Vision Landscaping and Andrew’s Nursery, July 25, 2023

Federal government records:
Program debarments, FY2020 - present, Office of Foreign Labor Certification
Wage and Hour Enforcement Database (WHISARD), Department of Labor
Cantu Apiaries of Florida H-2A agricultural clearance order, DOL, Feb. 7, 2023
Rock Hill Honey Bee Farms vs. Cantu Apiaries of Florida, LLC, Joseph Cantu, and Big River Honey, LLC, U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia Alexandria Division, Jan. 27, 2022
H-2A disclosure data, FY 2014-2023, Office of Foreign Labor Certification
Worldwide nonimmigrant visa workload by visa category FY 2022, U.S. Department of State

H-2A and H-2B Visa Programs: Increased Protections Needed for Foreign Workers, Government Accountability Office, March 2015 (rev. May 30, 2017)
Memorandum of Agreement between DHS, USCIS and DOL, Jan. 12, 2017
Memorandum of Agreement between DHS, USCIS and DOL, July 30, 2020 

Program debarments FY 2014-2020, Office of Foreign Labor Certification

Program debarments FY 2012-2014, Office of Foreign Labor Certification, obtained via Wayback Machine capture from July 2, 2014
Becerra Enterprises H-2A agricultural clearance order, DOL, Dec. 19, 2022
Luis Alfonso Becerra. Jr H-2A agricultural clearance order, DOL, Jan. 27, 2023
Luis Alfonso Becerra. Jr H-2A agricultural clearance order, DOL, March 15, 2023
Luis Alfonso Becerra. Jr H-2A agricultural clearance order, DOL, Aug. 3, 2023

US Department of Labor finds three Florida beekeeping farms violated H-2A requirements, DOL, Dec. 9, 2021
Clark G. Rodriguez H-2A agricultural clearance order, DOL, June 4, 2020
J&S Harvesting and Hauling H-2A agricultural clearance order, DOL, March 29, 2022
J&S Harvesting and Hauling H-2A agricultural clearance order, DOL, June 30, 2022
J&S Harvesting and Hauling H-2A agricultural clearance order, DOL, July 18, 2022
J&S Harvesting and Hauling H-2A agricultural clearance order, DOL, Sept. 15, 2022
Ohio nursery owner debarred from foreign labor visa program after US Department of Labor investigation finds repeated violations, DOL, Aug. 15, 2022
Secor Nursery job order, DOL, Jan. 25, 2021
A.F. Secor job order, DOL, March 9, 2022
A.F. Secor job order, DOL, February 2, 2023
Steve Boyum H-2A agricultural clearance order, DOL, Nov. 16, 2020
Kat Farming LLC H-2A agricultural clearance order, DOL, Oct. 21, 2021
Kat Farming LLC H-2A agricultural clearance order, DOL, Feb. 18, 2022
Andrew’s Farm and Nursery H-2A agricultural clearance order, DOL, Feb. 16, 2021
Vision Landscaping H-2A agricultural clearance order, DOL, Feb. 12, 2020
Vision Landscaping & Associates Inc.

Court records:
Indictment of Stan Eury, Sarah Elizabeth Farrell and ILMC, U.S. District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina, Jan. 31, 2014
ILMC plea agreement, U.S. District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina, July 28, 2014
Transcript of Stan Eury sentencing, U.S. District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina, Sept. 24, 2015
Transcript of Sarah Farrell sentencing, U.S. District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina, Oct. 29, 2014
Superseding indictment of Stan Eury, Lee Wicker and Kenneth White, U.S. District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina, Sept. 30, 2014
Transcript of Kenneth White sentencing, U.S. District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina, Sept. 30, 2015
Transcript of Lee Wicker sentencing, U.S. District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina, Oct. 29, 2015
ILMC Articles of Dissolution, North Carolina Department of the Secretary of State, December 30, 2015
U.S. v. Maria Leticia Patricio et al., U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Georgia Waycross Division, Oct. 5, 2021

State records:
Becerra Enterprises, Florida Division of Corporations
Big River Honey, Florida Division of Corporations
Cantu Apiaries, Florida Division of Corporations
Statement of change of registered agent for Big River Honey, Dec. 13, 2019
Kat Farming LLC, Office of the Minnesota Secretary of State
BOLO Show Pigs sells boar for $100,000 at World Pork Expo, Post Bulletin, June 20, 2013

Ripe for Reform: Abuses of Agricultural Workers in the H-2A Visa Program, Centro de los Derechos del Migrante, Inc., April 2020

Record-low number of federal wage and hour investigations of farms in 2022, Economic Policy Institute, Aug. 22, 2023


Type of work:

Investigative / Enterprise In-depth examination of a single subject requiring extensive research and resources.