The Other Minimum Wage

When a sheepherder named Alejandro saw me approaching his tiny trailer in the mountains of western Colorado, he stepped out and greeted me in Spanish, “Hi. Sorry, but, how did you find me?” Alejandro’s confusion was understandable, considering his trailer was sitting among a thousand sheep who were grazing a mile off a dirt road, itself an offshoot of County Road 16, about 10 miles outside of Loma, CO, which is a town 20 miles west of Grand Junction, CO, all of which is pretty far away from any place most Americans have heard of. “Binoculars,” I replied.

Once I had convinced Alejandro (whose last name has been omitted for anonymity) that I wasn’t working for the government or his boss, he welcomed me into his trailer, which he called a campito. He closed the door and said, “I would offer you a place to sit, but the only places are my bed or the stove.” So we stood, and I peppered him with questions.

We started talking about ceviche, somehow, which is popular in Peru. After a while, we stepped outside to see the sheep, and I confessed my ignorance: even after talking to a number of ranchers and herders, it had been surprisingly difficult to figure out exactly what sheepherders spend their days doing.

Alejandro recounted his routine: usually he gets up with the sun, eats some oatmeal, and heads out to round up the sheep that have wandered off overnight. He spends the day checking the sheep for diseases, hauling water for them to drink, herding them to grazing areas, and protecting them from dangers: “coyotes, mountain lions, poisonous plants, and wolves, sometimes.”

Alejandro is one of the roughly 2,000 sheepherders working in the United States on an H-2A visa. The H-2A visa, which is specifically for agricultural work, allows foreigners to come to the U.S. for temporary employment if there are not enough domestic workers to meet employers’ needs. Most recipients of H-2A visas are seasonal workers, but sheepherders usually work year-round, for three years at a time. They make somewhere from $3 to $7.25 per hour (depending on who you ask), and they spend most of the year living alone in small trailers, usually many miles from other people. They’re on call 24 hours per day, seven days per week.

I told Alejandro I was doing research on sheepherding in Colorado and he said, “Why? It’s not a pretty job.” I asked, “What’s the ugliest part of the job?” I expected him to mention one of the grievances other herders had raised with me: the winter weather, the low wage, the tiny living quarters, the lack of a toilet, the 80-hour workweek, or mistreatment from his boss. 

But without hesitation, Alejandro said “the loneliness.” He paused and clarified, slowing his Spanish down for me, “You cannot imagine the loneliness.” Until then, no herder I had spoken with had mentioned loneliness aloud, but nearly all of them had implied it. They do, after all, live alone almost all year; they’re rarely allowed to leave the lands on which they work, and they’re often not allowed to have visitors. When a herder does have human contact, it’s almost always with his boss and, even then, rarely more than once every few days.

Alejandro described the other difficulties of his job, echoing the claims made in a 2010 report by Colorado Legal Services (CLS), an organization that provides free legal assistance to migrant agricultural workers and their families. The report, called “Overworked and Underpaid: H-2A Herders in Colorado,” relies on a survey of 93 herders in Colorado. The survey was conducted by Thomas Acker, a Spanish professor at Colorado Mesa University, and Ignacio Alvarado, a former H-2A sheepherder.

The findings of the report are striking enough to repeat verbatim: Almost 73 percent of the herders reported having zero days off over the course of a year. More than 80 percent were not permitted to leave their ranch. 85 percent were not allowed to have visitors who were not ranch employees. Roughly 70 percent reported never having access to a functioning toilet. 85 percent were never permitted to engage in social activities. Almost 50 percent reported not having the opportunity or ability to read their employment contracts.

These are the kinds of brutal conditions most Americans prefer to associate with distant, so-called “undeveloped” nations. But the H-2A program makes so many exceptions to laws about living conditions and wages (with further exceptions for sheepherders specifically) that it appears to be designed to keep people as poor as they were when they first came to the U.S. 

