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A new report from the Economic Policy Institute compares the economic outcomes of three groups of Mexican immigrants working in the U.S.: legal permanent residents (LPRs), unauthorized workers, and H-2A and H-2B temporary visa workers. There are two federal visas that allow employers to import unskilled, foreign workers on a temporary basis: the H-2A visa for agricultural workers and the H-2B visa for other unskilled labor, such as seafood processing, landscaping and housekeeping. The report, “Authorized Workers, Limited Returns: The Labor Market Outcomes of Temporary Mexican Workers,” finds that although H-2A and H-2B workers are lawfully present, their legal status does not give them an advantage over unauthorized workers. Both groups are paid very low wages and are vulnerable to exploitation and abuse on the job. The author concludes:

“The results of these analyses point toward the need for reforming U.S. temporary foreign worker programs. If temporary foreign worker programs are to be a viable alternative to unauthorized immigration, temporary work visas must appeal to potential unauthorized immigrants and must reduce the risk of abuse that workers in these programs encounter. Currently, visa restrictions tying temporary foreign workers to a single employer undermine the economic opportunities available to these workers.”

Changing the H-2 visas so that employees could freely move from one employer to another would greatly increase their bargaining power and ultimately improve wages and working conditions, but unfortunately that doesn’t seem likely to happen. A new comprehensive rule for the H-2B program published by the Department of Labor (DOL) and Department of Homeland Security (DHS) adds critical worker protections, but there is no mention of visa portability. Nor is there any indication from DOL that it intends to modify the H-2A visa any time soon.

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A grand jury in Greensboro last week handed down a 41 count indictment against the owner and operator of a firm that brings in foreign workers for temporary agricultural and non-skilled jobs in North Carolina and around the Southeast.  According to WRAL, the indictment charges Craig Stanford Eury and Sarah Farrell of International Labor Management Corp. with submitting fraudulent visa applications in an attempt to evade caps on the number of workers who can enter the country on H-2B visas and moving workers on agricultural H-2A visas into non-agricultural H-2B positions.

Much has been written about the problems with the H-2B and H-2B programs.  The Southern Poverty Law Center’s seminal report, Close to Slavery, details the exploitation at the heart of a “guestworker” system which ties workers to a single employer and provides no way for them, many of whom leave families year after year to perform thankless work in the U.S., to ever create a permanent home here.  The unfair treatment of U.S. workers who don’t get a fair shake at these jobs are described in Farmworker Justice’s No Way to Treat a Guest.  Hopefully those messages will not get lost in stories about an indictment that focuses on sleight of hand tactics to game a system that is, at its core, patently unfair to the workers (immigrant and U.S. citizen workers alike) who just want to support themselves and their families.