Guest worker program needs reform of its own before including it in broader immigration reform bill

LatinaLista — One component of immigration reform that is considered to be the most “sellable” point is the guest worker aspect. Non-skilled immigrant labor is brought in on H2-A visas to perform temporary farm labor.

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This industry has always been in the forefront of attracting immigrant labor. According to a 2009 immigration factsheet: In an industry that produces 3 million agricultural jobs a year, less than 2 percent of the U.S. workforce engages in farmwork. The 550,000 farmers need to hire 2.5 million seasonal farmworkers.

As it is, each year, one-sixth of seasonal agricultural workers are “newcomers,” working their first season in U.S. agriculture. Ninety-nine percent of newcomers self-identify as not work-authorized or undocumented.

Proponents of lifting restrictions on H2-A visas always cite that immigrants really do do the work Americans don’t want to do when it comes to farmwork. Yet, critics of guestworker programs say it’s not enough to include it in immigration reform unless some reforms are made together with the agricultural industry that employs these workers — and with good reason.

Of all the components, employer abuse of undocumented workers is among the highest with farm owners. It’s not a new problem. Cesar Chavez devoted his life to securing the rights of farmworkers and the United Farm Workers organization continues that work today.

Yet, this is an area where abuse is rampant against immigrant laborers.

Right now, the federal government has brought a human-trafficking lawsuit against a California-based farm labor contractor and eight farms — the largest case of alleged forced labor of farm workers in the United States.

Two hundred men from Thailand were allegedly lured to work on various farms in California and Hawaii. Once they arrived, their employers demanded exorbitant recruitment fees, in the tens of thousands of dollars. These workers were told they had to pay the fees off. They worked in less than ideal circumstances and lived in even worse conditions. In the meantime, their passports were confiscated. They were subjected to physical, verbal and emotional abuse. If they complained, they were threatened with deportation.

Nobody would have ever known about this modern-day slavery ring had it not been for the Thai Community Development Center in Los Angeles. Several of the Thai farmworkers were able to contact the center and alert them.

Situations like this one happen with far greater frequency than the general public knows. The United Farm Workers (UFW) has championed several court cases on behalf of families who have lost loved ones working in the fields under inhumane conditions.

Knowing that farm employers routinely take advantage of farmworkers, the UFW is helping to push in California “The Fair Treatment for Farm Workers” bill which will help farmworkers unionize.

“There are countless cases and countless stories of farmworkers who are told that if they vote to join a union, they will be out of a job the next day,” California Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg told his colleagues. “They are told they will be reported to immigration.”

It’s a threat that carries a lot of weight with people who desperately need the money to do the job that doesn’t appeal to the majority of Americans — and who are ultimately doing us all a big favor.

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