Ignacio Alvarado spent months driving around western Colorado interviewing herders for the CLS report. Alvarado, who came to the U.S. from Chile about 20 years ago on an H-2A visa, worked as a sheepherder for six years and has since advocated for herders through local legal aid organizations: Hispanic Affairs Project and Towards Justice.

Twenty years ago, when he arrived at his job and was taken to his campito, Alvarado asked his boss, “Excuse me, I’m going to live in this thing?” His boss replied, “Yeah, and for three years, buddy.” Alvarado remembers thinking, “In Chile, a dog would live in this thing.” When he asked his boss how he would shower, his boss said, “You don’t shower anymore.” (Twenty years later, Alvarado is in contact with a number of current sheepherders. He often drives them to his house to give them a good meal and a shower.)

Not only were the conditions rough (and rougher than they are now), but the pay at the time was also only $650 per month, or, in Alvarado’s estimation, 29 cents per hour. But the wage was still better than it was for sheepherders in Chile, so Alvarado renewed his visa after three years. Toward the end of the second visa period, though, he caught a disease from a tick. He went to the ranch to ask his boss to take him to the hospital, but his boss had left on a trip. Over the phone, his boss said he would send his wife to take him. But she never came, so Alvarado used the ranch’s phone to call a friend of his, who took him to a hospital. At the time, it was written into most herders’ contracts that they could not leave the ranch or grazing lands. “So,” Alvarado said, “technically, it was a crime to save my own life.”

It was with these stories in mind that I began to talk to the ranchers who employ and oversee H-2A sheepherders. As you might expect, the industry they describe bears almost no relation to the world Alejandro and Alvarado recount. Warren Roberts, a rancher working near New Castle, CO, argued that what seem at first to be rough conditions are actually part of what Roberts called a “great exchange” between ranchers and herders. In fact, Roberts said of his herders, “We treat them probably as good, maybe even better, than family members.”

Roberts stressed that the men who come to work as sheepherders on the H-2A program are “making tremendous money for their lifestyle.” He recounted a conversation he had with Department of Labor (DOL) employees who came to audit his ranch a few years ago: “You all have no idea how good it is for these guys, how much it improves their families’ situations because of being able to work up here,” he told them. Roberts also points to the fact that wages have increased “like crazy” in the past decade. Wages have in fact doubled since 2010. The government-determined wage floor was $750 per month in 2010 and, after a 2015 ruling, is now at roughly $1,500 per month.

Herders are, as Roberts said, using their salaries to improve their families’ lives. One herder I spoke to said that he used his salary to provide his two daughters with an education, which “otherwise, they would never have had.” Other herders are able to get a parent a new set of teeth or a sibling sorely needed medical care. Alejandro, for example, is slowly sending back money for a “real house” for his family. At this rate, though, he won’t get to live in it for another decade.

Wages aside, ranchers seem to think that the working conditions are far from brutal, especially compared to how they claim the herders live in their home countries. Angelo “Butch” Theos, whose ranch is near Meeker, CO, said, “These guys come from Peru, where they lived in a hovel. They dig a hole, they have three or four pieces of tin, and that’s their roof, and that’s where they stay. And they bring their families, too, and they burn cow dung for fire.” Theos went on: “A lot of them won’t even send pictures back to their wives of where they stay because it’s so nice! It’s way different than Peru, and these guys obviously wouldn’t be here if they didn’t like it.”

Although living conditions in herders’ homes are often shocking, the herders’ own accounts complicate Theos’ view. Alvarado said, “In Chile, I worked from Monday to Saturday, but I had Sunday off, and I was with my family on the ranch, and, well, I cleaned myself. But [the ranchers] think that because we come from over there—from whatever country they don’t know about—we must have lived in a hut under the trees, or something.”

