Immigration reform advocates say more protection needed for guest workers

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MIAMI - Advocates for workers' rights are ramping up pressure to include stronger provisions to protect guest workers from abuse in any new immigration reform legislation.

To that effect the Southern Poverty Law Center, at a press conference here today, said the immigration legislation must ensure that guest workers have access to free legal services, protection from wage theft, protection from unscrupulous foreign labor recruiters and the right to go to federal court to enforce those protections.

"We're closer than ever to getting a bill out of Congress but we are creating tens of thousands of new positions for guest workers," said Jim Knoepp, deputy legal director of the SPLC's Immigrant Justice division. "We must not simply extend the abuse that now exists, with some guest workers the victims of trafficking, to an even larger group."

Several former guest workers gave testimony to support Knoepp's position.

"I came from Ecuador where I heard about a job in the U.S. on my college campus," said Fernanda Defaz. "I paid $4,500 for a hotel management internship in South Carolina and I ended up cleaning hotel tables for minimum wage."

A former guest worker from Thailand described a similar situation.

"I paid $5,000 for an internship in Florida," she said, "but when I got there my job consisted entirely of making beds and cleaning toilets."

Jesse Panaguiton, a former guest worker from the Philippines, described how she was cheated out of six weeks' pay by shady labor brokers. "When I complained I was fired," she said.

"This is why immigration reform cannot slam the courthouse door in the face of guest workers," said Knoepp. "You need a lawyer's help if your boss won't pay you for the hours you worked. Under SB 744 [the Senate's immigration bill], workers with general, non-agricultural W, H-2B and RPI visas are denied access to legal services that the poor here get. All low-wage workers, including guest workers, should be eligible for this legal assistance."

Knoepp says that a second improvement needed in immigration legislation is a guarantee that guest workers can take action in court when the law is violated. While the new proposed law gives guest workers the right to the prevailing wage and while it makes retaliation and discrimination against them illegal, it does not give them the remedy of private court action. "That right to go to court is the only way some will be able to recover wages or hold employers accountable for abuse or discrimination," he said.

The SPLC also says it is essential that the bill's provisions regarding foreign recruiters remain intact. Some who want to weaken the bill claim there is nothing that can be done in the U.S. about foreign recruiters.

"U.S. employers often rely on people or agencies to recruit guest workers abroad," Knoepp said. "These recruiters charge exorbitant fees that force guest workers into debt, leaving them vulnerable to exploitation that can rise to the level of human trafficking."

The law center wants employers here to be accountable for the practices of foreign recruiters they use to staff their operations. The justification for this, the SPLC says, is that the U.S. employers are the direct beneficiaries of the unscrupulous policies of the recruiters.

The group also wants the path to citizenship section of the new immigration law to apply to all guest workers. "The path to permanency and citizenship must be broad and fair," Knoepp said, "reflecting the American value that those who contribute to the nation's success are equal members of our society."

Photo: Immigrant guest workers from India who were victims of human trafficking rally before delivering a petition and series of demands to the Department of Justice. Jacquelyn Martin/AP

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