SALVATIERRA, MEXICO — Luis David Martinez García, 26, and Liliana Ramos Vasquez, 23, unlock a turquoise door and step into their brick house on the outskirts of their central Mexican hometown. Daylight floods in from where a ceiling should be.

"It was practically what we wanted," García said.

Or nearly what they wanted.

This is the (partial) house that U.S. meatpacking built.

For nearly two years, HyLife Ltd. employed García and Vasquez at its Windom, Minn., slaughterhouse as foreign guest workers on the H-2B visa program. They sliced and packaged pork. They stowed away American wages. Then, abruptly, on a spring day a year ago, the plant announced a closure, laying off all 1,007 employees.

Within days, García and Vasquez boarded a company-sponsored bus to return to Salvatierra. It's a centuries-old city of church steeples, annual bull runs and rampant gun violence in an arid valley surrounded by mountains.

And it's not where the workers wanted to be — at least not so soon.

Many of the HyLife visa-holders were months, even years, shy of finishing their promised tour in Minnesota. They still had debts to pay, kids to send to university, families to take care of.

García and Vasquez had yet to finish their roof.

"All of us who went to the United States had a goal," García said, staring up at black rebar poking out of the top of the brick walls. "The company told us three years."

The U.S. visa worker program is meant to be an all-sides-win solution. U.S. employers get workers. Foreigners, many from developing countries, get access to good-paying jobs. Consumers get affordable food.

But when one actor drops their end of the bargain, it's often the workers, among the poorest in the Western Hemisphere, who are hit hardest.

José Guadalupe Martinez García, brother of Luis, who also worked at HyLife, stands outside his home, up a dirt road.

"They gave me false hopes," said the 28-year-old, speaking through a translator.

Liliana Vasquez plays with one of her dogs near her home in Salvatierra, Guanajuato, Mexico, in April. She and her husband worked for nearly two years at the HyLife pork plant in Windom, Minn., short of the contract they were promised.

Meat industry smacked by COVID

When COVID-19 swept through U.S. meatpacking plants, sickening workers in close quarters, employers improvised to retain workers. Some unionized shops raised wages or improved distancing to keep workers safer. At the plant in Windom, HyLife, a Canadian pork company, nearly doubled its ranks by hiring foreign workers, including hundreds of guest workers from Salvatierra.

It appeared to be a success story. By 2023, the plant had the largest H-2B workforce of any slaughterhouse in the U.S.

What happened next for many workers was a disillusioned journey back to Salvatierra.

García and Vasquez's home hasn't changed much in the year since they returned from America. Scraps of building materials are stored along the walls. In another room, crowing roosters rattle their cages. García's brother uses the birds for fighting, a legal sport in Mexico.

Asked what he would need to finish the roof, García pauses to consider the math.

"If I worked again in the U.S.," he said, "I would just need half a year [of wages]."

But here in Salvatierra, where cartel violence plagues city streets, he shakes his head.

With immigration reform stuck in the political impasse over border security in Washington, D.C., America's decades-old H-2B program — a labor pipeline for landscapers and resort owners across the nation — remains one of the only pathways for foreigners to legally work in the U.S.

The unexpected downfall of the Windom pork plant reveals a gap in the guest-worker program: What happens to workers when the company holding their visas goes bankrupt?

The workers who came to Windom

The connection between the prairies of southwestern Minnesota and Salvatierra, an urban area of 90,000, is a story of American agriculture and a global, insatiable hunger for affordable meat. Like so many flash points over the last four years, HyLife's Windom chapter opens with the pandemic.

Just weeks into the 2020 health crisis, the Trump administration sought to jump-start the nation's meat production as grocery shelves emptied. While many Americans stayed home, meat-processing workers populated the food system's front lines.

As many as 60,000 COVID cases, including 269 deaths, would ultimately be linked to these slaughterhouses, according to a U.S. House report.

In May 2020, Minnesota billionaire Glen Taylor, who also owns the Star Tribune, sold a 75% ownership stake in the plant to a Manitoba-based pork giant, HyLife.

At the time, the plant had about 600 workers. But over the next two years, the plant's workforce expanded, including busloads of legal, foreign workers from HyLife's plant in Salvatierra.

An H-2B employer must attest to federal officials that it can't find Americans willing to do the job. The position needs to pay a prevailing wage. And the company must pay for the worker's transportation.

