Many American workers know how a bad economy can chain them to a bad job or a bad boss. But what if you’re an immigrant guest worker and that boss holds your visa and can get rid of you with one phone call to the feds? What if he just threatened to call? Which would you choose – to be exploited or deported? To suffer silently here or in destitution back home?
There are laws to prevent such exploitation, but they often fail in the real world, which is rife with examples of abuses, and not just among the undocumented.
Hundreds of Indian shipyard workers brought legally to Mississippi under the H-2B guest-worker program organized hunger strikes and recently filed lawsuits protesting deplorable working conditions in what they called a system of human trafficking and involuntary servitude. The Departments of Justice and Homeland Security have been investigating. Farm workers and domestic workers regularly rally and plead for legislative help to escape abusive conditions.
A new bill from Senator Robert Menendez, a Democrat of New Jersey, and co-sponsored by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, a Democrat of New York, seeks to give these workers a chance to speak out. It offers temporary protection against deportation and retaliation for noncitizen workers – both visa holders and the undocumented – who file civil-rights or labor-rights complaints or are witnesses in lawsuits or criminal investigations against employers.
This gives time for labor agencies and law enforcement to investigate claims of workplace violations, investigations that now are often short-circuited after complainants disappear or are deported. It also expands a visa program for immigrants who are crime victims.
For too long the deck has been stacked against noncitizen workers. While the country has drastically ramped up the arrest, prosecution and deportation of tens of thousands of undocumented workers, it has done little to deal with unscrupulous employers who like their work force cheap, easily intimidated and disposable.
When one group of workers is powerless, all workers suffer. Mr. Menendez’s bill is essential civil-rights legislation that is long overdue and just in time.