Immigrants need the safety that asylum can provide — not temporary work visas
Next week Vice President Kamala Harris will visit Mexico on her first official international trip as VP. At the top of her agenda? Migration — specifically, “the root causes of migration” from the Northern Triangle of Central America (Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador). As Northern Triangle families arrive at the U.S. southern border seeking safety through asylum, the root causes of their migrations are clear: Brutal militarization, state violence and other human rights abuses, environmental degradation stemming from climate change and extractive industries, and poverty have forced families to flee.
Advocates from around the globe will be watching Vice President Harris and looking to her and President Biden to drive substantive policy change that truly addresses the challenges facing immigrants, workers and asylum seekers. It’s easy to be tempted by flashy, shallow fixes to these challenges, but President Biden and Vice President Harris have a choice. They can keep their campaign promise to rebuild and strengthen America’s asylum system, giving children and families the safety and permanency that our laws require, and adopt policies that reflect the complexity of the region’s challenges. Or they can respond with the type of misguided quick fixes that perpetuate inequality across the Americas and exacerbate the grave risks of extortion, trafficking and violence.
So far, the Biden-Harris administration’s response to these asylum seekers is profoundly troubling. Last week the administration announced that it would expand U.S. temporary guestworker programs, with 6,000 new H-2 temporary work visas destined for Northern Triangle workers.
Would-be immigration reformers agree with this approach, claiming that guestworker programs will fix our broken immigration system while solving the humanitarian crisis and economic challenges in Central America. Businesses get low-wage workers for frontline jobs. Central Americans get temporary visas for temporary work in the United States. A win-win, right?
The children and families huddling on international bridges at the border, waiting in long lines after dangerous journeys, need the safety and permanency that asylum can provide — not temporary work visas.
As the founder and executive director of Centro de los Derechos del Migrante, Inc. — the first transnational workers’ rights organization based in Mexico and the United States — I have seen the devastating consequences of broken and unregulated guestworker programs across labor sectors for the past 15 years. And as chair of Migration that Works, a coalition of labor, migration, civil rights and anti-trafficking organizations, and academics, I have helped document how the structural flaws in visa programs harm workers recruited to work in the U.S.
From crabpickers on Maryland’s Eastern Shore to teachers in Louisiana, workers face disturbingly common patterns of abuse. Abuses begin in international labor recruitment when companies lie about wages and working conditions. Or, recruiters charge fees for U.S. jobs that don’t exist. Employers and recruiters routinely discriminate against internationally recruited workers because of their race, age or gender, illegally hiring them into lower-paying positions or refusing to hire them at all. In the United States, employers often pay unlawfully low wages and send sick and injured workers home without compensation. If a worker dares to quit, their temporary visa typically expires, making it nearly impossible for them to switch employers or access justice.
The Trump administration wrecked our asylum system and expanded the broken guestworker programs during the global pandemic. The government’s hypocrisy was as vile as it was stunning. After violently separating thousands of children from their families, it forced tens of thousands of people to remain in tent camps in northern Mexico while their asylum claims were adjudicated in U.S. immigration courts. At the same time, it expanded guestworker programs during the pandemic to profit off migrant workers’ labor. Now, expanded recruitment of guestworkers in the Northern Triangle countries is seen as an easy way out.
To achieve meaningful reform, Congress, President Biden and Vice President Harris must respond to each immigration challenge with policy solutions that reflect immigrants’ voices, experiences and priorities. Asylum seekers need safety and permanence. And internationally recruited workers need visa programs that shift control from employers to workers, elevate labor standards, respect family unity, ensure equity and access to justice, and give migrant workers an accessible pathway to citizenship. Guestworker visas are not a response to the root causes of migration. In responding to the people seeking safety at the southern border, I urge Vice President Harris not to be tempted by easy fixes that would exacerbate inequities in our immigration system.
Rachel Micah-Jones is founder and executive director of Centro de los Derechos del Migrante, Inc., the first transnational workers’ rights organization based in Mexico and the United States.