In 2021, the first workers from Salvatierra arrived in Windom on State Department-issued work visas. They joined other workers, many immigrants, in the farm town of 4,000. Windom swelled. Workers from Togo and East Africa lived above businesses downtown. Asian and Latino grocers had steady business during shift changes. The school hired more teachers.

On days off, HyLife employees swam in nearby lakes and cheered on turtle races during Windom's Riverfest. A hotel housing workers in Mankato, an hour away, flew multiple nations' flags in the entryway. Beyond the basic necessities of food and rent, the rest of the money went home.

"By all appearances, [HyLife] had been largely a good community actor," said Tiffany Lamb, a development director for the city of Windom.

But behind the scenes, trouble lurked. In bankruptcy documents reviewed by the Star Tribune, HyLife's corporate leadership said the Windom plant, while generating $370 million in revenue in 2022, had been losing $6 million to $7 million monthly since the Canadian firm took ownership.

In August 2022, HyLife retained PricewaterhouseCoopers. Workers were kept in the dark, but said their hours decreased around the same time. Many workers were told the pigs were sick. By March 2023, Taylor sold his remaining 25% share. Weeks later, the company announced layoffs and filed for bankruptcy.

HyLife's CEO, in court documents, blamed the pandemic supply chain imbroglio and an unfavorable exchange rate on exports given the strength of the U.S. dollar. By May, HyLife gave workers a few weeks' notice. They were in the country on a visa linked to a sponsor — and that sponsor had just collapsed.

"Automatically, we started saving," Vasquez said. She and her husband wanted to stay and work in the U.S., but their legal status would be in limbo come early June. "We did not want to be illegals."

So on a Sunday morning, they got on the bus. Three nights later, they saw the mountains surrounding Salvatierra.

The second shift starts at the HyLife plant in Windom in April 2023. Soon after, the plant closed, stranding hundreds of workers.

The H-2B visa: a win-win, until it's not

Each year, the U.S. allows 66,000 H-2B workers into the country — a ceiling Congress is in the habit of lifting each year as a special allowance. They work in hospitality industries, traveling carnivals and food processing.

But many critics argue that employers get what they want by exploiting vulnerable workforces.

"People do not always have the information about their contracts, like how many hours they are going to work," said Jocelyn Reyes, outreach, education and leadership development director with Centro de los Derechos del Migrante Inc. in Mexico City. "It is common that they are not paid overtime, that they do not [receive] reimbursements or travel expenses."

In 2023 alone, the Labor Department recovered $4.6 million in back wages owed H-2B employers.

But Congress has hamstrung the agency's ability to enforce employee protections.

An Obama-era worker protection, called the three-fourths rule, cannot be legally enforced. The rule, say observers, could have helped HyLife workers by requiring the employer to pay the H-2B employees 75% of the advertised wage for the full duration of the contract. For many in Windom, that would have been several months of promised work and wages they never got.

But a Labor Department official, speaking on background, told the Star Tribune that the rule is essentially nonexistent.

"We have been existing under a budget rider since 2015 in which Congress said that DOL cannot expend any funds to enforce the three-quarter guarantee in H-2B."

In December 2015, congressional appropriations committees approved an appropriations package for the Labor Department that included these limits on enforcement.

Daniel Costa, director of immigration law and policy research with the Economic Policy Institute, says both Democrats and Republicans, representing employer interests ranging from seafood to hospitality, have perpetuated the silencing of some H-2B worker protections. He said the nature of last-minute continuing resolutions on federal budgets means rules get frozen in place.

"If President Biden listened to immigration worker advocates on H-2B, what will he do? 'Am I going to shut down the entire government over the H-2B riders?'" Costa said. "That's why [the budget riders] are so [politically] smart."

José García, right, welcomes Adrian Luna to his home in Salvatierra. Both men once worked at HyLife in Windom. García now works in a fireworks factory, a dangerous job. Luna works at a grocery store.

Missing wages and tax refunds

Salvatierra is four hours northwest of Mexico City in the state of Guanajuato. For centuries, it has been a charming, historic city, where Mexican revolutionaries and Spaniards famously did battle on a narrow stone bridge over the Lerma River.

But the city's economy has collapsed in recent years amid brazen violence from two warring cartels. Guanajuato routinely tops the list of the most dangerous Mexican states for homicides.

