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Recruitment Abuses Emerge in Immigration Reform Debate

12:19 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

National Guestworker Alliance supporters protested McDonald’s exploitation of the State Department’s “J-1″ Visa program in Philadelphia. (Courtesy of National Guestworker Alliance)

Originally posted at In These Times

Archiel Buagas thought she was doing everything right. The young Filipina nurse secured a special work visa to come to the United States and arranged a job at a New York nursing home with the help of a recruiting agency. Things started to feel wrong when they refused to give her a copy of her contract. She and the other nurses in her group soon found themselves working frantically to care for 30 to 60 patients per shift, without regular breaks, and she was soon driven to exhaustion by the indecent pay and relentless stress.

 “I was so scared of going to work that before my shift,” she later testified to labor advocates. “I would be crying, I’d be [vomiting] because of anxiety and nervousness. I would have diarrhea…. [T]he only thing that made me sleep was the fact that I’m so tired …. I wanted to go home.”

Buagas learned the hard way that her path to American prosperity would be fraught with betrayal. It wasn’t because she didn’t have the right papers, it was because her papers offered her no protection against an industry that preys on the hopes of migrants seeking a better life abroad. As Congress debates immigration reform, most of the public focus has been on “legalizing” the 11 million undocumented immigrants currently living “underground,” and on the expansion of labor-based visas to bring more immigrants into the workforce on a “legal” basis. But beyond the question of who gets a shot at that vaguely defined “path to citizenship,” labor advocates are pushing lawmakers to give meaningful protections and rights to workers who are disenfranchised by legal, social, and economic marginalization.

In many cases, many immigrant workers with visas (that is, those who are technically legally authorized to work in the United States) are at least as vulnerable as their undocumented counterparts to abuses such as wage theft, labor trafficking and employer intimidation. In arecent report on labor recruitment abuses, the International Labor Recruitment Working Group (ILRWG) explained that under the current poorly regulated visa structure:

employers are able to exploit an essentially captive workforce, and workers are deterred from asserting their rights under U.S. law. Workers who complain routinely are blacklisted, threatened or physically intimidated by recruiters. Additionally, many internationally recruited workers face language barriers, racism, xenophobia, sexism and the pressures of poverty in both the United States and their home countries.

The immigration reform bill now advancing in the Senate might help close some of the regulatory gaps. One section would bar recruitment fees imposed by foreign labor contractors, including the predatory charges imposed for job placement, legal processing and transportation. These fees have often been used to impose a modern form of indentured servitude.

In one particularly egregious case, teachers brought to the United States from the Philippines using employment-based visas, were charged $16,000 to secure jobs and then forced into a contract that skimmed 10 percent of their wages for the next two years. 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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Immigration Reform Would Boost Business, Undermine Rights

7:57 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Originally posted at In These Times

Santiago Armengod /

After years of Congressional silence on immigration, Washington is finally stirring toward legislative reform, driven by Democrats and Republicans angling for Latino and Asian votes. But the plans being concocted have already sharply diverged from the demands of the grassroots immigrant-rights movement.

So far, the White House and a bipartisan group of Senators have each floated similar outlines for reform that include a process for legalization or citizenship, recruitment of foreign-born workers into select industries, and strict “border security” measures. The details of leaked White House draft plan, prepared as a “back up” to the congressional proposals, were reported by USA Today this weekend. Despite criticism from conservatives, the draft also emphasizes stronger enforcement of immigration laws.

Though the various efforts all aim to fashion a “comprehensive” reform package, any resulting legislation will likely be anything but: While lawmakers squabble over how broad or narrow to make the legalization process, activists fear Congress may simply erect a bureaucratic dam in place of a broken border wall, let corporations control the floodgates, and still exclude millions of immigrants.

The best and brightest?

Both President Obama and the Senate group endorse special visa programs for specific sectors that, not coincidentally, wield lobbying influence. The agricultural industry pushed for, and got, promises of visas for migrant farmworkers. At the other end of the economic spectrum, Silicon Valley moguls successfully advocated visas for science and technology professionals. Such limited visas are usually called “guestworker” programs, although the Washington proposals shy away from the controversial term.

According to talking points emerging from the White House and the Senate group, another special channel of relief may be opened for undocumented youth, following high-profile, media-savvy mobilizations to support the DREAM Act, which would legalize undocumented students. (In response to continued stagnation on the legislation in Congress, Obama issued ascaled-down administrative directive in August to defer deportations for DREAM-eligible youth).

But many lower-profile migrants have virtually no voice on the Hill. Undocumented women laboring as domestic workers in private homes, or day laborers and dishwashers paid under the table, are no less in need of relief. But under the proposals in play, they can only hope for a more limited legalization process, which might impose deep financial penalties and drag on for years (some estimates suggest up to several million could be disqualified by barriers such as minor past convictions or English-language requirements). Moreover, it’s unclear how far “comprehensive” reforms would go toward ensuring enforcement of labor protections for all—citizen and non, with or without papers—which labor activists see as a crucial step toward building a truly fair, inclusive workforce.

