Are Work Visas Facilitating Anti-Black Discrimination in the Mississippi Delta?

By David North on December 12, 2022

There’s a rural employer in the Mississippi Delta, one of the most poverty-stricken parts of the U.S. The employer (a catfish farm) had a choice between two workforces with the following characteristics:

Variables Group A Group B
Location Local, they can walk, bike or drive to work Has to be flown in from 8,400 miles away, at employer expense*
Pay Is paid less than Group B Is paid more than Group A
Catfish Knowledge Extensive, from childhood Unknown
Paperwork None Extensive
Federal Subsidy None Yes, about 8 percent of payroll

* Provided the workers complete at least half of the work period.

A casual viewer would conclude, quickly, that it would be more costly in terms of travel and wages and more tedious (the paperwork) to hire Group B. The travel in the Group B case includes a journey that is both from one side of the Atlantic to another, and it crosses the equator; most foreign agricultural workers in the U.S., are from this side of both the ocean and the equator, coming from relatively nearby places like Mexico and Jamaica.

There is a sixth variable, not shown in the table above: The five people who got the jobs in question are white; they are H-2As brought in from South Africa. Doing the hiring was Harris Russell Farms, a presumably white-owned firm located in Sunflower County.

So the questions arise:

  1. Can an H-2A employer use that program to hire white workers, even at considerable expense, instead of Black ones?
  2. Should the employer have that option?

The answer to the first question is a ringing yes, the South Africans are here at Harris Russell Farms. The answer to the second query — a policy question — should be no.

I fault the Labor Department — where I was once the assistant to the secretary for Farm Labor — for letting this happen in the first place. Some journeyman adjudicator, in the midst of dealing with lots of applications, did not notice the odd tilt of Harris Russell Farms, and stamped his approval along with the rest.

But that was then.

Now, given the news coverage that this issue has received, in Law360 columns among others, the department should shake itself, and turn down any future applications along these lines.

Will the department do so? Will the local congressman, Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), the near-regal chairman of both the January 6 Committee and the Homeland Security Committee, raise hell with the secretary of Labor? He should.

How the Story Broke. All of this came to public attention when five former workers at the catfish farm filed a federal lawsuit saying that they not only were not hired, because of the South African five, but that they had been paid $8.50 an hour, while the newly arrived aliens were paid $11.88 an hour in 2021.

According to the Law360 piece, the workers and the employer have agreed to a financial settlement whose terms are not public. The workers were represented by both the Mississippi Center for Justice and Southern Migrant Legal Services. The case is 4:22-cv-00066 in the PACER files.

Sunflower County. Sunflower County is exactly the kind of place where there is no need for foreign workers. It is in the Mississippi Delta, in the flat country east of that river. The 2020 census found that 73.8 percent of the population is Black. The percent of people in poverty was 34.8 percent, or more than three times the percentage in the nation.

Similarly the median value of an owner-occupied house was $93,000 in that year, a fraction of the median of the nation as whole, which was $230,000.

If you need workers there, they are clearly available.

Some of my older readers may recall that this was the home county of the late, unlamented segregationist Sen. James Eastland, (a nominal D) who was for many, many years both chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee and its immigration subcommittee (which rarely met).