WASHINGTON -- With immigration policy now a top priority of the Obama administration, advocates for comprehensive reform are urging lawmakers to improve the country's foreign guest worker programs, a system that critics say is equally dysfunctional and leads to abuse.
"It's a small piece of the whole puzzle but an important one," Ana Avendano, director of immigration at the AFL-CIO union federation, said Thursday. "The system is terribly exploitative. We're dealing with human beings, not commodities."
More than 100,000 foreign workers currently come to the U.S. to work seasonal jobs each year, many of them in low-wage, physically demanding roles, like agricultural field work, seafood processing and hotel housekeeping. Often traveling from Latin America, the workers fill positions that U.S. businesses say they have a hard time filling with local labor. Allegations of abuse, however, have become common, with foreign workers paying exorbitant recruitment fees at home and often being shorted on their pay in the U.S.
One of the larger problems is a lack of enforcement and transparency, according to Rachel Micah-Jones, director of the migrant worker advocacy group Centro De Los Derechos Del Migrante. On Thursday, Micah-Jones' group released a report on the State Department's H-2 visa programs called Recruitment Revealed. Nearly 60 percent of the workers surveyed said they paid illegal recruiting fees for their jobs, and nearly half said they had to take out a loan to cover travel and other expenses so they could work.
"Temporary workers are important participants in the U.S. economy and deserve to be treated with dignity," Micah-Jones said.
The report recommended that Congress overhaul the visa programs to hold U.S. employers liable for recruiting fees that workers pay, to extend legal aid to such workers and to create a public register of recruiters to increase transparency.
Centro De Los Derechos Del Migrante also unveiled a comprehensive web tool on Thursday that maps out H-2 employers in the U.S. and their recruiters abroad by drawing on public visa records. The tool is meant to help workers share information on working conditions as well as recruitment practices, and tracks allegations of fraud, predatory lending, substandard housing and the blacklisting of workers.
Adarely Ponce, a worker from Mexico, said at a press conference in Washington on Thursday that she's had three experiences with fraudulent recruiters in trying to work in the U.S. on temporary visas. She'd been recruited to pick apples in Michigan and to clean hotels in Las Vegas and later Louisiana. In each case, her handlers demanded recruitment fees she couldn't afford.
"I could tell you so many other stories of friends who've gone through similar situations," Ponce said through an interpreter. Of the fees demanded by brokers, she said, "Those kinds of quantities we're talking about lead people to lose cars, houses, land."
Some lawmakers have recently tried to change the guest worker programs, only to see the reforms delayed in Congress or hung up in the courts.
The Labor Department issued a series of proposals that, among other measures, would have required U.S. employers to cover travel expenses for workers and to advertise more for American employees before seeking workers overseas. Business groups like the Chamber of Commerce, however, have strongly opposed the reforms, and last year a bi-partisan group of senators ended up blocking them from going into effect. Business groups also challenged the new rules in court.
In one high-profile case of abuse last year, workers from Mexico at a seafood packing plant in Louisiana accused their employer, Walmart supplier CJ's Seafood, of forcing them to work 24-hour shifts under the threat of deportation. Walmart later dropped CJ's as a supplier and the Labor Department ordered the company to pay $214,000 for wage and hour violations.
Avendano of the AFL-CIO said the system in its current state doesn't sufficiently punish exploitative practices, giving poor employers an advantage over good ones.
"We have a system that rewards bad behavior," said Avendano. "If there's a process in which workers can come into the economy in a way that’s flexible and meets business needs, and workers can exercise their rights on paper, then that’s a win-win situation."