José García, Luis' brother, stands outside his simple brick house, welcoming visitors. A white cross hangs on the wall. Two dogs bark at strangers from the roof.

It's another home built by HyLife wages.

"This did not exist before," José García said proudly, pointing to a refrigerator, stove and microwave sitting along the wall. There's no glass in the windows. There is a roof. He warns to watch out for scorpions. "All of this was a land of emptiness. It was just the dirt."

García lived at the hotel in Mankato, calling his temporary southern Minnesota home "beautiful." His days were tough. He worked on the packaging line, which moved quickly. He was sore at night. But the money was good. Back at home, his wife, Luisa Valencia Guzman, awaited his paychecks.

"When he left I was pregnant with the little one," Guzman, 31, said.

Guzman gave birth prematurely to their son. García's managers allowed him to return home to Salvatierra.

"They did help me with that," he said. "But I had to use all my PTO and vacation time."

Their son, Tadeo, is now 2, toddling around with a full head of black hair, hugging the legs of adults. Tadeo has a big smile and a heart condition. They worry his medical bills will mount beyond their means.

"I thank God my child survived," García said.

The state of Minnesota alleges HyLife wrongfully withheld $41,000 in wages from workers and has sought to claw back those wages through bankruptcy proceedings. Yet many workers don't know what they were owed.

When asked what was printed on her digital pay stub, his sister-in-law Liliana Vasquez just shakes her head.

"We couldn't open our payroll where we could check everything," she said.

It's a similar story with missing tax returns. Many of the workers from Salvatierra say they couldn't file for tax refunds because they couldn't digitally access their W-2s.

Edgar Gutierrez, the owner of Oxford Tax Service in Worthington, Minn., confirmed to the Star Tribune that as many as 50 HyLife workers had been unable to give him W-2 information.

"They closed the plant. Some of them moved to another state or returned to Mexico," Gutierrez said, but they can't file their taxes until they have those W-2s.

It's unclear how much money might be returned to them, but even a few hundred dollars would equal a month's wages in Mexico. That's enough for a down payment on a roof or to help with a child's health care expenses.

In an emailed statement to the Star Tribune, HyLife spokeswoman Stacey Ashley said, "Multiple attempts were made to ensure departing employees received their W2s." She said HyLife "prioritized" updating changes of address and offered calls with a Spanish translator. She said the company's human resources email was shared widely with employees.

Luisa Valencia Guzman gave birth prematurely to Tadeo, now nearly 2, while her husband was working in Minnesota. "I thank God my child survived," José García said.

Pay for an honest day's work

The best job in Salvatierra is at a refrigerator manufacturer that pays $100 a week. There's also the textile factory. Some gigs may fetch $75 a week. Offers for legal work in the U.S. are often conveyed by recruiters, some compromised by the cartels, who charge extortionist fees.

José García operates a facility to make gunpowder that's used in fireworks. He got his cousin Fernando Martinez, another former HyLife Windom worker, a job there.

"We manufacture the powder, the thunder that explodes," García said.

But when he returned to Salvatierra last year, tragedy struck. One day at work, his cousin was in a back room. The other workers soon heard an explosion.

"The truth is," García said softly, "it is a very dangerous job."

His cousin was 24.

According to research published by the National Institutes of Health, eight of 10 deaths in Mexico in 2019 resulted from injury. It's another reason the U.S. H-2B program, even with its problems, is so attractive to many. It's a system that everyone participating wants to continue.

Employers annually lobby Capitol Hill to allow more H-2B visas. Workers' advocate­s wish for the expansion of temporary work programs across the U.S., even as they decry abuses.

Inside his home, next to a calendar of the Virgin Mary, José García wonders about the future while his wife sweeps the floor. This is his home, but he wants to return to the U.S. legally. Their house is unfinished. There are Tadeo's medical costs. Even after the truncated experience in Windom, he says he'd go work for HyLife again.

"I have the hope," he said, his eyes widening, "that they'd give me another contract to finish my house."

Star Tribune staff photographer Elizabeth Flores provided translation for interviews in Spanish.


Reporting Christopher Vondracek and Elizabeth Flores

Photography Elizabeth Flores and Katie Rausch

Editing Kristen Leigh Painter

Copy editing Catherine Preus

Design Bryan Brussee and Michiela Thuman

Graphics Jake Steinberg and CJ Sinner