Immigration Reform and Workers’ Rights
The New York TImes
February 20, 2013
Members of Congress and President Obama have been working in earnest to deliver on their promise to overhaul immigration this year. Mr. Obama would clearly prefer a bipartisan bill, and last week the Senate Judiciary Committee held its first hearing on possible changes in immigration law. News reports last weekend suggested that the White House would fashion its own bill should negotiations between Republican and Democratic supporters of reform collapse.
Yet, in all the talk of providing a path to citizenship for millions of undocumented workers while tightening border security, one important issue has, so far, received only passing mention: stronger protections for immigrant workers against exploitation and abuse. Such protections, essential to any reform plan, would help rid the system of bottom-feeding employers who hire and underpay and otherwise exploit cheap immigrant labor, dragging down wages and workplace standards for everyone.
Such abuses are easily visited on immigrant workers by unscrupulous employers who use the threat of deportation to force their victims into silence. This imbalance of power harms workers who toil in the shadows. But the system that recruits legal temporary workers is also a mess. In the event that an immigration overhaul greatly expands the number of guest workers — even hard-line Republicans have been talking about adding temporary visas in agriculture and in high-tech industries — it is crucial to avoid making the mess even bigger.
A new report by a coalition of labor, immigrant and human-rights groups has identified and examined “disturbingly common patterns” of abuse in America’s guest-worker programs. They are an alphabet-soup of visas with names like H-1B, H-2A, H-2B, J-1 and A-3, all having their own rules and little in common except, the report said, workers who are frequently victimized by “fraud, discrimination, severe economic coercion, retaliation, blacklisting and, in some cases, forced labor, indentured servitude, debt bondage and human trafficking.”
The abuses begin overseas, where workers pay recruiters steep fees and start their new lives in deep debt. Unable to leave abusive employers and with little access to the legal system, they suffer in silence. Those who do speak out are threatened, fired, deported, blacklisted. They have little opportunity to complain about unsafe working conditions, to sue for stolen wages or to assert their rights to overtime and time off.
Overhauling visa programs to ensure workers’ rights should be in the thick of the immigration discussion. For one thing, it’s a way to move past the deep divisions that have stalled reform. Labor unions have been wary of bills that include guest-worker programs because they don’t want the competition. But in a promising shift, the A.F.L.-C.I.O. and Service Employees International Union have joined forces with an old adversary, the Chamber of Commerce, in the current push for reform. The unions recognize that deporting 11 million undocumented immigrants is a delusion, and that the benefits of legalizing them far outweigh keeping them outside the law.
And if immigrant workers are free to assert their rights without fear, to bargain collectively and blow the whistle on bad employers, American workers can only benefit, too.