YAKIMA, Wash. — From the road, the FairBridge Inn & Suites on North First Street looks like any other no-frills hotel. Not so long ago, it was routinely getting 1-star Yelp reviews. "Oi. Is all I can say," reads one.

But location is everything.

Strategically situated in a valley bursting with cherries, apples and hops, with the snow-capped Mount Rainier looming in the distance, the property is now bustling with activity and nearing full capacity.

That's because the FairBridge Inn is now a dormitory. Gone are the king and queen beds, replaced with several bunkbeds in each of its 206 rooms. The guests are no longer road trippers or conferencegoers, but farmworkers brought to the U.S. from other countries. They stay for weeks and sometimes months.

"We've seen more and more people each year," says Brett Valicoff, general manager of First Street Investments, which owns and operates the converted hotel to serve farmers in the area, including members of his own family.

"Customers of ours, they are bringing in more people and for longer durations of time," he says. Come August, when the apple harvest season begins, Valicoff expects all 1,044 beds to be taken.

What's happening at the FairBridge Inn is a symbol of the exponential growth in seasonal foreign workers on U.S. farms. The number of guest worker visas issued each year has more than quadrupled over the past decade. But the program is rife with labor rights violations, and farmers who have come to depend on it don't love it, either.

Farms are increasingly using guest workers to bring in the harvest

Behind the growth of the guest worker program are labor shortages that farmers across the U.S. say are getting worse every year.

"It has become a nightmare for people to find anyone," says Dillon Honcoop, who grew up on a raspberry farm and now represents farmers in northwest Washington through the group Save Family Farming.

For decades, a predominantly Mexican workforce migrated around the U.S., often starting in Texas and following the harvest through California and eventually to Washington state. But that has changed due to a constellation of factors — including a tightening of the southern border, aging out of the migrant labor force and competition from other industries.

Now, many farm owners say their top concern is finding enough workers to get their crops picked before it's too late.

Enter the H-2A visa program. First established in the 1980s, the program allows employers to bring in foreign farmworkers on a temporary basis, provided they cannot find enough workers in the U.S. to get the job done, among other requirements.

In 2020, guest workers accounted for just 10% of the farm labor workforce, but their numbers are skyrocketing, especially in southeastern states and on the West Coast.

In Washington state, requests for guest workers soared to more than 37,000 so far in 2023, from just over 2,000 in 2009.

Exponential growth in guest workers raises red flags

On paper, the H-2A program appears to check a lot of boxes: Give workers from poorer countries a safe, legal pathway to come to the U.S. to perform essential work, after which they can return home with earnings far exceeding what they could have made otherwise.

"It's an opportunity to earn more money than in Mexico," says an H-2A worker in New York state, who spoke to NPR in Spanish on the condition that he not be identified, fearing retaliation from his employer. "We all have families. We have wives, we have children, we have parents to support, and we need work more than anything."

A downside, he says, is the program offers no pathway for workers to stay in the U.S. beyond the harvest.

"We don't have long-term opportunities," he says.

Beyond the guest workers themselves, there are many more complaints.

The recent explosion of the H-2A program has raised grave concerns among labor advocates and lawmakers — both about the welfare of the foreign workers who participate in the program as well as about the domestic workers they may be replacing, including those who are undocumented.

Farm owners, too, have issues with the program, mainly because of its high costs.

To qualify for H-2A workers, employers must provide housing as well as transportation, both to and from a worker's home country, and to and from the work site. They must provide kitchen facilities or access to three meals a day. They are also required to pay workers a wage set by the government that is higher than minimum wage and not lower than the prevailing wage. In Washington state, that wage is currently $17.97 an hour.

"[Farmers] are not excited to use the program. They view it as a last resort," says Honcoop. "It's expensive, and the amount of red tape it comes with is huge, and it's overwhelming."

That's by design — to ensure that guest workers are adequately provided for during their stay and that the local workforce is not economically harmed.

Still, gaps in enforcement have resulted in numerous labor rights violations, including wage theft.

Under the Biden administration, the Labor Department has concluded more than 1,000 cases with H-2A violations, resulting in back wages of $12 million owed to more than 17,000 workers.

And other investigations have turned up far worse.

Slavery-like conditions and other abuses uncovered

Labor advocates warn that H-2A workers are highly vulnerable to exploitation.

