When Shellion Parris talked about her experience as a “guestworker” at the White House earlier this month, the 35-year-old Jamaican immigrant told a tale familiar to many immigrants. She had taken on debt to secure a work visa for the United States, because she had hoped to land a job as a cleaner in this country, only to be defrauded, forced into indentured servitude, and ultimately threatened with deportation. But she told a tale of heroism, too: She and her fellow guestworkers had staged a dramatic protest campaign in 2013, and she is now a leading immigrant activist.
She’s still fighting for relief and compensation for the injustices she’s suffered, but she says, “I am not intimidated… I’m ready to go on with the fight.”
But Parris could have told another, more common story at the White House Summit on Worker Voice. As she shook President Obama’s hand, she was facing exile. Her claim for immigration relief had just been rejected; she understood she could face deportation at some point—the immigration bureaucracy could abruptly cut off an ongoing struggle to defend workers’ human rights.
In a lengthy letter sent earlier this month, obtained by The Nation [PDF], US Citizenship and Immigration Services listed out her grievances and recognized her claim of “involuntary servitude.” But the evidence provided, the agency explained, wasn’t enough. Parris did not offer “relative and probative evidence” that her mistreatment had resulted in “substantial physical and mental health issues” that were severe and lasting enough to qualify for the relief she sought—a special visa for crime victims.
“I was astonished,” she recalls. “And then I started crying, because I was feeling the pain all over again, like I was feeling the abuse all over again.”
The rejection—which the National Guestworkers Alliance (NGA) says reflects a pattern of rejections of U-visa applications from the Jamaican workers—is coldly thorough. USCIS acknowledged many of the statements in the original labor complaint: to participate in the guestworker program known as H2-B, Parris and others had paid huge fees to a recruitment racket linked to the subcontractor Mister Clean, which provided housekeeping services to the Florida luxury hotels. The promised jobs never materialized; what meager wages Parris did scrape up with sporadic cleaning shifts paid little to nothing, while she faced mounting debt compounded by exorbitant fees unfairly deducted from her checks. The workers were crowded into ramshackle housing and were basically legally captive, as their visas were tied to their employment arrangement with Mister Clean.
The visa she and fellow workers have applied for, the U-visa, is designated for victims of crime in the United States who have participated in an investigation and “suffered substantial physical or mental abuse as a result” of their victimization. It’s the word, “substantial,” that apparently provides the wiggle room for vague denial. Despite having triggered a federal investigation, with ample supporting evidence from legal advocates, her harm, according to the agency, somehow wasn’t substantial enough.