Category: News

Immigrants’ Greatest Fear Isn’t What You Think

indianworkers_katrina_apA federal jury recently awarded $14 million in damages to a group of courageous H-2B guestworkers from India who captured national headlines in 2008 when they exposed severe labor exploitation by a Gulf Coast ship and oil-rig builder called Signal International.

In 2015, Signal’s violations sound like something out of another era: human trafficking, forced labor, discrimination and racketeering. Their practices violate the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act, Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act and Ku Klux Klan Act.

I first met the workers one Sunday in 2007, weeks after they arrived in the United States. They had stolen away from a labor camp on Signal’s property to attend a clandestine meeting with me in a small church in Mississippi.

They told me how agents of the company had promised them good jobs as welders and pipe-fitters, along with green cards and a better life for themselves and their families. The workers paid up to $20,000 each based on these false promises. Some took on crushing debt; others sold ancestral homes to buy an American Dream.

They arrived in an American nightmare, subject to brutal working conditions, living with twenty-four men in a trailer and facing constant threats of firing and deportation. Instead of green cards, they received temporary H-2B guestworker visas. Now they were asking me: How can we make the company keep its promises? I said: By taking collective action.

A year later, late one night in March 2008, hundreds of workers and I were huddled in a room in Mississippi, just hours before they launched their public campaign to expose Signal’s abuses. As the organizer, it was my job to prepare them.

They had much to fear. They’d soon face covert surveillance by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the possibility of arrest and deportation at every step, and even threats of physical violence as they marched from New Orleans to Washington, DC, to hold a thirty-one-day hunger strike.

But that’s not what they feared most. To my surprise, their greatest fear was telling their families back home that they’d failed. They’d come to America, the land of opportunity, the freest place on earth, and they had nothing to show for it. In their darkest moments, it wasn’t Signal’s abuses that haunted them. It was the fear that they’d let down the ones they loved.

At first this amazed me—then I remembered I’d had exactly the same fear.

I came to the United States from India, to attend college at the University of Chicago. For a time, I thought my foothold in America was secure. Then, in 2000, I missed an immigration deadline and became undocumented. Unable to work legally, I fell behind on rent. I was evicted from my apartment. I lived on friends’ couches, and worked minimum-wage jobs alongside undocumented immigrants from around the world.

After the 9/11 attacks, the threat of deportation increased. More than once, I faced physical violence from strangers who projected onto my brown skin their own nightmares of another terrorist attack. Even so, what I feared most—more than homelessness and physical violence—was telling my family that I had failed. Here I was, in the land of opportunity. And I’d let them down.

The fear of admitting that you’ve failed to achieve the American Dream is hardly unique to immigrant workers. The reality for tens of millions of US workers today is not the climb toward prosperity they were promised, but the sense that they’re losing ground every day. That they’re one slip away from disaster. Workers in the US are working harder every yearwith less to show for it. They struggle each day with their own fear of failure, of letting down the ones they love—and with the sense that somehow it’s their own fault.

It’s not. They haven’t failed at the American Dream; the American dream has failed them. College professors are now poverty-level adjuncts. Educated millennials are now just-in-time retail staff. Seniors who should be retired have become migrant warehouse workers for Amazon. Contract attorneys with six-figure law-school debt are reviewing documents for $8 an hour.

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So how did the Signal workers overcome their greatest fear? By coming together to take collective action.

All around America, there are workers coming together to imagine an economy in which they’re truly free. They’re fighting for the new generation of rights and guarantees that would let tens of millions of US workers trade anxiety and constraint for dignity and creativity.

Those who believe in the promise of the American Dream need to remember that opportunity in America has always been won through generations of collective struggle. If we can imagine freedom in the face of fear, as the Signal workers did, then we can start to build an economy that will guarantee it.

http://www.thenation.com/article/200473/immigrants-greatest-fear-isnt-what-you-think

workermarch_350On Wednesday, February 18, 2015, a federal jury awarded $14 million in damages to five H-2B guestworkers from India who joined the National Guestworker Alliance (NGA) and launched a nationwide campaign in 2008 to expose human trafficking and forced labor by Gulf Coast marine services company Signal International, together with its labor recruiters.

