SPLC, Other Advocates File Suit Challenging Bush's New Guestworker Regulations


The Southern Poverty Law Center and a coalition of immigrant rights advocates have filed a federal lawsuit challenging last-minute changes to the nation's guestworker program by the Bush administration, charging that the new rules shred worker protections and make it easier to replace U.S. workers with temporary foreign labor.

Filed on Jan. 18 in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, the suit also claims these changes would hamper the Obama administration's ability to reverse the regulations and protect U.S. workers from the damaging effects an influx of foreign labor would have on wages and working conditions.

"On their way out the door, the Bush administration's Department of Labor has eviscerated the few protections our nation's guestworker program offers to U.S. and foreign workers," said Mary Bauer, director of the Southern Poverty Law Center's Immigrant Justice Project, a member of the coalition bringing the lawsuit. "These new regulations are a giant step backward for workers."

The regulations – set to go into effect on Jan. 18 – concern the H-2B guestworker program, used by businesses to hire low-skilled, temporary foreign labor. The lawsuit was filed on behalf of farmworker organizations that include the Farmworkers Support Committee, the Alliance of Forest Workers and Harvesters, and Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noreste. It also names Salvador Martinez Barrera, a Mexican citizen who has worked as a guestworker and would be affected by the regulations.

The new regulations expand the types of jobs that are considered to be temporary – and therefore eligible for the program – to include jobs that will last up to three years. Currently, foreign guestworkers may be hired for no more than one year.

These regulations would also allow employers wishing to use the guestworker program to simply vouch that they searched for U.S. workers and were unable to find enough. Currently, employers must obtain certification from the Department of Labor that there is a shortage of U.S. workers.

"These regulations are nothing more than a parting gift by Secretary of Labor Chao for employers looking for cheap, exploitable labor," said Arthur N. Read, general counsel for Friends of Farmworkers, Inc., a member of the coalition bringing the lawsuit. "It's a shocking and dismaying response to a program that desperately needs stronger regulation."

The nation's guestworker program is rife with exploitation. The Southern Poverty Law Center documented widespread abuses in the H-2B program in its 2007 report, Close to Slavery. The report describes rampant wage violations, recruitment abuses, seizure of identity documents and squalid living conditions. Guestworkers, whose visas do not allow them to change jobs, typically have little recourse if they are exploited.

The coalition filing the lawsuit also includes Friends of Farmworkers, Inc., the North Carolina Justice Center, the Northwest Workers' Justice Project, Centro de Derechos del Migrante and attorney Edward Tuddenham.