Guest worker program remains stumbling block for immigration reform

By Father Tom Joyce, CMF| comments | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare
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In the campaign for comprehensive immigration reform it has been odd to see perennial enemies like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers working with labor unions. They jointly support giving the undocumented immigrant a pathway to citizenship as well as more visas for family unification. But when it comes to guest workers, they sharply split. If the current H2-B visa program for nonagricultural guest workers is not included in a comprehensive bill, both the C of C and NAM will withdraw support.

There are two programs for guest workers. The program for agricultural workers has its problems, but the United Farm Workers and immigration advocates have sat down and worked out a compromise with major agricultural employers called AgJobs that will probably be in a bill. But unions and many immigrant advocates are calling for deep changes in the H2-B nonagricultural guest worker program. They argue that lax administration has led to abuses in the program—from incorrectly certifying that there are not enough native workers for jobs to employer abuses on wages, hours, and safety. The pro-union Economic Policy Institute surveyed 15 states last year and found employers did not pay workers the local prevailing wage, as required by law, 98 percent of the time.

The Associated Press reports on a case of asbestos workers in Tennessee in which a native union worker was denied a job that went to a guest worker. The guest worker from El Salvador was abused by his employer and fired for complaining. He is currently in hiding as an undocumented immigrant.

Foreign guest workers—not just the Mexican in asbestos clearing but computer programmers from India as well—often describe their work as peonage or slavery. The fundamental flaw they see in the program is that their visa ties them to one employer. They are not free if that employer abuses them to seek employment elsewhere. Also they may have gone into debt to pay for travel and fees to contractors. That is against the law, but enforcement was rather lax and pro-business under Bush.

Unions and many immigrant advocates argue that if there is a renewal of the H2-B program it needs major changes. First, the need for guest workers must be honestly determined and the program should not be the source of cheap labor at the expense of native workers. Then worker visas, while still temporary, must allow for changing employers. Workers also should have the option of bring their families with them. All labor laws should be scrupulously enforced. And finally, the temporary worker, after having returned a number of times, should have the option of seeking a green card or permanent residency.

The differences between the C of C and NAM and the unions and immigration advocates may yet scuttle comprehensive reform. But if compromise can be found for agricultural workers, it can be found for H2-B workers.