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Sunday, August 4, 2013

5 Outrageously Cruel Proposals for Immigrant Workers in the U.S. by Members of Congress



These congressional proposals will make employer-employee relations even worse than they already are.

Photo Credit: flickr: CIAT
Immigration reform has been one of the biggest political fireworks displays in Washington D.C. this year, with no end in sight. A filibuster-proof majority in the Senate voted a much-celebrated bill through last month, which includes a 13-year path to citizenship and includes numerous onerous provisions that will be hard for low-income workers to bear. In the House Republicans are planning to vote piecemeal legislation through the Judiciary Committee and have already passed one bill that would make it a federal crime to illegally immigrate to the U.S., and an utterly barbaric bill regarding farmworkers. No Democrats voted for either one.

These bills, especially the monstrous bill passed by the Republicans on the Judiciary committee, would make life significantly harder for hundreds of thousands of people. We’ve collected a list of the policies included in the Judiciary Committee’s little noticed farmworker bill and the Senate’s comprehensive plan that will make employer-employee relations even worse than they already are.

On June 19, House Judiciary Committee, chaired by Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) passed the Agricultural Guestworker Act to relatively little fanfare. Politico and the Huffington Post have commented on Chairman Goodlatte’s political strategy regarding immigration reform, not to mention his taste in ties. But there was little reporting on the actual content of the farmworker bill he steered through his committee, which is a shame because it’s absolutely heinous. Like so many other Republican proposals of recent years, the bill would set the clock back by over half a century. Pretty much every element of the bill is awful, but here are three of the worst.

1. Status: uncertain and unprotected. The Goodlatte bill would replace the H-2A agricultural guestworker visa with a new program, H-2C. Currently workers with an H-2A visa are dependent upon their employer, who must provide some amount of transportation and shelter but can force them to return to their home country at will. This powerfully disincentivizes speaking out about abuses (which are rife). They must also pay a recruitment fee, so many arrive stateside already in debt, putting them at an even greater disadvantage in their relationship with their employer. Representative Goodlatte and the other Republicans on his committee would essentially replace the H-2A program with an even worse alternative.

“The Agricultural Guestworker Act strips almost all of the protections out of the current H-2A program,” says Adrienne DerVartanian, director of Immigration and Labor Rights with the advocacy group Farmworker Justice.It’s a bill that has even fewer protections than the Bracero program, a World War II-era policy that ended because of notorious abuses. [Goodlatte’s bill] doesn’t offer a solution to the problem in agriculture, which is that the workforce needs to be legalized and stabilized. Instead he essentially allows the undocumented workers to remain in the U.S. for up to two years but doesn’t really give them any kind of status.”

Under the bill, workers will only be allowed to stay in the United States for two years as temporary guest workers and then they would be required to return to their country of origin (regardless of the political or economic climate there). Even if they can get a sponsor to continuously employ them, the employer is no longer required to provide transportation or housing. Workers would potentially have to find housing for themselves, which could be difficult for non-English speakers. It virtually guarantees homelessness, especially because these new costs will be borne by workers being paid even less than the poverty wages already common throughout the industry. The Goodlatte bill would also eliminate the requirement for travel reimbursements H-2A workers are eligible for, which could push workers even further into indentured servitude. There are no measures ensuring increased wages to compensate for these added costs.

2. Underpaid. To pressure workers to return to their nation of origin, Goodlatte’s bill would withhold 10 percent of a farmworker’s paycheck upfront—a particularly cruel idea considering that these workers will now be required to pay for their own housing and transport. The money would be placed in a trust fund and can only be reclaimed by going to a U.S. Embassy in their country of origin within 120 days of the expiration of their visa, where they must prove they have been in complete compliance with the H-2C program.

The bill essentially allows employers to sidestep the minimum wage: “Notwithstanding the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938…all employers of H-2C workers shall withhold from the wages of the workers an amount equivalent to 10 percent of the wages of each worker and pay such withheld amount into the Trust Fund.” Due to an amendment introduced by Representative Jason Chaffetz (R-UT), unclaimed money in the trust fund will go to the Department of Homeland Security to fund the deportation of people who are in the country without documentation.

And even before the 10 percent is removed, the workers would be at a disadvantage because, according to Farmworker Justice, Goodlatte’s bill virtually guarantees even lower wages than those paid in what is already some of the lowest paid work in the United States. The bill requires only that employers pay the minimum wage or the “prevailing wage,” which is undefined, and reduces the “minimum work guarantee” from 75 percent to 50 percent of the hours promised in the initial offer.

3. Eliminating government oversight.Goodlatte’s bill would also ensure that legal protections would be exceedingly limited and government oversight of employment conditions would be minimal. Enforcement of farm worker protections would be shifted from the Department of Labor, which is designed for just this purpose, to the Department of Agriculture, which has no background in such practices.

In addition to making it harder for the government to regulate employer practices, the Goodlatte bill would also make it harder for workers to protect themselves through legal means. The Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act, which offers minimum protections to farmworkers, would not cover those enrolled in the H-2C program.

Meanwhile, the Senate’s Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Reform Act appears to be the most progressive bill we can hope for from this Congress. After extensive negotiations between labor and business groups, it provides protections and a shorter path to citizenship for many agricultural workers than for many other groups. But the Democratic-controlled Senate’s proposal, while less forthrightly barbarous, is still full of unpromising proposals.

