An altar erected at the home of Humberto Feliciano Gomez in San Juan Mixtepec, Oaxaca, holds a portrait of the two cousins, Vicente Gomez Hernandez, left, and Humberto, right. (Photo by Esther Honig for Investigate Midwest)

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In 2021, two cousins traveled from a Mexican village to rural North Carolina through the H-2A visa program, which brings foreign workers to American fields. The two men perished when the trailer they were living in caught fire. 

Here’s what you need to know:

In the early morning hours after the fire on June 23, 2021, Sampson County, North Carolina, fire marshal officials took photos to document the extent of the damage to the trailer cousins Humberto Feliciano Gomez and Vicente Gomez Hernandez had lived and died in. In the middle of the image is the stove where the fire began. (Photo courtesy of Sampson County Fire Marshal’s office, North Carolina)

The cause of the fire is unclear. The local fire department determined the fire started in the kitchen. A state inspection of the trailer, conducted before workers arrived, offered no details on its condition, and it was unclear if the smoke alarms were tested. A third worker, who was living there at the time of the fire but survived, said he did not remember alarms sounding. The trailer’s owner could not confirm whether the fire alarms worked, according to the fire department’s report.

The condition of the trailer was barely livable, said a worker who stayed there the summer before it burned down. The electricity would often go out, and the floor was full of holes. It was also infested with mice and cockroaches, the worker said.

The two men were charged illegal recruitment fees to get their H-2A visas, according to family members and a lawyer. Labor contractors are not allowed to charge visa applicants money for hiring them to work in the U.S. However, the two men were charged about $2,000 by the contractor who brought them to North Carolina, family members said. The two men were loaned the money, which they likely could have paid back and then some if they’d worked the entire harvest season.

In North Carolina, eight compliance officers are responsible for conducting more than 2,000 pre-occupancy inspections each year. Each officer, on top of other responsibilities, is responsible for about 260 inspections a year. North Carolina is driving much of the growth in the H-2A program, and the state legislature funded two new compliance positions this year.

In 2022, less than 1% of farmworker housing in North Carolina was inspected while workers lived there. The federal government requires pre-occupancy inspections of the dwellings H-2A workers will live in, but inspections while workers are present are rare. Recently, there were 2,052 sites that farmworkers lived in. Just 16, or 0.7%, were randomly inspected while the housing was occupied, according to a state report.

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