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As Immigration Reform Heats Up, Civil Rights Group Continues Campaign Against Exploitative Guest Worker Programs

Photo from an immigration rally in Southern California.

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.

The current H-2 guest worker program is a perfect example of the type of program that has failed to serve the interests of workers, whether foreign or domestic.  The systemic flaws in the program are described in a report by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) titled Close to Slavery. In an update to the 2007 report released this week, SPLC continues to make the case that lawmakers need to abandon the idea of using the H-2 programs as a model in future legislation. Says Mary Bauer, SPLC’s legal director, “Lawmakers should seize this moment to stop the rampant exploitation and legalized human trafficking enabled by a failed guest worker system.”

Indeed, the H-2 program has brought about a number of alarming cases of civil and human rights violations and trafficking for labor exploitation, essentially “compelled service.” For example, among the many cases documented in the report is Julia's story. In the spring of 2009, Julia arrived in Florida on an H-2B visa to work as a hotel housekeeper. She borrowed nearly $1,500 to pay recruitment fees and other expenses and, upon arrival, the employers made excessive deductions for rent, transportation and fees, which lowered her pay below the federal minimum wage. When she and her co-workers gathered to protest rampant wage theft, the employers warned the workers that if they left the hotel premises or looked for a second job, they would be deported. As Julia recalls, “I was so devastated by our situation. I wanted to go home, but I couldn’t because I had no money. I also couldn’t get another job.”

The original 2007 report shed light on these systemic problems and forced lawmakers to recognize that they were not just isolated instances of a few “bad apple” employers and SPLC’s current update renews the focus on abuse in these programs. While the current administration has made some attempts to regulate the programs, reforms have been blocked largely by employers and business interests, like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. 

Working people, regardless of where they came from, deserve protections and a voice on the job. Immigration reform should uphold these values and not expand a program that emphasizes low wages and allows for the exploitation of vulnerable immigrant workers. 

Read more about the union movement's blueprint for commonsense immigration reform

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