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24-Hour Shifts and Deportation Threats: The World of US Guest Workers

The Senate immigration bill is supposed to fix a program plagued by abuses. But is a new visa category enough?

| Thu Apr. 25, 2013 5:00 AM EDT

Javier de Dios Figueroa still carries the labor identification card he was issued in 1960.

The recruiter promised Ana Rosa Diaz three things before she came to the United States from Mexico to work for CJ's Seafood: She'd be peeling crab, she'd be making $8.53 an hour, and she'd be working for six months out of the year.

Instead, Diaz ended up peeling crawfish in a cramped room with about 40 other workers until her nails were torn off, was paid by the pound instead of the hour with no overtime, and was sent home after only about five months. Even so, she was desperate. The money wasn't what she was promised, but it was good enough that she talked a friend, Martha Uvalle, into joining her a few years after she first left for Louisiana in 2003. Diaz and Uvalle both had families to think of—Diaz has four children and Uvalle has five. So every year, they'd relocate to Louisiana and live in a trailer park for five months, peeling crawfish from five in the morning until three in the afternoon six days a week until they were sent home.

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Diaz and Uvalle were temporary guest workers—a term that in the United States encompasses an alphabet soup of government visas that provide firms with access to foreign labor. Immigration reform advocates see the fate of the 11 million unauthorized immigrants in the United States as the great moral question of comprehensive immigration reform. But the thornier policy question, at least from the point of view of those who want to prevent another wave of illegal immigration to the United States, is how to meet the domestic demand for foreign labor legally while preventing those workers from being exploited.

"The reason we have 11 million unauthorized people living in America is that we have jobs for them to do but no legal way for them to get here," says Tamar Jacoby, president of ImmigrationWorks USA, a right-leaning pro-immigration group. "Americans get that they don't want their kids to cut lettuce, but they don't want their kids to clean bedpans either."

"The reason we have 11 million unauthorized people living in America is that we have jobs for them to do but no legal way for them to get here."

Many policy experts say the 1986 immigration reform bill failed to prevent the illegal immigration wave of the 1990s because it didn't adequately account for the demand for foreign labor. If this year's immigration reform bill lacks an effective program to channel that demand, they argue, the undocumented population will balloon again.

"If we want to have a different picture for the future, then its very much in our best interest to figure out a way for people to come legally," says Doris Meissner, former commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service and current director of the Migration Policy Institute.

That's harder than it sounds. More than a year and a half ago, Sens. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) asked Thomas Donohue, the CEO of the Chamber of Commerce, America's big business lobby, and Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, the largest union federation, to try to work out a deal on guest workers that would be acceptable to both unions and business interests. Staff experts from both sides then worked on a potential deal in advance of the current immigration reform push.

It's an article of faith on the right that the battle over the guest worker program in 2007 helped doom George W. Bush's immigration bill, even though a grassroots rebellion over legalization is the more likely factor. Republicans and their allies in business have often argued that immigration reform without a guest worker program cannot pass Congress. But Republicans also fear that reform will hand Democrats millions of new voters, and it's unclear whether big business, which wants a guest worker program, can convince skeptical GOPers to back a deal. "Do I think business actually delivers votes in Congress based on this?" says a longtime labor activist who lobbied on behalf of the 2007 bill. "I think that's very abstract and theoretical."

Businesses want cheap workers, and unions need new members. But they have argued for decades about how best to bring immigrant workers into the United States legally, with few clear answers and several shameful experiments. Past guest worker solutions, such as the mid-century Bracero program—which brought in Mexican agricultural workers to labor under abysmal conditions and for exploitative wages—remain powerful symbols of how such efforts can go horribly wrong. Still, both sides agree the current laws aren't working.

"The current guest worker program is just as broken as the current immigration system."

"The current guest worker program is just as broken as the current immigration system," says Eliseo Medina, treasurer for the Service Employees International Union, whose father and brother were brought to the US from Mexico to labor in American fields. "I have a first-hand familial experience with how these programs don't work. They're abusive and exploitative, that's why I think from that experience, we need to do something different."

The problem is in the nature of the concept: Guest workers often don't want to be "guests"; they want to live and work here, and often overstay their visas. Employers can easily use guest workers' immigration status to exploit them, and their visas are often tied to their employer, so they can't simply seek work elsewhere. Nevertheless, there are jobs Americans don't really want to do, and they end up being filled by immigrants one way or another.

That's how Diaz and Uvalle ended up peeling crawfish in the cramped room in Breaux Bridge, Louisiana. Crawfish are small, and repeating the same motion for 15 or 16 hours makes workers' fingers, arms, and hands ache. Workers would occasionally cut their hands while peeling and get infected by a fungus that crawfish sometimes carry. If the guest workers wanted gloves, they had to buy them from a vendor who came by the trailers to sell them odds and ends.

Diaz and Uvalle put up with the tough hours, austere conditions, and broken promises because they needed the money, they said through an interpreter. But beginning sometime in 2009, the work became unbearable. CJ's Seafood had won a contract with Walmart, and the hours started getting longer. Instead of starting at 5 a.m., they'd start at 4, and then 3, until eventually the guest workers were shuffling out of their trailers at 2 a.m. to unload, peel, boil, and pack the crawfish so they could be shipped out. Instead of stopping at 3 p.m. like they used to, they'd work until 5. Some of the workers, Diaz and Uvalle said, would work for 24 hours or more, all without overtime pay. The trailers themselves had been modified with bunk beds to fit more people. The few American workers at CJ's Seafood had more freedom—they didn't have to live in the trailers, and they were allowed to take longer breaks and leave to do things like pick up their children from school. According to Diaz and Uvalle, management started pitting the workers against each other, berating those who didn't peel fast enough.

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