The following is a statement by NGA Legal Director Jennifer J. Rosenbaum:

“If any further vindication was needed, workers whose brave action exposed human trafficking to the Department of Justice, Equal Employment Opportunity CommissionU.S Congress, and the national press have now been vindicated by a federal jury as well.

“The jury found Signal and its agents guilty of a shocking list of violations: labor trafficking, fraud, racketeering, and discrimination, based on the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act, Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, and Ku Klux Klan Act.

“But more shocking is the reality that thousands of H-2B guestworkers in the Gulf Coast and throughout the U.S. continue to face the same dynamics of forced labor that the Signal workers did. Guestworkers continue to be legally bound to one employer, trapped by debt from recruitment fees and costs, and subject to employer threats of firing and deportation in retaliation for organizing.

“The most extraordinary part of the Signal story is the actions the workers took. After joining the NGA, hundreds of workers escaped the Signal labor camp, reported the company to the Department of Justice, marched from New Orleans to Washington, DC, testified before U.S. Congress, and held a 31-day hunger strike that burned the realities of guestworker abuse into the national consciousness.

“They also exposed that Signal had a powerful ally in trafficking the workers: Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Court testimony revealed that ICE advised Signal on performing illegal private deportations to punish workers for organizing and cover up the abuse.”

 

NGA Executive Director Saket Soni said:

“When these workers escaped the Signal labor camps in 2008, many lawmakers had never even heard of guestworker programs. Since then, thousands of guestworkers, including hundreds of NGA members, have come forward to expose the coercion inherent in the H-2B and other guestworker programs. As widely reported, WalmartHershey’s, and McDonald’s have joined Signal in the shameful club of companies that have been exposed while trying to escape responsibility for severe abuse of guestworkers on their supply chains.

“As policymakers and employers enter a new round of conversations on expanding guestworker programs, we need to remember that what happened at Signal International wasn’t an exception but an extreme example of the rule.

“As long as these programs continue to tie workers to a single employer, trap them in program-related debt, and leave them subject to threats of retaliatory deportation, severe abuse of guestworkers will be an everyday American reality.”

CONTACT: Stephen Boykewich, stephen@guestworkeralliance.org, 323-594-2347

Immigrant workers and families say that Governor Jindal does not speak for Louisiana

10860251306_0a3536a7d1_zNEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA, February 17, 2015—A federal district court judge in Texas yesterday blocked the implementation of President Obama’s November 20, 2014, expansion of deferred action programs for undocumented immigrants. The case the judge ruled in was brought by 26 states, including Louisiana, represented by Governor Bobby Jindal and Attorney General Buddy Caldwell.

Saket Soni, Executive Director of the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice and the National Guestworker Alliance, issued the following statement:

“This temporary setback is based not on law, but on the politics of a small but vocal minority of ideologues. This group is putting the politics of panic ahead of a modest action by the president that would let immigrants with deep ties to their communities and no criminal records take a modest step toward normalcy in their daily lives.”

“We are confident the president’s actions are in the country’s best interest and will withstand full legal scrutiny. We urge the Department of Justice to act swiftly to appeal the Texas judge’s decision and put implementation of these expanded deferred action programs back on track.”

“In supporting this lawsuit, Governor Jindal does not stand for the workers, families, faith communities, high-road employers, or others in the New Orleans community who value the dignity of our state’s immigrant families. Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman joined dozens of other major city law enforcement leaders in a brief against the lawsuit, stating that ‘a preliminary injunction [against Obama’s immigration action] would cause significant harms and would injure the public interest.’”

“We urge New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, together with Louisiana elected officials, businesses, and community organizations, to express their confidence in the President’s immigration action and their support of Louisiana’s immigrant families.”

CONTACT: Stephen Boykewich, 323-594-2347, stephen@guestworkeralliance.org

On Thursday, November 20, 2014, President Barack Obama announced a plan for administrative immigration reform that will grant work authorization and temporary legal status to up to 5 million undocumented immigrants.

The following is a statement by Saket Soni, Executive Director of the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice and the National Guestworker Alliance:

url-5We applaud President Obama for getting on the right side of history. The reforms he announced tonight were possible because millions of immigrant workers raised their voices, and the president listened.

