It’s late afternoon at the Latin Labor Solutions recruitment office in Monterrey, Mexico, and hundreds of prospective workers are crammed into the narrow alleyway between the office and the building next door, waiting restlessly in the 90-degree heat. They perch on duffel bags or lean against the stucco walls–older cowboys in straw hats and silver belt buckles, young city types in sunglasses and baseball caps. Many have traveled for days, with little sleep, from distant villages. In a few minutes they will discover whether the US Consulate has approved their application for temporary labor visas or if they must return home defeated.
Just when the smell of sweat has become unbearable and an impatient whistle travels through the crowd, Salvador Morales, the office’s clean-cut, broad-shouldered manager, peeks his head out a door and begins to call names in a booming voice. The first lucky man staggers forward, tired but grinning. A cheer goes up as he takes his passport with the visa stapled to it, as paper-thin and precious as a winning lottery ticket in a country where success in El Norte is the ultimate prize.
These workers, along with more than 150,000 others from countries as close to the United States as Mexico and as far-flung as India and Thailand, are part of an army of foreign low-wage labor legally imported each year by American companies under a government program known as H-2. Created during World War II to provide workers of last resort for agriculture and other seasonal industries, the program has since grown dramatically amid rising demand from employers in a broad range of industries that were never envisioned when the program was created and that can only vaguely be described as seasonal. Guest workers make chocolate in Louisiana, staff hotel desks in Florida and mow lawns in Missouri. They toil in some of the country’s most difficult and dangerous industries, from shipbuilding to asbestos removal to forestry.
While unfamiliar to most Americans, the program has become the template for an expanded guest-worker program now being hotly debated in Congress. Proponents of the plan argue that temporary labor visas give immigrants greater rights and protections while providing employers with a reliable labor force. Yet workers, labor organizers, lawyers and policy-makers say the history of the H-2 visa delivers a very different lesson. They charge that a program designed to open up the legal labor market and provide a piece of the American dream to immigrants has instead locked thousands of them into a modern-day form of indentured servitude. Congressman Charles Rangel has called guest-worker programs “the closest thing I’ve ever seen to slavery.”
Brought in to work for specific companies on stints of up to a year, guest workers cannot legally leave their jobs even when their employers are abusive. While some earn enough to buy a house or open a business in their home countries, others accrue crushing debt to labor contractors who demand thousands of dollars in fees to connect them with US employers. The Labor Department does not enforce the conditions guaranteed by employers in visa petitions, and there is little recourse for those who are cheated out of promised wages or work hours. Often living in isolated communities where few people speak their language, guest workers rarely complain about mistreatment.
“Many guest workers have told us [their situation] is worse than being undocumented,” says Mary Bauer, a lawyer with the Southern Poverty Law Center who has filed several class-action suits on behalf of guest workers. “The employer controls the worker’s right to be in the United States. And that creates a dramatic disparity in power between the worker and the employer.”