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By Mica Rosenberg and Megan Twohey
COVINGTON, Virginia, Dec 23 (Reuters) - It was after midnight last spring when a bus dropped 20 road-weary Mexican workers outside this city of 6,000 people.
They had cleared customs, crossed the U.S. border, and spent parts of three nights in the bus before arriving at their new home for the next six months: a traveling carnival called Cole Shows Amusement Company.
No matter how many hours they worked, each would earn $316.22 a week after taxes for assembling the rides, tearing them down and doing anything else to keep the show on the road.
Their new boss, R.C. Cole, greeted the workers and ushered them to the windowless trailers with narrow, 6-foot-long rooms - their living quarters for the coming months.
"Is there a bulb in there," Cole asked in a gravelly drawl, futilely flipping a switch in one of the rooms. "No? We'll need to get a new bulb over here."
Cole could handle the trailer repairs. But he and more than 150 other carnival owners and concessioners across the nation have come to rely on a specialist to find the workers and get them the visas they need to work in the United States.
Enter James Judkins, a man familiar with the needs of a traveling show. A former circus owner who once performed as a fire-eater and juggler, Judkins has emerged as the largest purveyor of Mexican workers for the $500 million-a-year carnival industry. He is among a growing number of brokers who have become experts in securing visas and helping U.S. companies find cheap foreign labor.
The visas allow hundreds of thousands of workers from Mexico and other nations to come to the United States for months or years at a time and then return to their home countries. Democrats and Republicans alike see them as a welcome alternative to undocumented workers. Businesses owned by Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump are among those that have hired foreign workers for temporary jobs.
But critics contend that the visas programs, especially the one used by carnivals, leave workers vulnerable to exploitation. Under the H2B visa program, employers are allowed to hire foreign workers for low-skill, seasonal jobs that Americans don't want. Government oversight is minimal.
Judkins, 58, teamed with a former circus colleague in Mexico to create what his website calls a "one-stop shop" for employers looking to use foreign workers on H2B visas. Not only does he recruit the workers, but Judkins also navigates the visa process and arranges for their transportation to the job sites. He charges the carnivals $300 per worker, Judkins said.
Supplying inexpensive labor has become especially critical to sustain the carnival industry, a part of Americana since the Ferris wheel was introduced at the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago.
"American employers need these workers," Judkins said, "and the workers need these jobs."
Since he launched JKJ Workforce in 2003, business has boomed. In his first year, Judkins gained U.S. government approval to bring about 100 workers into the country. This year, Judkins or those who work for him secured approval to bring in almost 4,000 Mexican workers, according to U.S. Department of Labor data. That would make him responsible for more than half of the foreign workers who handle the rides, booths and other concessions at America's traveling carnivals.
The role requires Judkins to draw on a different sort of juggling skills than those he learned during his decades in the circus. Talkative and genial, he lobbies lawmakers on labor issues. He organizes convoys of buses to get workers through crime-ridden parts of Mexico and into the United States. He also troubleshoots problems that inevitably surface after workers arrive in America.
In recent months, Judkins said, he arranged for the body of a worker who committed suicide during the spring to be sent back to Mexico, and he helped one jailed worker find a lawyer. Judkins said only that the man was accused of sexually abusing a carnival patron, pleaded guilty to a lesser charge and was released.
His company also is a subject of complaints filed in 2014 with the National Labor Relations Board. The charges, which Judkins disputes, allege that he illegally created a union to keep wages low for the Mexican carnival workers.
To attend an annual festival for the returning workers, Judkins travelled last week to the Mexican city of Tlapacoyan. That's where partner Victor Apolinar, 48, recruits the workers who Judkins then matches with his clients. The relationship provides inexpensive labor for the carnival industry and opportunities for residents of the city of almost 60,000 about 300 km east of Mexico City. Work in the nearby citrus and banana fields pays around $10 a day, about a quarter of what's offered by the carnivals.
Judkins and Apolinar often rely on past workers to vouch for new hires.
"In the beginning, when I was given the opportunity, I went to contact people at their homes to ask if they wanted to go to the U.S.," Apolinar said as he sipped hot chocolate outside the church in Tlapacoyan's town square earlier this year. "They began to see that it was beneficial to their families and started to say, 'Look here, I have a brother, I have a friend who also wants to go.' And that's how the network grew."
The network has served him well. In 2013, so great was Apolinar's popularity that he was elected mayor of Tlapacoyan.
The second oldest of 10 siblings, Apolinar says he understands the predicament that many in his native Tlapacoyan face. Apolinar recalled how, as a teenager, he was hungry for job opportunities in America. Seasonal work at a circus provided a ticket across the border.
There he met Judkins, who had been working circuses since college. Apolinar soon picked up the nickname "Pony" for handling the pony ride.
When Judkins started a circus of his own, Circus Chimera, Apolinar signed on, traveling back and forth from Mexico each year on a work visa. After Judkins launched JKJ Workforce, Apolinar agreed to spearhead recruitment in Tlapacoyan.
Judkins and Apolinar say the carnival workers they recruit pay only the cost of visa processing and transportation to the United States, around $300, as legally permitted, and that certain carnival employers reimburse these fees. They say they have never charged workers for the jobs themselves, a violation of American law, and many workers attest to that.
