Administrative Relief, Family Detention & Fraud in the H-2 Visa Programs
In recent weeks President Obama has reaffirmed his commitment to announcing executive action on immigration reform before the end of the year. The President also said that he remains committed to passing immigration reform through Congress, warning that it is “suicide for the GOP not to address the issue.” Meanwhile, some Democrats running in close races have distanced themselves from pro-immigration stances. Most notably, Alison Lundergan Grimes is running an offensive “anti-amnesty” advertisement accusing incumbent Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY) of being pro-amnesty due to his support for the 1986 immigration law that legalized undocumented immigrants. In the ad Grimes says “I’ve never supported amnesty or benefits for illegal immigrants, and I never will.” Several progressive and get-out-the-vote groups, such as MoveOn.org and the Latino Victory Project, have expressed their strong opposition to the ad, calling on Grimes to take it down.
While immigrant communities await administrative relief, detentions and deportations continue. In Florida, immigrant and worker advocates are criticizing Florida Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater for going after undocumented immigrants for workers’ compensation fraud. Last July, the state arrested more than 100 workers in a raid on a fruit and vegetable processing plant in Naples, FL. Workers are being charged with the felony of identity theft for using a fake ID to get a job and sign up for workers’ compensation insurance. However, the workers had not submitted any false workers’ compensation claims, which is typically what is considered workers’ compensation fraud. Instead, it appears that this is a roundabout way for Atwater to enforce immigration law.
The Obama administration is being seriously criticized for its increased use of detention facilities for families from Central America, many of whom have legitimate claims for asylum. Immigration and refugee advocates and religious organizations argue that detaining families and children is unnecessary and inhumane. The Obama Administration’s justification for detaining the families is to deter more families from coming and to ensure that they show up for court proceedings. However, the US Executive Office for Immigration Review recently stated that 85% of the unaccompanied minors who have recently entered the country and have been placed with relatives in the US are showing up for their court hearings, undermining the argument that detention is necessary.
Moreover, there are serious concerns regarding the treatment of women and children in these detention centers. MALDEF and others filed a lawsuit on behalf of women in family detention in the privately-run Karnes facility in Texas alleging sexual harassment and abuse by guards. Three guards are accused of engaging in sexual acts with detainees and making inappropriate remarks in front of children and other detainees.
However, there are some positive developments around the issue of ICE detainers. An increasing number of municipalities are refusing to honor ICE detainers, or requests to hold undocumented immigrants 48 hours past their scheduled release date from jail. Several federal court rulings on the issue have held that ICE detainers are not mandatory and they do not constitute probable cause. This opens local law enforcement up to the possibility of being sued for violating individuals’ constitutional rights. According to the LA Times, 225 local law enforcement agencies have decided to completely ignore the requests. Another 25 have limited the circumstances under which they will honor the requests to individuals who have committed more serious crimes.
Grower Representative Accused of Defrauding the U.S.
Harry Lee Wicker, Jr. was recently indicted by the federal government for criminal conspiracy to defraud the United States in a scheme involving the H-2A temporary agricultural guestworker program and the H-2B temporary nonagricultural guestworker program. Wicker is Deputy Director of the North Carolina Growers Association (NCGA), a large farm labor contractor that brings in guestworkers from Mexico, and a board member of USA Farmers, which represents employers of guestworkers.
Wicker has testified several times in Congressional hearings on behalf of agricultural employers seeking to eliminate labor protections and reduce government oversight of the H-2A program.
Wicker was added to a case that was previously filed by the U.S. Attorney in federal court in North Carolina. Wicker’s co-defendants in the 87-count indictment of USA v Eury, are Craig Stanford Eury, Jr. and Kenneth White. Eury serves as the Executive Director of NCGA and the founder and primary interest holder of International Labor Management Company (ILMC), a North Carolina company engaged in preparing and submitting applications for H-2A and H-2B workers on behalf of client companies. White is another Deputy Director of NCGA.
The indictment alleges that under a scheme to defraud, Lee Wicker improperly directed the payment of over $1,000,000 to a limited liability company under his control. The indictment seems to allege that the farm operators that are members of, and are supplied with guestworkers by, the NCGA and/or ILMC were victims of fraud. The defendants allegedly overcharged growers and pocketed the money. Among other claims, the indictment alleges that ILMC, Eury and others instructed H-2B employers on how to interview US workers so as to inhibit their hiring and to hire token US workers. The alleged result was to allow ILMC to profit from hiring guestworkers instead of United States citizens. These criminal charges, if proved, would suggest that the defendants sought to evade the federal immigration law’s requirement that qualified, available U.S. workers should be hired before an application for guestworkers is approved.
Wicker most recently testified before the House Judiciary Committee on May 16, 2013, in favor of Rep. Goodlatte’s “Agricultural Guestworker Act,” HR 1773, which would create a new program with lower wages, fewer requirements for ensuring job opportunities for U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents, and allow exploitative conditions for hundreds of thousands of new guestworkers. According to Wicker’s testimony before the House Judiciary Committee, the NCGA has been the single largest user of H-2A agricultural guestworkers for over 15 years. In his testimony, Wicker calls the H-2A program “expensive, overly bureaucratic, [and] unnecessarily litigious.”
The H-2A program and its predecessor have been characterized by widespread evasions of their modest labor protections for U.S. and foreign workers. Indeed, a guestworker program is inherently problematic because the foreign workers are denied freedoms most workers possess and are vulnerable to abuse. Farmworker Justice has long called for greater oversight and stronger enforcement of the H-2A program’s requirements.
Labor Violations on Florida Farms
The Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division (WHD) issued a press release on findings of wage, housing and transportation violations under the Fair Labor Standards Act and the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act in its ongoing initiative focusing on Central and Northern Florida farms. So far, the WHD has assessed $100,000 in back wages for 277 workers and more than $25,000 in civil money penalties. The high rates of labor violations in agriculture is directly related to the high portion of undocumented farmworkers in the workforce and demonstrates the urgent need for legalization of undocumented immigrants. Farmworker Justice continues to advocate for Congress to pass immigration reform with a path to citizenship and for President Obama to create a broad affirmative relief program for undocumented immigrants that includes farmworkers and their families.