Theos, Roberts, and other ranchers tend to highlight essential cultural (or, as they say, “natural”) differences between Peruvians and Americans to explain why a job that no Americans want is not only desirable, but also suitable for Peruvians. The point is, as Roberts put it, “They’re not Americans. They don’t think the same way,” or, as Theos put it, “They’re well-suited to the job in a way that Americans just aren’t.” 

Claims like these imply a stereotype we ought to be wary of, but the ranchers are right that Americans don’t want these jobs: There are zero American sheepherders working in Colorado, and few in the United States. Ranchers and herders also both seem to agree that sheepherders from Latin America tend to work much harder and be more appreciative than their American counterparts. The herders I spoke to myself were sometimes grateful for their wages, and it’s true that they work hard under difficult conditions.

But whereas ranchers say these qualities are somehow inherent in the herders, herders themselves point out that they don’t work 80-hour weeks because it suits them. They do it because they need to. One herder, who requested anonymity, said that herders don’t come because they’re suited to the work; they come “out of desperation.” Alejandro said, “There is no culture, no personality, that is fitting for this job. Nobody prefers to live alone, without their family, in a box like this.” Conditions are so dire for poor Peruvians that sheepherding in the U.S. amounts to a lucky break. So herders perform a stereotype because they need to if they want to keep their jobs.

Ranchers have an unusually high degree of control over their herders. Under the rules of the H-2A program, a rancher can fire a herder (which amounts to deportation) whenever a herder “has not performed his job in a satisfactory manner.” So in addition to controlling the herder’s food, water, and housing, the rancher also controls his status in the U.S. It’s no surprise, then, that herders feel the need to remain subservient and refrain from speaking ill of their bosses.

The ranchers’ assertion that the herders simply are subservient doesn’t hold up in light of the stark difference between what herders say about their jobs when their bosses are around and what they say when their bosses are miles away and they can speak anonymously.

Butch Theos was one of the few ranchers who let me speak to one of his herders (most others refused, saying their herders couldn’t be interrupted). We drove down a county road “trailing” sheep to protect them from oncoming traffic as they moved to new grazing land, and when we arrived, Theos pointed out a herder named Orlando and whistled him over. Orlando didn’t hear, so Theos shouted “Veni!” (in the most Americanized Spanish you can imagine). Orlando, who isn’t much more than five feet tall, jumped off his horse and waded through the sheep. Theos put a thick hand on Orlando’s shoulder and said, “This guy wants to ask some questions. You understand?” Orlando nodded. While we talked, Theos stood about ten feet behind me on the road, just close enough that he might be within earshot. After every question I asked, Orlando looked over my shoulder at his boss.

“How are the working conditions?” I asked.

“Good,” he said, and looked at his feet.

“It’s better than Peru?” Orlando said nothing, and shuffled his work belt around.

“The salary is much higher?”


“Is it still hard?”

“…sometimes. But I’m very grateful.”

“The boss is good?”

“The boss is good.”

After a few more curt answers, I asked whether or not he felt it was safe for us to be talking here. Orlando looked directly at me for the first time and said, “No.” To clarify, I asked again, “Do you feel like you can talk about the job without being punished for what you say?” He shook his head and said that he should go tend to the sheep. I had similar conversations with three other herders, always under a rancher’s wary eye. (The three other herders asked to remain anonymous.)

So, if Roberts and Theos make it sound like the herders are hardworking, well-suited to the work, and grateful for every penny, it’s because in front of their bosses, they are. And they’re especially grateful in comparison to the few Americans who have tried sheepherding. But whereas ranchers pin it on cultural differences, herders uphold these stereotypes because they know that if they don’t, the consequences are dire. 

Although it’s an oversimplification, there are roughly two general views on the herding industry at play. One group sees it as “a great exchange,” the other as an industry rife with worker exploitation. In the past decade, these two views have become so polarized that they have sparked a number of legal cases. One of the court cases, which focuses on the herders’ wages and hours, reveals cooperation between ranchers’ associations and the government—and systematically leaves out herders’ own voices.