"It's all about labor control and having your status tied to your employer," says Rosalinda Guillen, founder of the farmworker rights group Community to Community Development.

She's met guest workers in the area who have been afraid to speak up, fearing they'll be fired and forced to leave the country.

A 2021 federal investigation dubbed Operation Blooming Onion found H-2A workers in Georgia were forced to dig onions with their bare hands while being severely underpaid and threatened with violence and deportation. The workers were housed in an unsanitary work camp, encircled by an electric fence, with little food and no safe water. Two died, according to court records.

The U.S. attorney overseeing the investigation called it "modern-day slavery." Two dozen people were indicted.

Washington state has seen its own share of illegal activity involving H-2A workers. This spring, the state won a $3.4 million settlement against Ostrom Mushroom Farms in Sunnyside, Wash., after finding it had fired local workers, including some who had complained about discriminatory practices, and replaced them with guest workers.

"[H-2A workers] have fewer rights than a resident of the state of Washington does," says Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson. "Clearly, this company knew that — they were aware of that. And that resulted, I have no doubt, in a large part of their conduct."

And in Sumas, Wash., near the Canadian border, a case was brought against blueberry grower Sarbanand Farms and its parent company Munger Bros. after the 2017 death of an H-2A worker amid what was described as hostile working conditions.

While the farm was cleared in the worker's death, it faced multiple state and federal fines for denying meal and rest breaks, for failing to provide safe housing and transportation, and for failing to recruit and hire local workers as required by the guest worker program, among other violations.

"There is not one component of the H-2A program that can be equitably enforced," says Guillen, whose organization was involved in bringing the complaints against Sarbanand. "Every single component of it — they can get away with it."

Local workers fear being pushed out

This summer, Community to Community Development is focused on helping local workers apply for jobs that will otherwise go to H-2A workers. Under program rules, employers who have requested guest workers are required to recruit and hire eligible local workers who worked for them the previous year, but Guillen says that hasn't adequately happened.

In the past, she says, workers could just show up in person and request work. This year, a local berry farm sent local applicants to apply online, a technological challenge.

"They don't have internet. They don't have computers," says Guillen. "You're talking rural eastern Whatcom County, where the internet service is really bad."

Guillen suspects that farms nearby prefer guest workers over local workers, because local workers in the area have been increasingly vocal about their rights, including their right to form unions.

Community organizer Zenaida Perez came to northwest Washington from Oaxaca, Mexico, when she was 17 and has picked strawberries and blueberries for years. She worries that the influx of guest workers will soon mean there's no work for people like her.

"I've been here a long time. I have children here," she says in Spanish. "If I can't find work, I won't be able to pay rent."

Efforts are underway to clean up the H-2A program

Those involved in the business of bringing guest workers to the U.S. acknowledge there are bad actors — but believe the program can be cleaned up.

"I'm all for if there's an employer not doing what is very clear and they're mandated to do, they need to be told what needs to be done," says Enrique Gastelum, CEO of WAFLA, the nonprofit farm labor contractor that's responsible for about half of all H-2A applications in Washington state and is among the largest employers of guest workers in the country.

In an effort to root out abuses, WAFLA does mid-season check-ins with guest workers, asking questions about working conditions and violations that may be happening, including during the recruiting process. Those surveys have revealed weaknesses in the system. For example, a small percentage of workers did report paying illegal fees to recruiters, which Gastelum says led to investigations.

Still, any substantial changes to the federal visa program would have to come from Congress.

A group of lawmakers is attempting a reform effort, responding to complaints about the H-2A program from both labor groups and employers.

The newly reintroduced Farm Workforce Modernization Act would give guest workers more protections, including the right to sue their employers.

The measure would also reduce costs and ease administrative burdens for employers by, among other things, freezing wages for a year and granting longer visas for workers to stay year-round.

In past sessions of Congress, the bill has failed to garner enough support, even with some bipartisan backing.

The main sponsor of the House version of the bill is U.S. Rep. Dan Newhouse, a Republican and farmer from the Yakima Valley himself.

"I want to make sure that there are fewer obstacles in front of our ability to produce food in this country, and to make sure that the American people continue to have an abundant and safe food supply," says Newhouse.

"If we don't have an adequate labor force for the agricultural industry, that's in jeopardy."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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