Monday, July 14, 2014

Naomi Tsu: President Obama should take executive action to fix guest worker program

  President Obama acknowledged a painful truth about our nation’s immigration system this month: It’s not only broken, but some Washington lawmakers are unwilling to lift a finger to fix it. As the president noted, it’s “just politics, plain and simple.”

  This refusal by lawmakers to govern, particularly by House Republicans, is costing our nation dearly. The president has made the right decision to take whatever executive action is within his power, but there will be little meaningful change if he fails to address key issues.

  Some of these issues are obvious: He must end deportations that are fracturing families. Our nation also must stop using local law enforcement as immigration agents – a practice that encourages racial profiling and sows distrust between the police and the communities they protect.

  But there’s also a desperate need for reform within our nation’s H-2 guest worker program, which brings thousands of foreign workers to this country for low-skill, temporary jobs in agriculture, construction and other industries. As the Southern Poverty Law Center documented in its report Close to Slavery, these workers are often pushed into debt and exploited by employers.

  Unlike U.S. citizens, guest workers do not enjoy the most fundamental protection of a competitive labor market – the ability to change jobs if they are mistreated. Instead, they are bound to the employers who “import” them. If they complain about abuses, they face deportation, blacklisting or other retaliation. After sometimes paying thousands of dollars in fees to recruiters for these jobs, these workers simply cannot afford retaliation that will put them out of work.

  They are workers like Josy.*

  He paid more than $13,000 to a labor recruiter for a job in a Gulf Coast shipyard owned by Signal International. After leaving India in 2006 to work in the United States, he found himself living in a guarded, isolated labor camp where 24 men slept in one room with only two toilets. Although Josy was promised the opportunity to permanently settle in the United States, his H-2B visa was only good for 10 months. He had to keep working or face economic ruin from the debt he had incurred.

  The SPLC has filed a federal lawsuit against Signal, but lawsuits can be filed only after abuse has occurred. Executive action can help prevent this kind of exploitation. A good start would be an order that prevents the H-2 program from granting visas to employers unable to show that their recruiters are providing potential workers with an accurate picture of the jobs and the terms and conditions of their visas. This transparency would allow guest workers to make informed decisions about whether to leave their families to take the job.

  There are more steps the president can take to protect guest workers. Too often, guest workers are charged recruitment fees that are never reimbursed, leaving workers in debt and vulnerable. If employers want to use the H-2 program, then it needs to be made clear that recruitment fees are their cost of doing business.

  Employers need to understand that they must pay these recruitment fees up front or reimburse the guest worker. Currently, it’s too easy for employers to plead ignorance. An executive order can direct the U.S. Department of Labor to take the necessary steps to make this obligation clear and to simply deny visas to employers who refuse to comply.

  The president can also curb abuse by ordering the H-2 program to refuse visas to employers whose recruiters bring in more workers than needed, but still charge those workers recruitment fees. Refusing to provide these employers with H-2 visas can deter this behavior, which only serves to fatten a recruiter’s bottom line.

  These sensible safeguards would also help protect the interests of low-income U.S. workers. Because without a more level playing field, many employers will opt to hire guest workers who have fewer workplace rights and can be more easily exploited.

  There are certainly other aspects of our guest worker program that need to be addressed, but these actions are within the power of the executive branch and would blunt some of the worst aspects of the broken H-2 program. They are urgently needed. Capitol Hill may lack the courage to fix this program, but political cowardice shouldn’t excuse us from protecting these vulnerable workers. It is time for the president to act.

  *Not his real name.

  This article was published by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

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