Every year, hundreds of thousands of people from all over the world come to the United States to work in jobs of all skill levels on temporary guest worker visas, yet these legal pathways fail to empower working people with real rights and protections. As the debate over immigration reform heats up once again, the role and impact of the many visa programs that bring new workers into our country is often misunderstood and mischaracterized. Unjust immigration laws clearly have been used to lower wages and labor standards in the United States. However, the cause of this problem is not immigrant workers themselves, but rather a system that allows employers to hire people who by law have virtually no rightsand are therefore easy targets for exploitation and abuse. Reforming these programs is critical to building a rights-based immigration system that promotes shared prosperity and respects the dignity and contributions of all working people.
Our country is addicted to cheap labor, and our broken immigration system helps to feed the addiction. Immigrant workers themselves are not to blame for stagnant wages in our country. The problem is caused by employers who put profits ahead of people, and trample rights and drive down standards in the process.
A new initiative called Contratados, which refers to being contracted under a temporary work program, aims to give workers more power in the recruitment process and makes sure employers and recruiters are held accountable for their actions. Spearheaded by Centro de los Derechos del Migrante (CDM), a trans-national migrant worker center with offices in Mexico and the United States, Contratados features an interactive website, a hotline, pocket-sized know-your-rights comics, audio novelas and a transnational radio campaign designed to provide workers with resources to more securely navigate the recruitment and employment process.
The immigration reform bill being debated now in the U.S. Senate, which would provide a road map to citizenship for 11 million aspiring Americans, includes protections for foreign students who come to this country under a “summer-work travel” program.
But a USA Today story says au pair agencies, amusement parks, summer camp operators, hotels and others who count on this “cultural exchange” program for summer labor are lobbying to kill them.
Temporary foreign workers, from teachers to agriculture workers to au pairs, typically pay recruiting fees to individuals or agencies retained by U.S. employers seeking foreign labor. These fees can range from $500 to well over $10,000, even for temporary jobs that pay little. That means these workers arrive in the United States deeply in debt because they must borrow money, often at high interest rates.
While immigration reform advocates are still examining the legislation’s 844 pages, here are highlights that address some of the united labor movement’s key immigration principles, including moving forward on creating a road map to citizenship.
Gregory Cendana, executive director of the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance (APALA), warns that the national debate around creating a commonsense immigration process “has largely ignored a disturbing trend in businesses: the modern-day indentured servitude of temporary workers.”
The AFL-CIO and the SEIU are standing up to Republicans and business groups for fair wages in federal immigration reform. While the group of bipartisan senators, called the “Gang of Eight,” working on the immigration bill say that the bill is 90% done, much contention remains around the "guest" worker provisions in the bill. [In fact, the so-called “guest” worker provisions in the bill are not “guest” worker provisions at all. The AFL-CIO has insisted that any new foreign workers be allowed a road map to citizenship and portability between employers so that they are not indentured to a single employer as a condition of remaining in the United States —as is the case under most existing temporary worker programs.]
The AFL-CIO and the Chamber of Commerce have been working together to find common ground on comprehensive immigration reform. This morning, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka and Chamber of Commerce President Thomas J. Donohue released this statement on the groups’ shared immigration reform principles.
The United States will always be a nation of immigrants who have contributed greatly to the vitality, diversity and creativity of American life. Yet, like the rest of America’s immigration system, the mechanisms for evaluating our labor market needs and admitting foreign workers—as well as recruiting U.S. workers—for temporary and permanent jobs are broken or non-existent. Current immigration policies are rigid, cumbersome and inefficient. What is needed is the creation of a professional bureau in a federal executive agency to inform Congress and the public about these issues together with a system that provides for lesser-skilled visas that respond to employers’ needs while protecting the wages and working conditions of lesser-skilled workers—foreign or domestic. Current efforts at comprehensive immigration reform present a unique and historic opportunity for American workers and businesses to work together to fix this aspect of the badly broken system.
While the AFL-CIO continues to roll out its campaign for citizenship and fair, comprehensive immigration reform for aspiring Americans, lawmakers in Congress are considering a number of potential options for an immigration bill. It is no secret that the union movement and the business community have been discussing the “future flow” of lesser-skilled workers. There is consensus that, like the rest of America’s immigration system, the mechanisms for evaluating our labor market needs and admitting foreign workers (as well as recruiting U.S. workers) for temporary and permanent jobs are broken, or non-existent.