Why these reforms are needed is nowhere clearer than in New Orleans, where Immigration and Customs Enforcement has created a brutal regime of racial profiling-based community raids that have undercut basic civil and labor rights.

Still, the temporary reforms are exactly that. They are not a substitute for full citizenship in our democracy and our economy, and we will continue to fight for a path to citizenship for all 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States.

Because the 5 million people covered by the president’s reform are overwhelmingly the workers at the bottom of the U.S. economy, raising their wages and conditions will be crucial to lifting the floor for all workers in the U.S.

For years, we have exposed how employers in the South and around the U.S. use the threat of deportation as a weapon to stop workers from exposing labor abuse, and as a form of retaliation against worker organizing.

This makes it a major victory that the president’s reforms include expanded protections for victims of trafficking and other crimes who are participating in government investigations, as well as the creation of an interagency working group to “explore ways to ensure that workers can avail themselves of their labor and employment rights without fear of retaliation.” When the immigrant workers at the bottom of our economy can organize for their rights without fear of retaliation, it helps raise the floor for all workers.

At the same time, the millions of immigrants not included by the president’s reforms are at risk of becoming a permanent underclass of exploitable workers. Those workers deserve the same fundamental civil and labor rights that we all do—and we’ll keep fighting for them.

Finally, we are concerned that the U.S. will be bringing more guestworkers into the tech sector without fundamental changes to the H1-B visa program that give workers the right to organize and access basic labor rights. We will continue to be a voice for guestworkers and the U.S. workers alongside them.

CONTACT: Stephen Boykewich, stephen@guestworkeralliance.org, 323-594-2347

march-350WASHINGTON, July 30, 2014 — In a letter sent to the Obama administration, a broad coalition of 153 civil rights, faith-based, and labor groups urged that any executive action on immigration uphold workers’ ability to press for their rights on the job.

The letter to U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Jeh Johnson called for “measures to ensure that workplace retaliation and the enforcement of immigration law do not continue to interfere with workers’ ability to assert their rights on the job.” Secretary Johnson is developing specific recommendations on executive actions to address the broken immigration system at the request of President Obama.

As the letter states, the current immigration system is being abused by exploitative employers who use workers’ immigration status against them, maintaining an underground economy characterized by substandard working conditions and below-market or illegally low pay. Workers who complain about substandard or dangerous conditions, wage theft, or civil rights violations are threatened with firing and immigration-based retaliation.

“A policy change is urgently needed,” the letter to Secretary Johnson says. “We urge you to enact broad relief along with enforcement reforms to guarantee that DHS policies do not interfere with workers’ rights and that immigration enforcement and retaliation are not used by abusive employers. By acting and improving protections for workers who expose illegal workplace conditions, you will raise the standards of all this nation’s workplaces.”

Marielena Hincapié, executive director of the National Immigration Law Center, said, “All workers, regardless of where they were born, should be able to stand up for a safe and just work environment without fearing that they will be ripped from their families by standing up for the safety of their coworkers. Unfortunately, that’s the reality many immigrant workers face today.”

“Until this issue is addressed, abusive employers will continue to game the system at the expense of good employers, and workers’ job site conditions and pay will remain artificially depressed, dragging down the economy,” Hincapié said. “President Obama has the legal authority and moral responsibility to act now.”

Added Sarita Gupta, executive director of Jobs With Justice, “We have renewed hope that we will see substantive relief from our nation’s broken immigration system this year. But relief must come with the responsibility of ensuring that our nation’s most vulnerable workers will have their rights protected on the job. Bad employers should no longer be able to game the system at the expense of all working people.”

Rocio Saenz, executive vice president of SEIU said, “The letter is intended to call DHS’s attention to the downward impact that workplace immigration enforcement can have on wages and working conditions. Our experience is that some of the worst employers actually benefit from the current policies because those who pay the best in a given industry tend to be targeted disproportionately, which lowers wages for all workers.”

“We urge President Obama to take immediate action to protect the millions of immigrant workers currently facing labor abuse,” said Saket Soni, executive director of the National Guestworker Alliance. “The undocumented cannot be a permanent underclass of exploited workers. We need strong worker protections to end their exploitation — and to lift the floor for the tens of millions of U.S. workers alongside them.”

The letter to Secretary Johnson is available at www.nilc.org/document.html?id=1116.


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