Hispanic Affairs Project v. Acosta (Alexander Acosta is the Secretary of the DOL), a case brought on behalf of herders against the federal government, centers on the determination of sheepherders’ wages. The plaintiffs in the case contend that the DOL underestimated the average number of hours herders work per week. In 2015, the DOL proposed that sheepherders should be paid based on a 44-hour workweek, which was an average of estimates from a few different sources. The Western Range Association (WRA) and Mountain Plains Agricultural Service (MPAS), two ranchers’ associations that act as middlemen between herders, ranchers, and the government, both proposed a 40-hour workweek, which is what herders had already been paid for. 

The other side of the average was a 48-hour week calculation, submitted by Edward Tuddenham, an attorney representing workers in a court case that set the herders’ hours previously. But Tuddenham relied on data from a form that ranchers usually fill out in accordance with the hours that MPAS and WRA tell them to write. So the supposed average used two similar numbers that can both be traced back to the ranchers’ associations. The voice that was left out of this “average” is, of course, that of the herders.

In order to find a genuine compromise, the herders’ attorneys pointed the DOL to the Colorado Legal Services report on which Alvarado worked. The study finds that 62 percent of herders “actively worked” at least 81 hours per week and that 35 percent worked at least 91 hours per week. If herders were to be employed according to these numbers, it would double their salary. Unfortunately for the herders, according to the district court’s memorandum opinion from July 2017, the DOL “recognized the results of the Colorado Study but also that ‘two individual employers expressly disputed the methodology in the Colorado Study, stating that it was not a reliable source and was based on biased [interview] questions.’”

The DOL clearly didn’t find the CLS study legitimate. They said the study was “informative, but very limited,” because it pertained only to Colorado and was therefore “not representative of the industry as a whole.” But as Dermot Lynch, an attorney for the plaintiffs, pointed out to me, herders cross state borders into Nevada, Wyoming, and Utah all the time, and the hours that herders work in Colorado don’t differ significantly in other states. According to Lynch, the CLS report also abided by all the necessary standards. It surveyed enough herders to be statistically significant, and it recorded and explained its questions.

But the DOL ultimately trusted Tuddenham’s assessment that “the 48-hour based on the most comprehensive and detailed data source.” That data might have been comprehensive and detailed—but it also might have been wrong.

The herders’ salary (and that of other migrant workers) is determined by a tool that the DOL uses called the Adverse Effect Wage Rate (AEWR). The rate is based on the average hourly wage for similarly employed workers in a particular region. Although it seems like one more innocuous government acronym, the AEWR is ultimately what determines how much money the herders are able to send home to their families. The biggest problem with the AEWR is that it purports to determine a salary that would make the job competitive in America. In other words, it’s supposed to determine a salary high enough that, if there weren’t a labor shortage, American workers would want the job.

Herders I’ve spoken to have laughed when I suggested that, in the eyes of the government, their wage was attractive to American workers. To its credit, though, the DOL is aware that the AEWR is laughably dysfunctional. The DOL recognized, for example, that in any survey of current wages, “The presence of undocumented workers in a given industry depresses wages for the industry.” The wage depression is significant because the agricultural industry is comprised of somewhere between 46 and 70 percent undocumented workers. On average, undocumented agricultural workers make roughly $7 per hour and work about 40 hours per week. Because herders are working 80-hour workweeks but only getting paid for half of it, they’re legally making the same salary that undocumented workers are making illegally—and doing more work. But if the H-2A program is leaving workers with conditions and wages equivalent to those of undocumented workers, then it’s just legalizing an illegal workforce and leaving the exploitation in place.

In using the agricultural industry to determine herders’ wages, the AEWR is also assuming that sheepherding is not substantially different from other jobs in the agricultural industry. Given the solitude and long hours, this is somewhat hard to believe. But if the DOL wants to argue that herders’ wages can be determined by looking at the rest of the industry—implying that the job is not fundamentally less attractive—then we might ask why the mean hourly wage for ranch hands, for example, is $12.83 per hour.

