Mexican workers are people with “a good old-fashioned work ethic” who are “very friendly and easy to work with,” says www.mexican-workers.com. Labormex.com, which guarantees the lowest prices around for Mexican workers, boasts that hiring them is “the most cost effective way of handling all your agricultural labor requirements.” Some companies, however, temper their advertising copy with a warning: Don’t expect Mexican workers to respect your property, understand you or compete for excellence. According to the “Understanding Mexican Workers” section of Mexican-workers.com, employing Mexican workers requires a lot of patience.
These Web sites represent the brokers behind
America’s dysfunctional temporary-labor system. For over 20
years, the federally run H-2 or guest-worker program has allowed
employers to import seasonal workers from places like Mexico and
Thailand, as long as there aren’t enough American citizens to
fill the jobs. The special visas provided (H2A for farm work, H2B
for non-agricultural work like landscaping, construction and
service jobs in places like hotels or ski areas) are good for less
than a year, and workers can only stay in the country at the behest
of their sponsoring employer. If the worker is fired for any
reason, or the company runs out of work, the special visa
can’t be transferred to a job elsewhere. Instead, it’s
In the past, employers, especially
agricultural employers, have been reluctant to use the guest-worker
system. It’s relatively expensive and prone to the
inefficiencies inherent in shuffling paperwork between four state
and federal agencies. Of the approximately 1.6 million agricultural
workers, in 2007 only around 50,000 were legal guest-workers,
according to the Department of Labor. Though no reliable statistics
exist, most experts say that the vast majority of farmworkers are
Obviously, the U.S. immigration system is
in need of reform. The West’s reliance on a largely illegal
workforce encourages the proliferation of illegal smuggling
operations, which endanger average citizens as well as the migrants
themselves. Federal policymakers have been fantastic at explaining
the need for immigration reform, and totally inept at coming up
with good solutions. Almost all recent proposals, even those
suggested by progressives, insist on the necessity for a vastly
expanded guest-worker program, as well as a sealed border and
mandatory electronic verification of documents at the time of hire.
But this is a mistake: The guest-worker program in both its present
and proposed forms is a blight on our democracy and should be
The system is notorious for lousy work
conditions, wage and hour abuses, and a failure to provide adequate
housing and medical care. A recent report by the Southern Poverty
Law Center highlights many of the abuses. Despite existing laws
designed to protect workers’ rights, regulation and
monitoring is terribly limited. There are 6,700 businesses
certified to employ H-2A workers; in 2004, the DOL conducted 89
investigations. State agencies have an even more dismal record.
Furthermore, when abuse occurs, temporary workers have limited
power to enforce the terms of their agreements in federal court.
Under the terms of their visas, H-2B workers, whether in
agriculture or the service industry, have no access to federally
funded legal services. In the absence of comprehensive immigration
reform in Congress, the Bush administration has offered up some
questionable “reforms” of its own for the H-2A program.
But its changes would actually lower wages in many parts of the
country, ease labor protection and housing standards, and erode
some monitoring and enforcement. The Department of Labor, which is
currently reviewing the more than 12,000 comments it received this
past spring, says the new version of the rule published in the
Federal Register by the end of the year.
In the meantime,
states are creating their own guest-worker programs. Arizona is
considering a bill that would transfer most of the responsibilities
of the federal H2 program to state authority, pledging to reduce
bureaucratic red tape. If employees disappear, for example,
employers would have to report them to the state agency in charge
of the program; the employees’ visas would then be
immediately revoked, making them deportable. Already, Arizona
legislators have received calls from politicians in Oregon and
Colorado who want to pass similar bills next year. The Rocky
Mountain Farmers Union is urging legislators in Arizona, Utah,
Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico to draft legislation in 2009 for
an interstate guest-worker program. The lobbyists say it would be a
good way to pool resources and create regional flexibility.
But giving states the authority to oversee foreign
workers is probably illegal: Immigration falls under federal
jurisdiction. Even if states took over visa administration, the
Department of Homeland Security would still need to conduct
mandatory background checks to screen out criminals and terrorists.
Despite the fact that state legislators and lobbyists know
there’s a good chance their laws might not be upheld, they
see their efforts as a way to push the issue at the federal level.
“We’ve been waiting for Congress to act on a
comprehensive immigration bill,” says Arizona state Sen.
Marsha Arzberger, D, who authored her state’s temporary
worker bill. “This is critical to our economy. Arizona needs
the workers; we’re forcing Congress to do something.”
Arizona’s desire to avoid a labor shortage is
understandable. But the current system -- importing foreign workers
who are denied the rights of legal citizens -- comes dangerously
close to indentured servitude. When a worker’s visa is tied
to a specific employer, that worker loses all power to stick up for
herself. The current system makes it especially hard for poor
people who don’t speak English. These people can’t
vote; they’re hard-pressed to even make themselves heard. If
they speak up about abuses, they’re likely to be deported.
The United States tried this kind of thing before, mixing citizens
and non-citizens; it didn’t work out very well. For too many
years, certain classes of people -- slaves, women, non-property
owners -- were denied their rights and not allowed to vote. Our
nation has spent the past 200 years on a march toward increased
equality. Guest-workers, treated at times more like slaves than
like guests, subtract from such progress.
a huge step backwards,” says John Bowe, author of Nobodies, a
clear-eyed look at modern labor in America. At the very least, Bowe
says, guest-workers should be allowed to travel between employers.
“If you admit human beings into your social system without
giving them adequate protection, they’re going to be abused.
It’s not a question of if; it’s a question of when and
A Portland-based journalist,
Rebecca Clarrenwrites about the environment and labor issues for
various national magazines.