Policies of Exploitation Doomed Immigration Bill
Plagued by anti-family, anti-worker provisions, President Bush’s immigration proposal was doomed at the onset. The bill abandoned long-standing U.S. policy favoring the reunification of families and failed to protect workers’ most basic rights.
To be effective, reform must address the real roots of the immigration crisis: an outdated system that creates a two-tiered society in which employers are able to roll roughshod over immigrant workers’ rights while lowering working standards for all workers. If adopted, the proposal would have only exacerbated this condition.
The best way to guarantee the rights and wages of all workers in this country is to give every immigrant the opportunity to become a citizen, with all the rights and duties that entails. At the same time, Congress must revise our immigration system so that in the face of labor shortages, future foreign workers may enter this country not as disposable “guests” but as permanent residents with the same rights and protections as all other U.S. workers.
Like undocumented workers, “guest workers” in this country face enormous obstacles in enforcing their labor rights. The H-2 guest worker programs bring in agricultural and other seasonal workers to pick crops, do construction and work in the seafood industry, among other jobs. Workers typically borrow large amounts of money to pay travel expenses, fees and even bribes to recruiters. That means that before they even begin to work, they are indebted.
According to a new study published by the Southern Poverty Law Center, it is not unusual for a Guatemalan worker to pay more than $2,500 in fees to obtain a seasonal guest worker position, about a year’s worth of income in Guatemala. And Thai workers have been known to pay as much as $10,000 for the chance to harvest crops in the orchards of the Pacific Northwest. Interest rates on the loans are sometimes as high as 20% a month. Homes and vehicles are required collateral.
Handcuffed by their debt and bound to employers who can send them home on a whim, the “guests” are forced to remain and work for employers even when their pay and working conditions are second-rate, hazardous or abusive. Hungry children inevitably trump protest. Technically, these programs include some legal protections, but in reality, those protections exist mostly on paper. Government enforcement is almost nonexistent. Private attorneys refuse to take cases and language barriers make it virtually impossible for workers to speak out.
History and common sense dictate that exploitation of workers will continue as long as it makes economic sense for employers to do so. We must step outside of the status quo and revise the current immigration law in a way that guarantees full labor rights for all workers within our borders and reflects real labor market conditions by restructuring the current permanent employment visa category. That is, future foreign workers should be welcomed as permanent residents with full rights at the onset — not as fungible units of production. This is the only way to guarantee that foreign workers enjoy the same rights and protections as all other U.S. workers, including the freedom to form unions and bargain for a better life.
With the support of the immigrant rights community, we will continue to pursue an immigration plan that places workers’ rights at the forefront and removes economic incentives for exploitation.
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