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Guest Workers in a Strange Land | The Nation

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Guest Workers in a Strange Land

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When President Bush's immigration initiative flopped in the Senate earlier this year, pundits hastily declared the start of his lame-duck presidency. Apparently, they forgot to tell President Bush. The Bush Administration has continued to quietly pursue major elements of an immigration agenda with simple changes to rules and regulations that conveniently bypass Congressional scrutiny.

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Deepa Fernandes
Deepa Fernandes is a Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford University and the Executive Producer of content at People's...

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Consider the "no match" rule, which, if implemented, would result in job losses for millions of undocumented low-wage workers in the United States. With the unwieldy and misleading title "Safe Harbor Procedures for Employers Who Receive a No-Match Letter," this rule, implemented by Executive Order, uses the Social Security database to search for any discrepancy between a name and Social Security number on the worker's W-2 form and the corresponding Social Security Administration record. It then gives the employer ninety days to clear up the discrepancy or fire the worker.

US District Court Judge Charles Breyer in San Francisco temporarily blocked implementation until a final ruling on its legality, likely in several months. If the court ultimately lifts the injunction, the rule will result in the mailing of over 100,000 "no-match" letters. Should this happen, not only would tens of thousands almost immediately lose their jobs, certain industries would also suffer enormously from the lack of workers. Then another part of the Bush immigration plan would then come into play, one that has so far been rejected by Congress: a vastly expanded guest-worker program.

A foreign labor program does currently exist and is known as the H2 visa. The H2 system tells us clearly what kind of a labor structure would be ushered in should the guest worker program be expanded.

The H-2 visa program was implemented in 1952 to fill the need for low-paying seasonal labor that farm owners claimed could not be found within the United States. H2-A is the sub-category for agriculture workers, while H2-B visas are for seasonal jobs that do not require a college degree--hotel workers in tourist towns or ski-lift operators. H-2B visas are issued for a period of up to one year. When the visa expires, the worker must leave the United States. The H2 worker cannot work for anyone besides the company whose name appears on their visa, otherwise they will have violated the terms of the visa, making them deportable.

An illuminating case study of the current seasonal guest worker program is currently playing out in the Gulf Coast region, which saw its population dramatically decline in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Kathy Fulton, an Alien Certification Officer at the Louisiana Department of Labor (DOL), described the process that US companies must follow to hire foreign workers legally under the H-2B rules. They must prove that no qualified US-born worker has applied for the same job. This translates to a requirement that a job advertisement be placed in a local newspaper where the job opening exists, to run for three consecutive days. If granted, this certification can last for a period of up to one year and can be renewed a maximum of three times. Given that so many residents of New Orleans are still living in shelters, hotels and trailer parks scattered around Louisiana and other parts of the country, only a select few would even see the newspaper ad.

The Decatur Hotels, which owns fifteen "luxury" hotels in New Orleans, took full advantage of the post-Katrina workforce displacement to aggressively pursue a new pool of workers. After successfully petitioning the Louisiana DOL for foreign workers, Decatur hired Accent Personnel Services, a Baton Rouge-based company to find workers in Peru, Bolivia and the Dominican Republic.

In late 2005, Pedro (not his real name), a middle-aged civil engineer, came to the United States from Peru on a H-2B visa. Pedro answered an ad in a Lima newspaper and went to an initial informational session that promoted the benefits of working in the United States.

"They were so nice to us and answered all our questions and made the jobs in New Orleans sound so wonderful," Pedro said. "Lots of money for the exact work we were doing at home."

It didn't take long for the recruiter to convince Pedro that a job in the United States was a ticket to quick riches. This is when, Pedro said bluntly, "the exploitation began."

Pedro said he paid the recruiter fee ($250 up front and then a further fee of $1,750 on acceptance by the US Embassy), a highly inflated charge for a round-trip flight ($1,200), the passport fee ($55) and US Embassy costs ($15), and that he was $3,270 in debt before even leaving Peru. His roommate Camilo claimed to have paid an extra $5,000 to the middle man who brought him to the recruiter and to owe $8,270.

Other H2-B workers who are currently working across Louisiana for other employers have reported paying up to $20,000 in fees to come and work for less than a year. Comparatively, Pedro is one of the luckier H2-B workers. Not only did he pay distinctly less than others, he also signed a contract with Decatur that guaranteed him a forty-hour work week at $7.79 per hour, company-furnished housing (for $50 per week), two low-cost meals per day and free transportation to and from work.

But Decatur never honored the contract, according to Pedro. Pedro said Decatur did not provide him with daily subsidized meals or a place to cook. He never received the free transportation promised by the company from work back to the hotel. He had to share a tiny motel room with three other workers and each worker was charged $100 a week for the shared room that they paid directly to Decatur. Pedro, with visible contempt, describes himself as tied in every possible way to Decatur, a relationship he says is one of "indentured servitude."

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