Border security, human insecurity

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Migrant Workers Can’t Win In Xenophobic Greece

9:15 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Mitsos (Wikipedia/Creative Commons)

Originally posted at In These Times

Across Europe, the economic crisis is driving communities to deep desperation, and the people who were always at the margins are getting pushed straight off the edge.

Under misguided austerity policies, unemployment has reached devastating levels in the euro zone–reaching 12 percent across the region and topping 50 percent for youth in Spain and Greece. But some communities are sinking faster than others. Struggling migrant communities–both economic immigrants and refugees–are more neglected by the state’s social infrastructure than ever, while their native-born neighbors turn against them in a rash of xenophobic scapegoating.

Greece, which has long been a hub of immigration from Asia, Middle East and Africa, has become a cesspool of bigotry. According to a December report by Amnesty International, “Asylum-seekers, migrants, community centres, shops and mosques have been the target of such attacks which have been reported on an almost daily basis since the summer.”

Last September, an attack on a Pakistani-run barber shop showed how racism intersects with inhumane immigration policies:

The two men verbally attacked the Greek customer who was present for having a haircut in a shop owned by Pakistanis and stabbed him when he reacted. Then they started destroying the shop and throwing Molotov cocktails. The police came to investigate the incident and arrested two Pakistani nationals because they had no documents. In October, they were both in detention, pending deportation. Read the rest of this entry →

Immigrant Supply-Chain Labor Struggles Galvanize Walmart Activism

4:38 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Young Polish and Romanian workers on "J-1" guest visas who protested their treatment at a Pennsylvania Hershey plant last year recently won back pay from the subcontractor that runs the facility. (Roman Surzhko/National Guestworker Alliance)

Originally posted on In These Times

On Black Friday, as Walmart workers across the country stand up against the retail giant’s labor regime, they’ll be in part standing on the shoulders of smaller uprisings that have popped up in low-wage workplaces. Alongside the disgruntled store employees, various subcontracted warehouse workers have helped lead the wave of protests.

The interconnected campaigns reveal that what makes Wal-Mart so powerful–its hegemonic size and market domination–is also what makes it a solid target for an increasingly militant solidarity movement of precarious workers across the supply chain.

As labor activists brace for Black Friday, federal authorities have vindicated a previous labor struggle involving a major Walmart warehouse subcontractor. Back in 2011, immigrant guestworkers at Exel, a logistics subcontractor, protested against abusive working conditions at a Hershey plant in Palmyra, Penn. As we’ve reported previously, the guestworkers were “invited” to a hard labor stint through a special “J-1″ visa administered by the State Department. As with other labor-based visa programs, lax regulation had turned J-1 into a gateway for the importation of low-wage young workers under the pretext of “educational” summer work experience.

The young Hershey hires quickly saw their resume-building aspirations dissolve into a nightmare of abusive work schedules and workplace safety violations. As one disillusioned young worker told the New York Times. “We are supposed to be here for cultural exchange and education, but we are just cheap laborers.” Read the rest of this entry →

In Sandy’s Wake, New York’s Landscape of Inequity Revealed

2:15 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Flood damage to the subway system will disproportionately affect the lower-income New Yorkers who use it the most, worsening structural inequality. (MTA / Flickr / Creative Commons).

Originally posted at In These Times

The shock of Sandy is still rippling across the northeastern United States. But in the microcosm of New York City, we can already see who’s going to bear the brunt of the damage. As Hurricane Katrina demonstrated, floodwaters have a way of exposing the race and class divisions that stratify our cities.

Though some bus and subway service is returning, many neighborhoods dependent on public transportation remain functionally shuttered. Not surprisingly, recent surveys show that Metropolitan Transit Authority ridership consists mostly of people of color, nearly half living on less than $50,000 a year in one of the world’s most expensive cities.

It’s true that Sandy’s path of destruction was to some extent an equal opportunity assault, pummeling the trendiest downtown enclaves and blighted neighborhoods alike. But residents’ levels of resilience to the storm–the capacity to absorb trauma–will likely follow the sharp peaks and valleys of the city’s economic landscape.

Even before the storm, inequities arose in the city’s disaster preparations. Many public-housing residents who stayed behind in evacuation zones were preemptively blacked out, left without elevators, heat or hot water. Meanwhile, once again, in a repeat of Hurricane Irene, the city was criticized for shamelessly denying the incarcerated at Rikers Island an adequate evacuation plan. Read the rest of this entry →

$950,000 Win for NYC Workers Invigorates Supply-Chain-Justice Movement

9:45 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Tom Cat Bakery drivers address supporters during a march to protest threats against healthcare benefits. (

Originally posted at In These Times

A lot of the heavy lifting in today’s labor movement is coming from an unexpected place: the warehouses and processing facilities that bridge the retail and wholesale markets. Alienated from traditional labor union structures, these more obscure links in the supply chain offer a new breeding ground for innovative rank-and-file mobilizing. The recent Wal-Mart warehouse strikesin California and Illinois showed how precarious low-wage workers organize on their own in defiance of temp bosses, the police, and the nation’s retail giant.

