Most members of Congress know very little about the H-2 guest worker visa programs, and, unfortunately, what they do know is mostly from speaking to a handful of business people who use the program or from listening to lobbyists who market ridiculous “studies” about how H-2 workers help the economy. They might have an image in their minds of “guest” workers lining up to take good jobs in the United States that no one else wants, and happily returning year after year. But Congressmen have little contact with H-2 workers and most are unaware of the widespread and ugly abuses that have marred the programs for decades. If they knew how often the programs have been used to exploit, cheat, and degrade foreign workers, they would realize it is no better than the infamous Bracero program of 50 years ago and should be either drastically reformed or abolished.
The Southern Poverty Law Center has been representing H-2 workers throughout the southern U.S. for years, hearing their stories of abuse and exploitation and suing on their behalf to recover at least some of the wages promised but unpaid, the fees extorted from helpless victims, the travel costs and debts incurred in return for unkept promises of well-paid, steady work. SPLC’s experience is captured in its new report, Close to Slavery 2013, which every journalist and immigration policy expert ought to read.
Every H-2 worker is not mistreated, but as Close to Slavery makes clear, so many workers are so badly abused that the program can’t be allowed to go on as it has. Year after year, international recruiters trick unsophisticated foreigners into borrowing large sums of money for the right to have a good job and substantial earnings in the U.S., only to find themselves locked into rural labor camps, poorly housed and fed, treated like prison labor, paid far less than promised, and then forced to repay recruiters and employers for expenses never mentioned during recruitment. SPLC has represented thousands of abused workers and won tens of millions of dollars in damages, but most H-2 workers have no access to our legal system, and even the judgments won often go unpaid.
Attempts by the U.S. Department of Labor to fix the H-2B non-agricultural program through regulatory improvements have been blocked by senators and congressmen from both parties who either don’t understand or don’t care that allowing these abuses to continue hurts U.S. workers, not just the foreign victims. The government’s failure to fix the well-documented problems in the program’s design makes it clear that any expansion of the program must be defeated. Real immigration reform would include reform of the H-2 visa and much tighter controls on the businesses that compete by exploiting the program and the guest workers themselves.