Trump and Clinton ignored flaws in immigration system during debate

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During the third and final debate of the 2016 presidential election, the candidates continued their divisive discussion on immigration. Republican candidate Donald Trump argued the need for strong borders and an active deportation policy, while Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton focused on improving border security, while offering a pathway to citizenship for the 11 million unauthorized foreign nationals already in the United States. Interestingly, both candidates omitted a strategy to fix the broken legal immigration process, a critical issue facing millions of legal foreign nationals in and traveling to the United States for employment.

Clinton suggested that a pathway to citizenship would “get everybody out of the shadows” and reduce exploitation of unauthorized migrant labor. According to Clinton, undocumented workers are underpaid and if they complain, they are threatened with deportation. However, she neglected to acknowledge that this same problem affects legal non-immigrants as well under the current system. According to legal non-immigrant and H-2 visa holder Cirilio, “I felt trapped. My debts were mounting, but I was scared to leave the farm without my passport. I didn’t want to get deported and ruin my chances of getting another visa in the future.”

Labor trafficking is defined as “The recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for labor or services, through the use of force, fraud or coercion for the purpose of subjection to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage or slavery.” Shockingly, this is a pervasive issue within the guest worker and student visa programs in the United States. Foreign nationals are lured with the promises of steady and lucrative jobs, only to find upon arrival that they were deceived about their income and living situation.

For example, the J-1 visa program is supposed to provide temporary non-immigrant visas for individuals approved to participate in work and study-based exchange visitor programs. However, an Associated Press investigation found that while Hillary Clinton was Secretary of State, students were forced to work in strip clubs instead of restaurants and live in overcrowded apartments, while others earned $1 per hour or less. According to Terry Coonan, former prosecutor and executive director of the Florida State University’s Center for the Advancement of Human Rights, “It’s difficult to prosecute these cases because the workers usually leave the country within a few months. That’s why the J-1 is the ideal visa to exploit.” In response, “the State Department claims it has no authority to sanction employers and typically does little to help workers with employment-related issues.”

For years, this type of exploitation has affected legal non-immigrant guest workers in the United States without redress. According to the Polaris Project, which operates the National Human Trafficking Resource Center and hotline, there are six U.S. temporary visas commonly associated with labor exploitation and trafficking: A-3, B-1, G-5, H-2A, H-2B, and J-1. Between August 1, 2014 and July 31, 2015, 38% of all human trafficking cases referencing serious labor abuses, involved victims who entered the United States legally, with one of those six visas. These facts should be the catalyst for reform.

Given the abuses faced by legal non-immigrants in the United States, truly comprehensive immigration reform must focus on more than just what to do with the unauthorized foreign national population and how to secure our southern border. Legal non-immigrants are being exploited and face human rights abuses, which deserves the attention of our country and leadership from the next commander-in-chief. Providing unauthorized foreign nationals with a pathway to citizenship will not necessarily reduce their likelihood of exploitation, unless we also address the critical labor trafficking issues affected legal non-immigrants.

Mehlman-Orozco holds a Ph.D. in criminology, law and society from George Mason University, with an expertise in human trafficking. She currently serves as a human trafficking expert witness for criminal cases and her book, “Hidden in Plain Sight: America’s Slaves of the New Millennium,” is contracted for publication with Praeger/ABC-Clio. Follow her on Twitter@MehlmanOrozco


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