Meanwhile, in Queens, New York, landmark legal victory for warehouse workers and truck drivers at a local food distributor reveals the value of a more nimble-footed approach to empowering non-unionized workers.

Late last month, a federal judge ruled that distribution company Beverage Plus must pay a group of Latino workers about $950,000 in damages. The decision cited repeated and willful labor violations by the company, including denying overtime to employees who worked up to 12-hour days. Read the rest of this entry →

Rogue State: Jeff Biggers on the ‘Arizonification of America’

7:10 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Summit Photography

Originally posted at CultureStrike

For most of his life, Jeff Biggers has been on his way home. The author and activist has navigated multiple worlds to chronicle the forgotten Americas—the obscure, the misunderstood, or the proudly resistant communities in Appalachia and the southwestern border lands. As a politically inspired journalist in the tradition of folk historians like Studs Terkel, Biggers has unearthed nuggets of rebellion, even radicalism, in places that the media tend to write off as backwaters or mythologized clichés. In his new book, State Out of the Union, Biggers examines a region he’s been entangled in a “love-hate affair” with since boyhood.

In elucidating Arizona, Biggers sculpts a narrative of cultural and social conflict centered on a tumultuous struggle over immigration and racial politics. Looking beyond the headlines about the state’s various anti-immigrant policies, including the notorious “papers, please” SB 1070 law, Biggers finds strange continuity in Arizona’s evolution as an embodiment of the country’s contradictions. Though the face of Arizona is changing, alongside the nation’s diversifying demographics, the rifts of race, gender and age resonate with the state’s fraught history as the ultimate borderland—and as a muse for storytellers seeking crooked plot lines.

In this Q&A, Biggers, a longtime CultureStrike contributor, talks with editor Michelle Chen about the origins of the book and his meandering journeys in journalism and politics. (Note: Asian American Writers Workshop is hosting an event on Biggers’s new book on September 24 in New York City.)


Michelle Chen: What was the genesis of this book? What led you to Arizona?

Jeff Biggers: I’ve had a love-hate affair with Arizona since my family arrived in Tucson in 1970 in my Dad’s old ’60 Chevy, fleeing the demise of the Midwestern coal towns, intent on finding a new life in the “Sun Belt.” Within a short time, I found myself on a local TV program, discussing Arizona history as a school kid. I’ve never stopped investigating the state’s unique history. In 1991, after living out of the region for a decade, I did a “walkabout” and oral history project in the Sonoran Desert (borderlands), trying to understand our indigenous, Mexican, immigrant and pioneer cultures. I’ve also lived on the other side of the US-Mexico border, which I chronicled in my book, In the Sierra Madre. Nearly forty years after my family’s arrival—and all of my immediate family still lives in Arizona—I was outraged by the rise of political interlopers and an extremist state legislature that passed Arizona’s punitive immigration law (the infamous SB 1070 “papers, please” law) in 2010, and then crafted a bill to outlaw Mexican American Studies in Tucson. As a cultural historian, that was the last straw for me; this wasn’t “my Arizona,” and I felt I needed to go home, recover some of the lost voices in the state’s history, and chronicle a new chapter over the civil rights showdown taking place today.

I think a lot of writers like myself, raised in Arizona, felt the same in 2010: What’s the matter with Arizona? Read the rest of this entry →

Missed Opportunity: Immigrants and Women at the DNC

5:03 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Originally posted at In These Times

A member of the NLIRH's Texas Latina Advocacy Network, which has mobilized around issues such as access to transportation to reproductive healthcare in rural communities. (National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health / Flickr)

Last week, two issues highlighted at the Democratic National Convention represented a notable departure from the talk of jobs and economic growth. There was a classic striving immigrant narrative, embodied in the poetic if oversimplified family story of San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro. And there was a passionate defense of reproductive rights delivered by Sandra Fluke, who famously incurred ultra-conservative wrath for speaking out on contraceptive access. Both speeches showed the double-edged power of political storytelling: to inspire while masking the deeper issues that the mainstream political realm deftly obscures every four years.

Pivoting to Latino and women voters, the Democrats were capitalizing on ideological divisions in Washington on reproductive choice and immigration. But while the party repackaged those issues into slickly marketed talking points, the messaging spoke to messier unrest at the grassroots. Responding to years of grassroots pressure (from the sit-ins staged by so-called Dream Activists to the bold protest-on-wheels of the Undocubus, which rolled defiantly outside the convention), Obama has offered temporary reprieve to undocumented youth and promised to ease mass deportations for many immigrants with clean records. Meanwhile, the White House has cautiously pushed back against right-wing assaults on women’s health in the Affordable Care Act. But the response to the war of attrition on women’s rights comes amid rising frustration among pro-choice advocates who’ve witnessed Democrats’ repeated capitulations to anti-choice forces that have monopolized the abortion debate. Read the rest of this entry →