Class action lawsuit charges bait and switch immigration scam

A class action lawsuit was filed in Atlanta federal court over an alleged immigration scam. (Image: U.S. District Court)

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A class action lawsuit was filed in Atlanta federal court over an alleged immigration scam. (Image: U.S. District Court)

Defendants allegedly obtained visas for Mexican migrants by telling U.S. authorities they would be employed as engineers. Instead, they worked as production line workers.

A Gwinnett-based labor recruiter is named in a class action suit filed in Atlanta last week, which alleges that dozens of Mexican engineers were brought to the U.S. under false pretenses, resulting in the migrants working as underpaid production line workers at an auto parts manufacturer.

The lawsuit alleges AGWM United and agents acting on the company’s behalf committed an immigration violation when they helped secure temporary visas for the Mexican nationals, misleading the government by indicating that they would be employed as professional engineers. The complaint was filed in the federal Georgia Northern District Court.

The workers were recruited through the temporary TN visa program, which allows “qualified” Canadian and Mexican citizens, including engineers, to gain temporary entry into the U.S.

Once in the U.S., workers joined the workforce of SMART Alabama, an auto parts manufacturer based in Luverne and the second defendant named in the suit. Among the Mexican nationals mislead and ensnared in the scheme was Jaime Obregon Acosta, who holds a bachelor’s in mechanical engineering and a master’s in business administration. While on the job, Obregon and others allegedly “had to work horrendously long hours on the production line at hourly wages that were a fraction” of that of the U.S. citizens.

Daniel Werner, a civil rights litigator who is representing the workers, said he has recently seen cases of visa misclassification “over and over again,” where companies’ aim is to lower labor costs.

A tight labor market and a surging labor movement could make fraudulent visa schemes more attractive, with low-wage jobs becoming harder and harder to fill by domestic workers.

“It’s a huge moment” in the economy, said Shelly Anand, executive director of the Sur Legal Collaborative, an immigrant and workers’ rights non-profit based in Atlanta. “And so, employers are going to look elsewhere for a labor force that is going to be more compliant … especially in some of these industries where there’s high turnover.”

Neither AGWM United nor SMART Alabama returned requests for comment from the AJC.

ExploreAugust 2022: Engineers from Mexicos say they were misled into manual labor in Georgia factories

An alleged bait-and-switch

In January 2020, according to the complaint, Obregon saw an AGWM United job posting for a quality control engineer position based in the southeastern U.S. Shortly afterwards, an employee at Gwinnett-based AGWM – a company that describes itself as a recruiter of “qualified TN visa candidates who are allowed to work in the United States” – got in touch. The employee indicated that SMART was interested in hiring him for a period of one year. She told Obregon he would work on the production line for one year, earning around $39,000, but that a promotion to an engineer role was possible after that.

AGWM management allegedly knew that SMART would misrepresent to U.S. immigration authorities that Obregon would be employed as an engineer, rather than a line worker.

According to the complaint, in a three-year period between 2019 and the present, defendants engaged in “similar separate fraudulent acts” to recruit over 40 Mexican engineers as production line workers.

Limited oversight

The TN visa program was created as a result of provisions in the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement that facilitated U.S. entry and employment for certain professionals from Canada and Mexico.

Although the TN visa program has grown considerably in recent years – from 16,119 visas issued in fiscal year 2017 to 24,904 in 2021, according to the State Department – oversight is lax. In contrast to other temporary visa programs, such as the H-2A program for migrant farmworkers overseen by the Department of Labor, attorney Werner says there is no robust mechanism in place to protect TN workers after they arrive in the country.

“TN is kind of the Wild West. I mean, the workers come here and there’s just no reporting, no oversight ... And I think that’s part of the reason why it’s attractive to some employers.”

The Department of Labor referred questions about TN enforcement to the State Department. In an statement, a State Department official noted there is a multi-step screening process in the front end to prevent fraud from happening.

Sur Legal’s Anand says the merits of a program like the TN visa are easy to see on paper.

“I think in some ways it is being used for good,” she said. “There’s a huge talent pool in Mexico, for example, of engineers.”

But she noted that most types of immigrant labor programs can be abused by “bad employers.”

“It’s a recurring theme.”