It might seem that the shortage of American workers is simply inevitable in the herding industry, given how brutal the job is. But in the natural gas industry (among others) American workers have recently flocked to dangerous but relatively high-paying jobs. U.S. workers, then, could very well become “suited” to the job of an H-2A worker. Employers would just need to offer higher wages.

Instead, we have ended up in a situation where the ranchers’ organizations and the DOL are effectively ensuring that sheepherding is fueled by a guest worker program, and that these guest workers face difficult conditions and low pay. Jennifer Lee, a professor of law at Temple University, describes this system in a paper published in the Stanford Law & Policy Review. Lee writes that the legal framework of programs like the H-2A, “delegates substantial power to employers to essentially price-fix depressed wages and transform jobs into ones that require backbreaking productivity. By degrading the wages and working conditions of these low wage jobs, employers ensure that they can only be filled by highly compliant and productive guest workers.” 

So what seem on the surface to be genuine domestic labor shortages are actually manufactured by the government and ranchers associations, which are keeping wages so low and conditions so poor that Americans won’t take the jobs. What’s remarkable is that this kind of wage-fixing usually happens in the absence of government regulation. But in the case of the H-2A herders, rancher associations are deciding on a fixed wage that the government itself determines.

Lee goes on to argue that certain cultural narratives—among them, the narrative of the subservient foreign herder—offer a “natural explanation” for these manufactured U.S. worker shortages. That narrative, she writes, “conceals the ways in which this legal framework operates.”

Of course, the case in sheepherding is far from exceptional. The history of immigrant worker exploitation is a history of employers capitalizing on other people’s desperation. But the background of the H-2A program shows that, in this case, the government has spent decades not only tolerating, but also ensuring that the herding industry remains exploitative.

Guest worker programs like the H-2A began in 1917, when thousands of American farm workers went to fight in World War I and left the DOL flooded with ranchers’ complaints about labor shortages. To solve the problem, the government could have granted legal immigration status to thousands of Mexicans who were willing to work in the U.S. for a low wage, but widespread racism made it impossible to garner congressional support. So instead, the government devised a guest worker program as a way to provide cheap labor to the U.S. without allowing immigrants to claim government benefits or civil rights granted to citizens. The U.S. gained the benefit of cheap immigrant labor without the supposed problems of integrating immigrants into American society.

Although parts of the program were shut down after World War I, the agricultural portion continued to operate until the onset of the Great Depression. The 1930s ushered in a labor surplus, a wave of xenophobia, and the consequent mass deportation of predominantly Mexican guest workers.

When World War II rolled around, American laborers were again leaving farms for the armed forces (or the defense industry), creating another genuine worker shortage in agriculture. In response, President Roosevelt authorized the Bracero Program in 1942. Much like the earlier guest worker program, the Bracero Program allowed the government to import temporary workers from Mexico, extract their labor, and send them back home.

When the war ended there was once again a labor surplus and public pressure to deport not only the guest workers, but also a new undocumented workforce (ranchers and farmers often hired undocumented workers because they found the Bracero paperwork tedious). In 1954, the U.S. Attorney General announced a crowd-pleasing crackdown on illegal immigration, called “Operation Wetback,” which was to be implemented through the Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS). (“Wetback” is a derogatory term for Mexican laborers who were alleged to have swum across the Rio Grande river.) The INS, which was responsible for overseeing the Bracero Program, now found itself in a bind: farmers and ranchers were demanding cheap labor, and they were glad to get it from illegal immigrants. The public, meanwhile, wanted illegal immigrants (and most immigrants) out of the U.S. 