Some workers, however, offer less-than-glowing reviews of their experience. Because Judkins and Apolinar have plenty of applicants to choose from, workers say it's difficult to complain about working conditions without fear to being blacklisted. Workdays can last for 20 hours, and after they arrive in the United States, workers have few options but to do as they are told.
"You can't say anything because if you do, the recruiter will say, 'You cause a lot of conflict, you won't be going back'," said Jorge Garcia, who worked for eight seasons at carnivals.
Garcia is among a group of workers that recently reached a confidential settlement with one carnival company, Fiesta Shows. The class action suit, filed in October of 2013 in U.S. District Court in Massachusetts, alleged that the carnival should have paid workers hourly, rather than a flat fee.
Fiesta Shows did not respond to calls seeking comment.
Judkins said he never would blacklist workers who voice concerns. He said Garcia never complained to him about what the carnivals paid and that he did not know the details of the Massachusetts case.
Under the federal regulation of the visa program, employers must agree to pay the workers minimum wages approved by the U.S. federal government. One of the few legal alternatives is if a union representing the workers agrees to lower pay.
In 2013, dozens of Judkins' carnival clients began entering into collective bargaining agreements with the Association of Mobile Entertainment Workers, which claimed to be a union representing the Mexican workers.
The association agreed that its members would be paid at a weekly, rather than hourly, rate. Worker advocates contend that an hourly wage is legally required and would be much higher than the flat weekly scale.
Whether the group truly represented the workers is now a point of contention.
Documents submitted by the union to the federal government show that several of Judkins' top aides are officers of the union. In fact, three top officers are members of Apolinar's family. The association also is registered in Maine under the name of Judkins' sister, Deborah Judkins.
It's against the law for an employer or its agents to assist in the creation of a union. In 2014, lawyers concerned about the carnival workers filed complaints with the labor relations board, alleging that the association, the employers and JKJ Workforce had done just that.
The union is essentially a ruse, created by Judkins himself to suppress wages, said Art Read, an attorney with Florida Legal Services who helped file the complaints. "What was surprising was their brazenness, this notion that they were so bold to come up with this approach," Read said.
In November, the association entered a settlement with the labor relations board in which it agreed to dissolve the collective-bargaining agreements from 2014 and reimburse $25,000 of dues and fees to the workers. Last week, the board finalized a separate settlement with 33 employers who agreed to pay an additional $37,000 in dues and fees that had been withheld from workers' wages.
The lawyers' complaint against the employers is still pending. So is the one against Judkins. The lawyers hope the board will obtain hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost wages from the employers for the workers. Citing the ongoing investigation, a spokesman with the labor relations board declined to comment.
The carnival companies said neither they nor Judkins had done anything wrong. They insisted the workers wanted the union.
Employer Betty Gillette, president of Gillette Shows, said her company settled the case to avoid the attorney fees that an ongoing legal battle would've required. She praised Judkins and the Mexican carnival workers he recruits for her. The problem, she said, was bureaucracy.
"The government makes it hard on all of us," Gillette said. The documentation needed to hire foreign workers, and now the involvement of the labor relations board, is onerous, she said. "I don't understand why it has to be so hard with a lot of paperwork, regulations and rules."
Judkins said the union is legitimate, although he offered conflicting accounts of how it came to be. He initially said that one of his employees, the sister-in-law of partner Apolinar, hatched the idea. In a subsequent interview, Judkins said the workers themselves came up with the plan.
He called the complaints offensive because they implied that workers weren't smart enough to unionize on their own. That's also the view of his sister, Deborah, a former part-time town administrator in Upton, Maine. She said she agreed to help run the union at the request of Judkins and one of his Mexican agents, who helped organize it.
Judkins said a weekly pay rate ensures workers get a minimum salary even when they work less than 40 hours. The collective bargaining agreements would offer other benefits too, such as a guarantee of free housing, Judkins said.
In meetings with federal lawmakers, Judkins has lobbied for fewer restrictions on how companies choose to reimburse foreign workers. He's also involved in four lawsuits that challenge efforts to increase government regulations of the foreign worker program.
Workers say that they have little choice but to accept the conditions of their employment if they hope to work another carnival season.
One worker, Hugo Ruiz, said he enjoyed his stint at Cole Shows Amusement Company this year. But he said the carnival he worked at the summer before required him and others to work for as many as 20 hours a day. He said he never complained to Apolinar or Judkins about the previous employer for fear they would label him a troublemaker and keep him from returning to the United States for more work.
"I thought, 'I don't want to get involved in problems, better to just endure it. Just shut your mouth and don't say anything,'" Ruiz said.
Still, Ruiz remains grateful for the opportunity. On the bus ride from Tlapacoyan to Covington this year, he kept a journal. In one entry, Ruiz wrote about looking forward to crossing the border to "begin the American Dream."
That's also how many of the other workers view their experience.
In October, the last month of the carnival season for Cole Shows, the Mexican workers gathered outside their mobile bunkhouses at the Halifax County fairground in South Boston, Virginia. Over a lunch of chicken marinated in chili flakes and pork chops, they reflected on the past six months of work as they prepared to return to Mexico.
Eduardo Sesena, 19, said he was grateful for the job - and for the help that carnival owner Cole provided. Cole lent Sesena money to pay for ultrasounds and other medical tests for Sesena's wife, who learned she was pregnant the day he got word of his carnival job, he said.
He hopes to return next year. (Additional reporting by Ryan McNeill. Edited by Blake Morrison)