When Immigrants Are Actually Indentured Servants

| Wed May 5, 2010 1:00 PM EDT

In 2007, after seven years' research and writing, Random House published my book, Nobodies, an examination of modern American slave labor. Each year, as documented by the State Department and there CIA, there are some 17,500 new cases of trafficking on American soil. Many involve domestic workers, sex workers, and farmworkers, illegally present, hard to account for, and easily abused. Just as troublesome, I discovered, are guestworkers, legally brought into the country by state sanction, then abused with numbing regularity.  My article "Bound for America," just published in MoJo's latest issue, digs into this significant slice of the immigration debate.

The story involves over a thousand workers from Thailand who, in 2005 and 2006, paid between $11,000 and $23,000 for the privilege of coming to America as farmworkers. They worked in fourteen different states for a Los Angeles-based company named Global Horizons. Having signed contracts based on three years of employment, workers took tremendous risks, borrowing money against homes and ancestral land, where they live with their extended families. Now, after being sent home early, prior to paying off their enormous recruiting debts, many of these workers —and their families—are losing that land. Their lives are ruined, thanks to their transaction with our guest worker program.

I traveled to Northern Thailand and farms in Maui and Utah to report on the story from beginning to end. I met with dozens of families coping with bankruptcy. I visited farms in the middle of nowhere, where despite the presence of 12 million undocumented workers (some say 20 million), it seemed necessary to fly in workers from far away Thailand.

The complaint, according to the labor contractor who brought the workers, as well as numerous growers sick of hiring Mexicans, is that "Mexicans run away." That's right, some farmer down the road offers fifty cents an hour more, and they just take off, like the ingrates they are. The answer, apparently, is to seek a population more captive, more encumbered by debt and cultural dislocation.

As the immigration debate rears its painful, ugly head once more, it is my hope that the facts become known, and that America's H2-A and H2-B guestworker programs aren't seized upon as a panacea for politically difficult compromises. Although nothing has been decided, current proposals under consideration plan to ENLARGE our guestworker population by hundreds of thousands.

To those who would rely on this complex, obscure, and deceitful solution to our ills, it should be known that the case of which I write appears to be blossoming into the largest case of human trafficking ever seen on American soil. Is this the solution to our problems?

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