The INS’ solution was not to demand that ranchers pay higher salaries, but instead to push for the Bracero Program to be expanded and made into federal law in 1951. That way, the farmers could have their cheap labor legally. The agency then proceeded to track down thousands of undocumented workers, drive them just south of the U.S.-Mexico border, recruit them as Braceros, and drive them back to the farms on which they had already been working without changing wages or working conditions. That way, they could legalize the workers, keep them separate from the lives and privileges of the American public, and provide farmers their cheap labor. In the first three years of the newly enlarged Bracero Program, the number of Braceros admitted into the country more than doubled, from 201,380 to 445,197.

There was a flaw in this system from the beginning. Although ranchers and farmers had to prove that there were no Americans willing to do the work they needed done, they only had to prove that no Americans were willing to do the work at the wages they were offering and in the conditions they were offering. Whereas in a free market they would have had to improve wages and conditions until people signed up, they were instead able to deflate wages and conditions, complain that no Americans wanted the jobs, and then, with the help of the government, import foreign workers so desperate that they would work for less than half of the minimum wage. If that sounds familiar, it’s because the H-2A program replicates this structure under a more bureaucratic name.

The Bracero Program continued for another decade, until mounting pressure from farmworker advocates like Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta pushed Congress to end the program in 1964. The country was left with only the H-2 program, a comparatively small guest worker program that had been created in 1952 but had never been widely used. In 1986, Congress created the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA), which split the H-2 program into the H-2A and H-2B programs, for agricultural and non-agricultural sectors respectively. Twenty-two years later, H-2A workers comprise 10 percent of the country’s farmworkers. 

If this history shows us anything, it’s that ranchers have long used guest worker programs to acquire cheap labor and that the government has, for nearly as long, used the program to legalize an otherwise illegal workforce without improving conditions.

Given the history of exploitation behind the H-2A program, it should come as no surprise that in 2016 the Trump Winery in Charlottesville, VA sought 29 H-2A workers to help prune its vineyards. Over the past decade, Trump and his associated business have also hired hundreds of workers on the H-2B program. The Washington Post, reporting on the applications, wrote, “When news of these applications first broke, the outrage expressed by those who remembered the president’s pledge to ‘hire American’ was predictable.”

But Trump’s decision to hire H-2A workers was as predictable as the outrage that followed it. While hiring H-2A workers might have seemed like a broken promise, it was actually in line with his anti-immigrant sentiments. Likewise, although the H-2A program appears to contradict the language of “the wall,” it actually isolates workers from society so thoroughly that it serves as a sort of wall itself—not between Mexico and America, but between Mexicans and Americans.

All this is apparently clear to the people running and enforcing the H-2A program. The Washington Post cites Kerry Scott, program manager for Mid Atlantic Solutions, the nation’s largest private provider of H2 workers: “In our minds, the best [border] wall is a functional guest worker program...We’re certain our program will be one of those that survives and thrives.’”

Scott omits a narrative that Lee highlights in her paper: although H-2 workers are the ones being directly exploited, American workers are also being deprived of potential jobs. And those jobs, in a competitive market, would be paying much more than the minimum wage. So Americans are, at least indirectly, also being harmed by guest worker programs. That, coupled with the fact that wages and conditions for guest workers are inhumane, would seem to indicate that the guest worker programs should be shut down. And there are plenty of legal scholars, most of them politically liberal, who argue against guest worker programs. Lee herself argues as much toward the end of her paper.

But guest workers themselves don’t want the program shut down—they want it improved. So there’s still a discrepancy between what herders want and what their supposed advocates often argue for. (These scholars simultaneously argue for a revamped immigration system, but that’s not the herders’ immediate concern, either.) It’s easy for outsiders to ignore the somewhat nauseating truth: other parts of the world are so destitute that their citizens hope to work in conditions most Americans find inhumane.

Still, as Alvarado said to me more than a few times, “I’m working in America, not in Chile or Peru.” His implication is that workers in America deserve to be held to America’s standards. The minimum wage is called the minimum wage for a reason. That’s part of why organizations like Hispanic Affairs Project and Towards Justice are trying to better conditions and wages without shutting down the whole program. But, as you might expect, this strategy too sparks outcry from ranchers.

