Immigration proposals fail to protect all workers

But inaction on immigration reform is a dangerous bluff in a high-stakes game, where we bet large sectors of our economy—from agriculture to construction and domestic work, to name a few—on “guest workers” with temporary visas, one of our nation’s most vulnerable workforces.

The uncertainty furloughed federal workers are feeling bears some resemblance to the constant ambiguity that marks the life of a temporary worker.  But, at the very least, an unsatisfied federal employee can make the decision to seek other employment.  They might even find higher pay, a better job title, or a different type of vocation altogether.

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Meanwhile, migrant workers who become construction builders, hospitality employees, herders, or factory workers, or find work in other, similar fields, are currently bound to their sponsoring employers.  These workers often come to the United States by paying substantial fees to recruiters, plunging themselves into debt in the process.  If a worker faces harmful or exploitive workplace conditions, the alternative is to return to the country of origin, which may not be a viable option with substantial debts to satisfy.  Workers are essentially trapped by their circumstances and a legal framework that benefits employers.  S.744, the immigration reform bill proposed and passed by the Senate—and currently pending in the House—would give these temporary workers the ability to change employers, but it limits them to only seeking employment with other employers who are registered to hire temporary workers.  Such workers would continue to be rigorously restricted in their employment opportunities, making it possible for companies to maintain their leverage against migrants.

Due to the existing legal framework, unscrupulous employers and their associates have mistreated immigrant workers specifically.  While S.744 proposes protections for migrant workers against unprincipled foreign labor recruiters, collects vital data on trafficking crimes, and provides for training of border agents on how to identify trafficked children, it fails to provide temporary visa workers the same employment protections to which other workers are entitled.  S.744 fails to provide temporary workers with the ability to change employers freely and the opportunity to become U.S. citizens.  That means that many workers who serve an integral role in supporting this country have no access to the American democratic system, which is completely antithetical to our nation’s founding principles and leaves these workers voiceless and vulnerable to exploitation.

Consequently, due to the current rubric, many cases involving employment violations and human trafficking have arisen.  Trafficking may occur in a commercial industry (such as agriculture, manufacturing, construction, restaurant work, domestic work, or commercial sex work) or in a private context (such as a forced marriage). Forced to work for very little or no pay and with restricted access to the outside world, trafficking survivors often live in extreme isolation and fear coming forward to seek help.

Take the story of Maria, who came to the United States on a temporary worker visa.  She worked as a housekeeper for a hotel, obtained loans to pay substantial fees to a recruiter to obtain this job, endured shoving and other physical harassment at the hands of her employer, was restricted from coming and going from herworkplace, was forbidden from speaking her first language, suffered from verbal mistreatment from her employer, faced daily intimidation, could not quit tofind another job, and did not know whom she could call for help.  She is not alone.  Migrant workers on temporary visas often struggle on a daily basis due to the severe limitations on their labor rights, rights that other workers in the United States possess.  The current immigration system—and the pending reform bill—fails Maria and hundreds of thousands of workers like her.

The American economy relies on migrants, like Maria, who travel to this country and create products, erect buildings, sewclothes, clean homes, and feed our children.  She and millions of others perform jobs that fuel our economy and help bind our communities and families.  They are husbands without their wives, mothers without their children, and young people without their siblings and other loved ones.  The Senate bill should have provided a roadmap for citizenship for these migrants in the same way that it has done for farmworkers.  Bestowing this option on them would have balanced the power more equitably between them and their employers.  No longer beholden to the whims of companies, workers would have more command of their lives and livelihoods. 

Immigrants’ rights are workers’ rights.  The lack of basic employment rights will continue to leave migrants vulnerable to exploitation, abuse, and trafficking by companies that value the bottom line over the dignity of their workers.  Our economy and our democracy are stronger when we protect the rights of the workers who keep America running.  And first and foremost that means a change in the way our immigration system classifies and treats temporary workers.

Suriyopas is an attorney and the director of the Anti-Trafficking Initiative at the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund.