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Migrant Women Bring Voices to Capital

3:49 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Migrant women participated in the immigration rally in Washington D.C. on Oct. 8. (Centro de los Derechos del Migrante)

Originally published at In These Times

Adareli Ponce is a typical working woman in America, but her work experience is not typically “American.” Even though the products of the labor of women like her are everywhere, her story is invisible to many. As the main provider for her family back in Hidalgo, Mexico, the 31-year-old has spent years slogging away in U.S. chocolate and seafood processing facilities. Migration was her chance to escape the entrenched poverty that ensnares so many young women in her hometown, who she says are often excluded from sustainable job opportunities. But the journey has been fraught with hardship and loneliness.

Last week, she and a number of other women who have worked in the U.S. on “guestworker” visas went to Washington, D.C. with the bi-national labor advocacy group Centro de los Derechos del Migrante to testify about migrant women’s struggles.

Because most migrant workers are men, Ponce said in her public testimony, “migrant women are commonly excluded and made invisible in debates about immigration.” But they make up as much as over 40 percent of the low-wage immigrant labor force, according to some estimates, and they face gender-specific problems ranging from sexual harassment on the job to the challenges of transborder motherhood.

If migrant women are missing from the immigration debate, they are also excluded from conversations about U.S. women in the workforce, which tend to dwell on white-collar problems like the gender pay gap and the corporate “glass ceiling.” Migrant women face much more basic problems: how to stave off sexual abuse and cope with long-term separation from their children, which compound issues common to migrants of all genders, like crushing poverty or heat exhaustion and toxic fumes in farm fields.

Ironically, migrant women workers have propelled opportunities for middle-class Americans. Moms who work outside of the home can better achieve work/life balance thanks to options like a migrant nanny at home or frozen seafood dinners processed by the industries fueled by migrant women’s labor. Read the rest of this entry →

Carnivals Are No Picnic for Migrant Workers

3:55 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Migrant workers who set up and take down rides at traveling fairs, like this one in North Texas, complain of wage theft and grueling hours. (Double H Photography/Wikimedia Commons).

Originally published at In These Times

A trip to the carnival is the quintessential American summer pastime. But for workers who run the show, the hard labor of making our holidays carefree can be shockingly grim.

lawsuit lauched last week by two migrant workers illustrates the ugly side of the leisure industry. Over a period of several years, while park patrons enjoyed the fun and rides of the Butler Amusements, the migrants say they were systematically exploited. The suit, filed in a California federal district court, lists them only as John Doe 1 and John Doe 2, because, as is typical in this sector, they fear retaliation from labor recruiters in their hometowns in Mexico.

A decade ago, the workers paid a recruiter hundreds of dollars just for the privilege of arranging a coveted job in the United States. But, they say, in approximately seven years working for Butler, they were consistently underpaid for their drudge work—setting up, breaking down, transporting and maintaining machinery and equipment at industry giant’s numerous fair sites, which stretched across California, Arizona, Nevada and Idaho. On a typical day they toiled 10 to 14 hours for wages that amounted to about $5 an hour, they say.

These carnival workers were not the undocumented migrants of the “underground economy” as depicted in the news. They were legally hired, thanks to the federal H-2B visa program for temporary foreign labor. In other words, the lawsuit underscores the fact that even with official papers, many “guestworkers” have virtually no power to resist abuse.

According to a recent report by Centro de los Derechos del Migrante (CDM)—the advocacy group that, along with Legal Aid Society–Employment Law Center, is representing the Butler workers—the fair and carnival industry relies on the H-2B visas to fill slots for exhausting, often hazardous seasonal work in a business built on itinerant entertainment and fast profits. Under the influence of apowerful hospitality and leisure industry lobby, Congress has maintained a large H-2B visa program, currently capped at 66,000 H-2B visas annually, to staff hotels, resorts and entertainment facilities. While the leisure sectors in general are fueled by a trasient, precarious workforce, the industry of seasonal amusement businesses like summer carnival companies, which in 2011 secured about 5,000 H-2B visas, mostly from Mexico, benefit from especially lax oversight under federal labor law.

The cheap thrills come at a high price for workers. Employers often withhold or underpay wages, or pay out only in lump sums, and workers could end up earning under $300 a week. Wages are further undercut by massive debts owed to predatory labor recruiters in Mexico. One worker interviewed in the report said a workday could run as long as 24 hours straight if he had to break down and set up a ride. Another worker lamented, “We couldn’t even support ourselves, let alone send money home, which is why we came.”

For traveling carnival shows, the migrants pass through various states with different labor regulations, which poses an obstacle to monitoring employers and enforcing workplace protections.

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‘Bargain’ on Immigration Would Feed Prison Profits

7:47 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

(Rennett Stowe / Flickr / Creative Commons)

Originally posted at In These Times

The supposed grand bargain of the immigration reform bill is shaping up to be a lucrative deal for prisons. As a compromise between “border security” and “amnesty,” the comprehensive reform plan emerging in Congress ties the “legalization” of millions of migrants to the prospective criminalization of millions more.

The Senate’s reform bill, now being debated in the House, would boost immigration enforcement by beefing up border patrols, militarized barriers, border surveillance, immigration prosecutions and privately run detention facilities. According to Congressional Budget Office (CBO) projections, the original bill approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee “would increase the prison population by about 14,000 inmates annually by 2018.” (The number of “immigration offenders” in federal prison has risen over the past decade to about 22,100 in 2011.) Just before passage, the bill was saddled with the draconian “Hoeven-Corker border security amendment,” which contains harsher, more costly enforcement provisions, including a doubling of border agents to roughly 40,000.

Though the fate of the bill is now unclear, House Republicans could take an even more reactionary stance, perhaps by insisting on even more oppressive border security measures in exchange for reform or by simply rejecting any significant steps toward legalization and pushing tighter restrictions instead.

Under the centrist reform plan, some immigrants can gain legal status under certain conditions, such as paying heavy fines and meeting rigid qualifications for criminal background checks and employment status. Attainiing citizenship could take well over a decade. Meanwhile, to placate conservatives, the bill expands the corporate systems that lock up and dehumanize the migrants who don’t make it over the legal threshold.

So, while the bill produces new citizens, the “security” measures would produce more prisoners, conveniently filling tens of thousands of detention beds, many of them run by for-profit contractors on the public’s dime. As Stephen Myrow, managing director of the investment research firm ACG Analytics, said in an interview with the Wall Street Journal, “Immigration reform will boost revenue at privately operated prisons.”

In other words, there is a tremendous incentive [in the Senate bill] for those contractors who could bid for new prison contracts,” says Alexis Mazón, a researcher with Justice Strategies, a criminal justice watchdog group. And they aren’t the only beneficiaries, she notes: Developers and manufacturers of policing and surveillance technologies also stand to gain.  Read the rest of this entry →

A New Door for Guestworkers?

5:08 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

(National Guestworker Alliance)

Originally posted at In These Times

The perennial impasse in the immigration debate between labor and business seems to be fading as a group of senators, working with industry and union lobbies, irons out a framework that would bring more migrants into the labor force, purportedly under a system that extends rights and protections for so-called “guestworkers.” But what the new system really means for workers depends on how it is implemented and regulated, and who is controlling the gates.

The proposed W-visa plan reportedly strikes a compromise between business’s desire for low-cost labor and union concerns (represented by the AFL-CIO in Washington) about maintaining jobs for U.S. workers and enforcing wage-and-hour laws. Aimed at less-skilled sectors like restaurant work, the W-visa would differ from previous employment-based visas in two key ways. For one, it would offer immigrants a way to petition for residency and eventually attain citizenship. And unlike much maligned temporary-worker programs, the visa would be “portable,” meaning it would not be tied to a specific workplace or employer. In theory, that would allow a worker to switch jobs without jeopardizing her legal status.

Addressing fears of creating a “second tier,” or minimally regulated low-wage workforce, the compromise reportedly ensures that employers pay no less than the industry’s standard “prevailing wage,” determined according to labor market conditions. The New York Times reports:

Labor groups wanted to ensure that guest workers would not be paid less than the median wage in their respective industries, and the two sides compromised by agreeing that guest workers would be paid the higher of the prevailing industry wage as determined by the Labor Department or the actual employer wage.

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Is Gender Justice Getting Shafted in Immigration Reform?

3:46 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Originally posted at In These Times

Last Monday, in what became a heated exchange with Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), Mee Moua, executive director of the Asian American Justice Center, defended programs allowing families to immigrate together to the U.S. (Courtesy of the DOL)

The politics of immigration touch upon major faultlines in American society: not just the legal boundary between citizen and foreigner, but also lines of race, class, nationality, culture and, increasingly, gender. Women, who make up about half of the U.S. immigrant population and an estimated 40 percent of undocumented adults, face unique challenges as migrants. However, gender issues have gone almost entirely unremarked in official immigration-reform talks–that is, until a Senate hearing last Monday, when Mee Moua, head of the Asian American Justice Center, seized an opportunity to call out the invisibility of women in the debate.

The opening came when Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions (R) asked bluntly which immigrant would be a better candidate for legal status: an applicant for a family reunification visa or a skilled professional from overseas? Although family visas are the channel by which generations of migrants have brought family members to the U.S., Sessions’ rhetorical question suggested that skilled professionals make more desirable Americans.

Moua countered that Sessions’ hypothetical reflected deep gender imbalances in the immigration system. The “less desirable” migrant, she argued, would likely be “female, would not have been permitted to get an education and if we would create a system where there would be some kind of preference given to say education, or some other kind of metrics, I think that it would truly disadvantage specifically women and their opportunity to come into this country.”

The tense exchange marked one of the first moments in the current round of reform talks that Congress members have been asked to confront the gender biases inherent in our immigration policies. Such biases have a long history: Male-centered guestworker schemes date all the way back to the Chinese Exclusion Act era of the late 19th century, when blatantly xenophobic laws brought in masses of Chinese male laborers while shutting out their family members in an attempt to deter the workers from settling in the United States.

Today, despite the strides women have made in high-skill fields (most professional workers are now women), they are still heavily underrepresented in “guestworker” programs for professional immigrant workers, which skew heavily toward the vaunted, notoriously male-dominated science and tech (STEM) fields. For example, the controversial H1B visa program for professional temp workers, long touted as a spigot for STEM talent, brought in about 350,000 immigrant men but fewer than 140,000 women in 2011. Meanwhile, lawmakers are weighing proposals to sharply limit family-based visa programs–which make up about 65 percent of authorized permanent immigration–alongside plans for expanding the prized professional visas. As Pramila Jayapal points out at, men tend to hold professional visas, intended to anchor household “breadwinners,” while women are overrepresented among family visas, which can chain their legal status to an authorized (male) worker.

These biases are no political accident, but a symptom of the privileging of corporate demands over community needs. Immigrant women’s labor, whether it’s in the household, off the books, or on payroll, is fueling the economy. But because it doesn’t seem to directly contribute as much to corporate bottom lines, it’s overlooked.

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Georgia’s Anti-Immigrant Politics Overshadow Women’s Struggles

6:09 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Cross-posted from In These Times 

(Photo from

The words “undocumented worker” evoke images we’re all familiar with: poor day laborers huddled on a street corner, sun-battered tomato pickers hauling buckets through the fields. One image that people often overlook is a far more intimate presence: the nanny caring for our kids, the home aide comforting our ailing parents, the quiet mother waiting nervously outside the doctor’s office.

Immigrant women are present in every aspect of American life, in the workplace and in the home, yet they’re among the most invisible. They’re about to be shoved further into the shadows as states move to crack down on the undocumented and relegate them to the margins of society. So a coalition of activists came to Atlanta, Georgia this week to raise the visibility of immigrant women as workers and community members, as the state moves toward policies that could give the police unprecedented powers to profile, arrest and detain immigrants arbitrarily. Read the rest of this entry →