The question ranchers ask in response to demands for better conditions and wages is, “What would happen if we raise wages any more?” The answer, they claim, is clear: the industry would collapse. “The government,” Theos told me, “raised [herders’] salary enormously overnight…But we need them, so we bit the bullet. A lot of my friends… couldn’t afford to keep all their men.”

The 2017 court opinion in the DOL case paints a similar picture. The court cites a sheepherder employer called FIM Corporation, which explains, “For the period 2006 to 2013, our gross income from sales of wool, lambs, sheep, and hay averaged about $1,100,000 per year. After our operative expenses our net income averaged about...$35,000 per year. This proposed tripling of sheepherder wages will require approximately $250,000 per year in additional wage payments, [and] that much money is simply not available.”

It remains unclear whether a budget this tight is the exception or the rule: are most ranchers (and the government) fighting to keep wages low because they don’t care enough to pay the men any more, or because they’re barely scraping by in a failing industry, unable to pay their men anymore? Then again, as Jennifer Lee told me, “Either way, why is the answer to that question, ‘Well, let’s just continue to exploit foreign workers.?’”

That answer persists because what looks like exploitation to a worker or a liberal-minded outsider often looks like a long tradition—a “great exchange”—to an insider. The history of the H-2A program, and the myth of the “well-suited” worker that grew with it, begin to explain how herders like Alvarado and ranchers like Warren Roberts end up on opposite sides of a long, entrenched battle.

If Roberts and Alvarado weren’t in the positions they’re in, you could imagine them being friendly with each other. Both, to begin with, are tough old guys who seem to have an endless collection of remarkable western stories. But both, more importantly, tend to assert what’s right and what’s wrong with all the charm and conviction of a seasoned salesman.

Roberts, just after singing the praises of free enterprise, explained his approach to doing business: “What I’ve always tried to do is, if I’m dealing with you, I want it to be good for both of us, I don’t just want it to be just good for me. And if everybody operated that way, we wouldn’t need all these rules and regulations. We could all be free.” 

Alvarado practically mirrored his sentiment: “What I’ve always wanted is for it to be fair. Just as fair for the ranchers as it is for the herders. Nothing more. And if everyone could just be fair, we wouldn’t need all these government rules. Those aren’t the real solution.”

Still, in case there was any danger of slipping in to the old “everyone’s the same on the inside” adage, there’s a key difference between what Roberts and Alvarado believe. Roberts believes that, “If you do something wrong, you’ll pay the price, guaranteed, every time.” Alvarado, responding to a question about how conditions might improve, said, “I don’t see any solution. Good people are wronged over and over again. That’s just how it is.” Roberts is looking at the industry from a position in which it’s possible to believe that those who are good get what’s good, but Alvarado has seen too many good people mistreated to believe that.

If there’s a fundamental difference between herders and ranchers, it’s not that one is suited to physical labor and the other isn’t. It’s that ranchers seem to have faith in the moral order of things. They’re just angry that the government is getting in the way of it. Herders, on the other hand, have been trying to work toward a moral order for a long time, and now they’re beginning to lose faith.

Despite what some see as stagnation, some of the herders’ advocates still have faith in progress, however slow. From where I stand, it’s still unclear what kind of story this is: a fruitless, perpetual battle, or a slow march toward humane working conditions. But scholars like Lee make good arguments that good conditions and wages can’t be secured within the parameters of the H-2A program. And if real improvement requires shutting down guest worker programs, the U.S. would still only be fixing the problem of legal agricultural worker exploitation. Illegal workers would surely take their place for a salary just as low.

At the end of it all, one herder’s exasperation might have captured the industry better than any analysis could. Toward the end of our interview, I asked him if I could use his name in the story. He said, “No, man, this industry is intense… the whole thing is fucked.” 

“The whole thing?” I asked. 

“The whole thing.”