4. Becoming a citizen will cost low-income workers a lot of money.The Senate bill includes a bunch of militarized border security measures, but it also provides a pathway to citizenship for those who go through a successful background check, provide biometric identification information, and have no felony convictions. Then they have to pay a lot of fines, processing fees and back taxes, while remaining outside the social safety net and continuing to bear their share of payroll and other taxes.

Let’s start with the upfront costs, which include an initial $1,000 fine (which can be paid in installments) and a processing fee of an amount not specified in the bill, which will get an immigrant Registered Provisional Immigrant (RPI) status. This lasts six years before they must apply again, at the cost of additional DHS processing fees. After another four years RPIs are finally allowed to apply for Legal Permanent Residency (LPR), which will incur them another $1,000 fine and more processing fees. Three years later they can apply for citizenship. The $1,000 fines must be paid per person (over 21) in the household and the fees will be applicable to those 16 and above, although the Department of Homeland Security has flexibility to limit the payment for families (if it so chooses).

But there’s more.

“It doesn't say so explicitly in the bill, after they've been in RPI status for 10 years, they will most likely have to pay to file for ‘Adjustment of Status’ when they want to ‘adjust’ from RPI status to LPR/green card status,” Daniel Costa, director of Immigration Law and Policy Research for the Economic Policy Institute writes in an email.  “Currently, adjustment of status costs $1,070. Then, after you're an LPR for 3 years, filing for naturalization (i.e. to become a citizen), will cost an additional $680 bucks. So at a minimum, before DHS processing fees and paying back taxes, you're already at a grand…total of $3,750 over 13 years before you become a citizen.”

Back taxes must also be paid, which could be an imposing amount considering that many undocumented immigrants work off-the-books. Meanwhile these workers’ payroll taxes will be going toward our social safety net programs, from which they will be excluded for many years. Immigrants with RPI status will not be eligible for Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, home energy assistance, or the Affordable Care Act’s provisions.

5. Income and employment limits.The Senate bill also forces RPIs to meet a draconian standard that would grant unscrupulous employers even more power over immigrant laborers. At the six-year mark, those who are re-applying for RPI status must prove that their average income is at 100 percent of the poverty line and show that they have never been unemployed for longer than 60 days. At the 10-year mark they have to prove an average income of 125 percent of the poverty line, and again, continuous employment with no more than 60 days of unemployment.

People working at or below minimum wage, who are undocumented, are totally vulnerable to their employers,” says Michael Livingston, director of public policy for Interfaith Worker Justice. “They are not going to make the continuous employment or the minimum income requirements. No way if you are making $6.50 or $7.25 or $8.25 will you be able to demonstrate adequate levels of income. It’s about punishment more than it’s about people, and it’s about security more than it’s about citizenship. They are just being victimized in almost every way imaginable.”

How many people do you know who have been continually employed for 10 years with no bouts of unemployment lasting longer than 60 days? In the current employment environment that would be hard enough, particularly in the high-turnover jobs where many immigrant workers are employed. It’ll be even more difficult the next time we have a recession.

And regardless of the caprices of the business cycle, this will give employers another tool to keep their workers in check. Thinking of speaking up about conditions on the job? Better not. If your employer fires you and you can’t get another job, you’ll be subject to deportation. Many will instead choose to continue working in unsafe conditions or for lower than the minimum wage…which would put them afoul of the income requirements.

But despite their critiques of the bills in Congress, all of the advocates interviewed for this article agreed that they would want to see a bill like the one passed by the Senate become law. Even Livingston argued that it would at least serve as a basis for future reform. And unlike the House’s ideas, the Senate bill also includes some good ideas.

It would overturn a recent Supreme Court decision that undocumented immigrants could not win backpay if they are fired unjustly (the reasoning being that the crime of working illegally trumps the employer’s crime of not paying them or illegally firing them). And there is another provision in the Senate bill that would protect undocumented workers who blow the whistle on employers who are breaking the law, including worker wage, hour and safety statutes. Currently 10,000 U-Visas a year are available to undocumented immigrants who cooperate with authorities who are investigating a crime. The Senate bill would create 8,000 more U-Visas each year.

“It expands the definition to include labor violations and retaliations, which the current law doesn’t really include that so you would have some protection,” says Costa. "It also authorizes Homeland Security to give you a temporary stay of removal. So even if you don’t end up getting the visa if you apply for it, while you are waiting or taking part in legal proceedings then you can stay. If you end up getting a visa you have a chance to get permanent residency.”
Such protections could offer some hope for those who run up against the unemployment or income violations for illegal reasons—if they are fired for union organizing, say, or are having their wages stolen—but they don’t offer shelter to those who are simply being paid minimum wage (which would place them below the income requirements) or are laid off in the normal course of business.

This is as good as an immigration bill passed by this Congress will get. If the House ever gets serious about passing a comprehensive immigration reform bill, it would have to be merged with the Senate’s bill, and if Goodlatte’s farmworker policy is anything to go by, the compromise could be downright vicious. Any addition from the House will only be more reactionary and the possibility of more progressive reform in the foreseeable future looks even worse. The Republicans have a good chance of winning control of the Senate in 2014.

Jake Blumgart is a staff writer and assistant editor at AlterNet. Follow him on Twitter.

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