Be Our Guest

In the last six years there have been few issues where I would have agreed with George W. Bush’s rhetoric: his incessant harping about things in Iraq being merely illusions created by a misguided media; his refusal to admit to mistakes of any form; his belief that all power should be in the hands of the president.

Thus when he spoke of increasing the guestworker program in America to create a legal mechanism to alleviate the pressures of illegal immigration, I was surprised to find myself agreeing with much of what he said. I should have know better.

Newspapers and pundits have occasionally commented that the war in Iraq and the other minor problems with the administration (a hostile Congress, convicted White House aides, and most currently that pesky little issue surrounding Alberto Gonzales) all seem to be conspiring to keep George W. Bush from achieving the central domestic theme of his second term, restructuring the immigration system. (His landmark issue of the first term the No Child Left Behind legislation is also starting to crumble but that’s a different issue.)

Bush has repeatedly argued that there must be a legal safety valve to ease the pressures on American borders. I’d agree with that position; having low wage workers is important for the American economy and the likelihood of any other system working in the near future are slim.

The problem is that Bush also claims that an expansion of the current guest worker programs (H2 and H3) represents just such a safety valve. I beg to differ.

There is a new report out by the Southern Poverty Law Center discussing the current guestworker program and highlighting the problems associated with it. Indeed, the current system is so flawed it was deemed by Democratic Congressman Charles Rangel to be “the closest thing I’ve ever seen to slavery.” And that is the title the SPLC chose for their report.

The report does not make for comforting reading.

While it should be read in its entirety, the abuses documented show a consistent disregard of basic human rights – of basic human dignity. If we worry about how inmates are treated in Guantanamo, we should be equally concerned about the treatment ‘legal’ guest workers receive in “the land of unparalleled opportunities.”

The abuses show that workers mortgage their futures to obtain low-paying jobs under false pretences; are held captive sometimes virtually – sometimes literally – by employers and labor brokers; are often forced to live in squalid conditions; are routinely cheated out of wages; and are denied medical benefits for on-the-job injuries.

These abuses are not simply sporadic but systematic.

Even worse; it is up to the employer to obtain the visas necessary for employees to enter the US as a guest worker. They must show that they are unable to hire American labor and, in the case of agricultural workers, submit to a number of specific regulations. Even if it is proven that the employer has not met the minimum standards and is fined for violations by the Department of Labor, there is no mechanism to deny that employer from doing the same thing one year later – and the year after that – and the year after that.

The SPLC also documents a case where Del Monte used its employees to act as ‘labor brokers’ to hire guest workers. The workers were paid by Del Monte, lived in Del Monte housing but should problems arise, the workers could only legally sue the Del Monte employee, someone with no capital leaving the workers with absolutely no protection.

The introduction to the report apply summarizes the horrors that follow,

The H-2 guestworker system also can be viewed as a modern-day system of indentured servitude. But unlike European indentured servants of old, today’s guestworkers have no prospect of becoming U.S. citizens. When their work visas expire, they must leave the United States. They are, in effect, the disposable workers of the U.S. economy.

This report is based on interviews with thousands of guestworkers, a review of the research on guestworker programs, scores of legal cases and the experiences of legal experts from around the country. The abuses described here are too common to blame on a few “bad apple” employers. They are the foreseeable outcomes of a system that treats foreign workers as commodities to be imported as needed without affording them adequate legal safeguards or the protections of the free market.

The H-2 guestworker program is inherently abusive and should not be expanded in the name of immigration reform. If the current program is allowed to continue at all, it should be completely overhauled. Recommendations for doing so appear at the end of this report.

Thus, perhaps one can only hope that the current problems confronting the Bush administration remain insurmountable. We can only hope he does not get a chance to push his vision of reforming the immigration system by creating disposable slaves.

Perhaps that is the highlight in the scandal surrounding Alberto Gonzales. Bush does not have the free room to create legislation to exploit those who still live in the land of Gonzales’ forefathers. But if people can keep him tied up in his own scandals, all I can say is, be my guest.


1 comment so far

  1. Bill Compton on

    Hi Jim. Photos i received. Thanks

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: