Fighting Worker Exploitation by Fixing our Guest Worker Programs

An increase in immigration also increases the risk of human rights abuse because immigrants are often so desperate that they are willing to work for any employer, even under deplorable conditions.

The above statement is used by several anti-immigrant groups like the Progressives for Immigration Reform as an argument against immigration. Since when do anti-immigrant groups even care about the human rights of immigrants?

If they truly want to stop exploitation of immigrants in the U.S., they should start by advocating for fixing the current guest worker programs.

Migration, especially illegal migration is a very costly, dangerous process. There are several factors that potential “illegal” immigrants consider before risking their lives in attempting to cross the border. Most illegal immigrants must pay huge sums to ‘coyotes’ that help them obtain fake documents and smuggle them across the border by any means. Many do not survive it. Those that do may end up being apprehended at the border, resulting in a huge sunk cost both in financial and physical terms.

Someone willing to go to these lengths, coupled with having to leave loved ones behind in search of a better life, would not be worried about ‘exploitation’ by employers.

While this may be true, worker exploitation can never be justified. If groups opposing immigration are really concerned about human rights, it doesn’t make sense that they oppose amnesty for illegals currently in the U.S as well as any immigration policy that increases avenues for legal immigration?

Granting some form of legalized status to illegal immigrants already present in the U.S, whether it is a pathway to citizenship or simply authorization to work that allows easier portability between employers will reduce exploitation.

Employers who recruit undocumented workers are able to pay extremely low wages, often in cash, making it nearly impossible to tax these wages.

Not only is this bad for the worker who is underpaid, it is also bad for the U.S. economy. Legalizing illegal workers who are already working in the U.S regardless will enlarge the tax base and increase tax revenue.

For immigrants who come to the U.S. legally through guest worker programs like the H-2A and H-2B for low-skilled workers and H-1B visas for high-skilled workers, the situation is slightly better as employers must prove that they are paying foreign workers at least the prevailing wage paid to similarly employed native born workers in the same occupation.

One area where improvement is required is portability between employers. Currently, it is quite difficult for a worker to switch between employers under most visa categories and most of it is financial. For example, before an employer can recruit foreign workers under the H-1B visa category, certain fees must be paid.

First, the employer must pay a $325 base filing fee per worker, a $750 AICWA (American Competitiveness and Workforce Improvement Act) fee if there are less than 25 employees which goes up to $1,500 for employers with 26 or more full-time employees, a $500 fraud detection fee and a $2,000 fee for companies with fifty or more employees in the U.S. and more than fifty percent of their employees registered as nonimmigrant workers.

Many workers have reportedly had the burden of these fees shifted to them. Some employers may even agree to eventually reimburse the workers, depending on the length of time the employee commits to the organization. Once an employer has sponsored a worker for an H-1B visa, the visa is valid for three years as long as employment lasts and may be renewed once for a combined total of six years.

Thus, while it is possible for these workers to change employers, numerous application fees may deter them, especially when they have to pay out of pocket.

Since there is significant demand for high-skilled immigrants as evidenced by the exhaustion of the H-1B quota in only a few days this past April, it is essential to improve this program as well as similar employment visa categories to prevent worker exploitation and the influx of illegal immigrants.