WASHINGTON -- With Congress looking to make foreign guest worker programs part of its immigration reform package, advocates for low-wage workers said Tuesday that the programs already in place are rife with abuse and serve as poor models for an expansion or overhaul.
The H-2 visa programs administered by the federal government bring tens of thousands of overseas workers to the U.S. each year to work in mostly low-wage, temporary roles, such as landscaping or hotel housekeeping. Those programs are likely to be altered or expanded in a comprehensive immigration package, with labor unions and the Chamber of Commerce now hashing out what they'd like the new iteration to look like.
On Tuesday, the Southern Poverty Law Center released an update of an earlier report on those H-2 programs, aggressively titled "Close to Slavery." The civil rights organization has done some of the most in-depth research on guest workers in the U.S., and the report paints a damning picture of worker exploitation and failed enforcement and oversight.
Mary Bauer, the law center's legal director, told reporters in a call Tuesday that the current H-2 programs are far too flawed to serve as a basis for the new program now being considered.
"We do not believe these programs should be the model for immigration reform," Bauer said. "We believe they are inherently abusive."
The programs are meant to help U.S. employers fill jobs that they purportedly can't find local workers for, such as landscaping or seafood processing. Although the employment works out well for many workers, investigations have shown the arrangement can lead to exploitation or abuse. That includes in the foreign country, where workers often pay recruiters exorbitant fees, and here in the U.S., where the visa tethers the worker to a sole employer.
If workers complain about issues or abuses, "they face deportation, blacklisting or other retaliation," the report says.
Bauer said that a new guest worker program should rectify two problems with the current ones: The debt that foreign workers take on to get to the U.S., and those workers' inability to switch employers if they've been taken advantage of.
"Recruitment should be regulated ... and [workers] should be free to shop their labor where they choose," Bauer said. "That's the heart of our economy, and it's the one thing these workers are denied."
Two former H-2 workers joined the call with the Southern Poverty Law Center. One of them, who identified himself merely as "Franco" to protect his identity, said he came from Guatemala because of the lack of work in his home country. He said he often worked 12- to 14-hour days, sometimes making as little as $80 a week after deductions for housing and transportation. He said many of his fellow workers didn't have enough money to return home once their work period was over.
The other worker, Aby Poulose, said he was from India and had been employed on an H-2 visa by Signal International, a Mississippi oil rig company that was at the center of a guest worker scandal in 2007. In the 2007 scandal, guest workers said they paid huge fees to recruiters -- in some cases, $20,000 -- after being told their work visas would eventually be turned into green cards. After the allegations of human trafficking and abusive labor practices surfaced, the company claimed it had been duped by unscrupulous recruiters.
Poulose said he'd sold his property in order to cover the recruitment fees. "What motivated me was the promise of a green card," he said -- a promise that ultimately went unfilled.
In his State of the Union speech last week, President Obama asked Congress to send him a comprehensive immigration package in the coming months, putting pressure on the House and Senate to find compromise on a bill. Wade Henderson, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said he believes guest worker programs should receive the same kind of attention as border security and a pathway to citizenship.
"This is [an issue] that far too often receives too little attention," Henderson said of guest workers. "Unlike their employers, they have few places to turn. They exist in a netherworld."
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The Template: California Proposition 187 (1994)
California's Proposition 187 was submitted to the voters with the full support of then Republican governor Pete Wilson. It essentially blamed undocumented immigrants for the poor performance of the state economy in the early 1990s. The law called for cutting off benefits to undocumented immigrants: prohibiting their access to health care, public education, and other social services in California. It also required state authorities to report anyone who they suspected was undocumented. <strong>Status:</strong> The law passed with the support of 55 percent of the voters in 1994 but declared unconstitutional 1997. The law was killed in 1999 when a new governor, Democrat Gray Davis, refused to appeal a judicial decision that struck down most of the law. Even though short-lived, the legislation paved the way for harsher immigration laws to come. On the other hand, the strong reaction from the Hispanic community and immigration advocates propelled a drive for naturalization of legal residents and created as many as one million new voters.
