01/30/2013

Southern Poverty Law Center urges policymakers to examine failed federal guestworker programs

As federal lawmakers appear ready to consider federal immigration reform, the Southern Poverty Law Center urged federal lawmakers today to examine federal guestworker programs, which are rife with abuse and violations of workers’ rights.

“We are encouraged by the announcements this week that immigration reform seems to be moving forward and that the proposals reflect our nation’s values of fairness and opportunity,” said Mary Bauer, legal director for the SPLC. “While we support immigration reform that includes a path to citizenship, we strongly urge the president and Congress to examine the deeply flawed federal guestworker programs that continuously place workers in harm’s way. We should not maintain failed programs on the backs of hard-working men and women. These guestworker programs should not be the model for immigration reform.”

In 2007, the SPLC published a groundbreaking report about guestworker programs in the U.S. entitled Close to Slavery. Unfortunately, even after the enactment of modest reforms in recent years, guestworker programs remain abusive and unfair to both U.S. and foreign workers.

Unlike U.S. citizens, guestworkers do not enjoy the most fundamental protection of a competitive labor market – the ability to change jobs if they are mistreated. Workers can be held virtually captive by employers or labor brokers who seize their documents. They are routinely forced to live in squalid conditions and denied medical benefits for on-the-job injuries. They also are vulnerable to human trafficking and debt servitude.

“It is nearly impossible to create guestworker programs that do not involve systemic abuse of workers,” Bauer said. “Although the guestworker programs are not slavery, it is still too close for comfort and must not be the model for the future flow of immigrants to this country. Guestworkers are forced to mortgage their futures to obtain low-wage, temporary jobs and are often cheated out of wages.”

The SPLC, known for its innovative civil suits against hate groups, launched the Immigrant Justice Project in 2004 to protect the rights and dignity of immigrants in America.