The Worst: Arizona SB 1070
The Arizona Act made it a misdemeanor for an undocumented immigrant to be within the state lines of Arizona without legal documents allowing their presence in the U.S. This law has been widely criticized as xenophobic and for encouraging racial profiling. It requires state authorities to inquire about an individual's immigration status during an arrest when there is "reasonable suspicion" that the individual is undocumented. The law would allow police to detain anyone who they believe was in the country illegally. <strong>Status:</strong> The law was signed into law by Arizona Governor Jan Brewer on April 23, 2010. But it has generated a swirl of controversy and questions about its constitutionality. A federal judge issued a ruling that blocked what critics saw as some of the law's harshest provisions. House: 35-31 (4/12/2011)
Following Arizona's Footsteps: Georgia HB 87
The controversy over Arizona's immigration law was followed by heated debate over Georgia's own law. HB 87 required government agencies and private companies to check the immigration status of applicants. This law also limited some government benefits to people who could prove their legal status. <strong>Status:</strong> Although a federal judge temporarily blocked parts of the law considered too extreme, it went into effect on July 1st. 2011. House: 113-56 Senate: 39-17
Verifying Authorized Workers: Pennsylvania HB 1502
This bill, which was approved in 2010, bans contractors and subcontractors employ undocumented workers from having state construction contracts. The bill also protects employees who report construction sites that hire illegal workers. To ensure that contractors hire legal workers, the law requires employers to use the identification verification system E-verify, based on a compilation of legally issued Social Security numbers. <strong>Status:</strong> Approved on June 8th 2010. House: 188-6 (07/08/2010) <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/donkeyhotey/" target="_hplink">Flickr photo by DonkeyHotey</a>
A Spin Off of Arizona: Utah HB 497
Many states tried to emulate Arizona's SB 1070 law. However, most state legislatures voted against the proposals. Utah's legislature managed to approve an immigration law based on a different argument. Taking into consideration the criticism of racial profiling in Arizona, Utah required ID cards for "guest workers" and their families. In order to get such a card workers must pay a fee and have clean records. The fees go up to $2,500 for immigrants who entered the country illegally and $1,000 for immigrants who entered the country legally but were not complying with federal immigration law, <a href="http://articles.latimes.com/2011/mar/06/nation/la-na-illegal-immigration-20110306" target="_hplink">according to the LA Times.</a> <strong>Status: </strong> Law went into effect on 03/15/2011 House: 59-15 (03/04/2011) Senate: 22-5 (03/04/2011)
The Most Comprehensive: Florida HB-1C
Florida's immigration law prohibits any restrictions on the enforcement of federal immigration law. It makes it unlawful for undocumented immigrants within the state to apply for work or work as an independent contractor. It forbids employers from hiring immigrants if they are aware of their illegal status and requires work applicants to go through the E-verify system in order to check their Social Security number. <strong>Status: </strong>effective since October 1st, 2010
The Hot Seat: Alabama HB 56
The new immigration law in Alabama is considered the toughest in the land, even harder than Arizona's SB 1070. It prohibits law enforcement officers from releasing an arrested person before his or her immigration status is determined. It does not allow undocumented immigrants to receive any state benefit, and prohibits them from enrolling in public colleges, applying for work or soliciting work in a public space. The law also prohibits landlords from renting property to undocumented immigrants, and employers from hiring them. It requires residents to prove they are citizens before they become eligible to vote. The law asked every school in the state to submit an annual report with the number of presumed undocumented students, but this part, along with others, were suspended by federal courts. <strong>Status:</strong> Approved June 2nd, 2011 House: 73-28 (04/05/2011) Senate: 23-11 (05/05/2011) <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/longislandwins/" target="_hplink">Flickr photo by longislandwins</a>