H-2 Guestworker News
BuzzFeed News published a must-read article on abuses of H-2 guestworkers, “The New American Slavery: Invited to the US, Foreign Workers Find a Nightmare.” The article highlights how the structure of the H-2A temporary agricultural guestworker program and the H-2B temporary nonagricultural guestworker program create extremely poor living and working conditions allowing for wage theft, sexual harassment and in the worst cases, allow for modern day slavery. We have heard that Buzzfeed is interested in additional reporting on the H-2A and H-2A programs.
The problems start for H-2 workers when they pay illegal recruitment fees for the opportunity to work in the United States and therefore arrive indebted and desperate to work to repay their debt. As a result, workers will often work to the limits of human endurance to keep their employers happy with their performance. They are tied to an employer for an entire season, and must leave the country when the job ends, factors which make workers extremely vulnerable to abuse. Workers also fear being blacklisted the following year, which makes them unlikely to complain about working conditions or labor violations. H-2A agricultural workers also are excluded from the principal federal employment law for farmworkers, the Agricultural Worker Protection Act. The isolation of H-2A and many H-2B workers, who live in employer-provided housing in rural communities, exacerbate these problems.
When Congress turns back to working on comprehensive immigration reform, it must provide opportunities for foreign agricultural and other lesser-skilled workers who perform jobs vital to our economy to obtain legal permanent residence status and eventually citizenship.
In other H-2 worker news, the Southern Poverty Law Center reached a $20 million settlement on behalf of 200 Indian H-2B workers recruited to work for Signal International on the gulf coast after Hurricane Katrina. The workers paid tens of thousands of dollars in recruitment fees, were subject to wage theft and squalid living conditions, and were illegally detained by company security guards. The settlement came after a New Orleans jury awarded $14 million to five of the workers finding that Signal had engaged in labor trafficking, fraud, racketeering and discrimination. As part of the settlement, Signal also agreed to apologize to the workers. Congratulations to the workers, SPLC and its co-counsel on the case!
Congressional Attacks on Community Trust Policies
Much of the immigration news in recent weeks has focused on immigration enforcement. The murder of a woman in San Francisco by an undocumented immigrant who had recently been released from jail prompted Congress to hold hearings and work on legislation addressing the issue of local law enforcement cooperating with federal immigration enforcement officials. Federal immigration authorities had issued a detainer for the man, but a local ordinance prevents San Francisco authorities from detaining non-violent offenders on immigration detainers when they are otherwise eligible for release. Such policies, referred to as community trust policies, seek to encourage immigrant crime victims and witnesses to come forward without fear of immigration enforcement. Several recent proposals in Congress attack local jurisdictions’ community trust policies through legislation that would strip localities of federal money if they fail to enforce immigration laws.
Many local law enforcement agencies have community trust policies that include guidelines for police officers’ conduct when interacting with immigrant community members. Such policies vary but they often limit police officers from asking people about their immigration status and the circumstances in which a law enforcement agency will turn immigrants over to federal immigration authorities. These policies make local areas safer. Community members are far less likely to come forward to report crimes and serve as witnesses if they perceive a risk of removal for themselves or their family members. Many local law enforcement agencies also argue that their limited resources should be focused on enforcing criminal laws and keeping communities safe.
Some courts have found that local law enforcement agencies have violated people’s Fourth Amendment rights by detaining immigrants without probable cause in order to turn them over to federal immigration authorities. This prompted many local law enforcement agencies to create limited detainer policies that limit the circumstances in which they will detain immigrants with convictions in order to turn them over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
Community trust policies and limited detainer policies conflicted with the federal government’s Secure Communities program, which was heavily criticized for contributing to racial profiling, eroding trust of local law enforcement by immigrant communities and resulting in Fourth Amendment rights violations. In response to these critiques by law enforcement agencies, community members and immigrants’ rights groups, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) terminated the Secure Communities program at the end of 2014 and announced the Priority Enforcement Program (PEP) to replace it. PEP aims to focus on the detention and deportation of immigrants convicted of felonies and certain other serious crimes, and those who pose a danger to the community or a threat to national security. PEP attempts to remedy the high probability of Fourth Amendment violations by requiring ICE to present probable cause that the person is removable and issue a request for notification rather than an immigration detainer unless there are special circumstances that would make a detainer preferable.
In July, the Migration Policy Institute released a report, “Understanding the Potential Impact of Executive Action on Immigration Enforcement” analyzing the potential effects of DHS’s shift in enforcement priorities and the change from the Secure Communities Program to the Priority Enforcement Program. The report states that under DHS 2014 enforcement priorities, 87% of undocumented immigrants would not fall into one of the deportation priorities outlined by the Department of Homeland Security. The MPI report also addresses DHS’s attempt to promote collaboration between ICE and local jurisdictions in a way that gives local jurisdictions more autonomy in how they manage ICE detainers. However, advocates remain skeptical about how PEP will be implemented.
Despite repeated assertions by ICE Director Sarah Saldaña and Secretary of DHS Jeh Johnson that DHS does not want to use a mandatory approach when dealing with local jurisdictions, the House Appropriations Committee voted to prevent jurisdictions that do not comply with DHS immigration mandates from receiving DHS grants, including FEMA funds.
On July 23, 2015, the House passed H.R. 3009, the Enforce the Law for Sanctuary Cities Act, which would penalize jurisdictions that have community trust policies. The bill passed by a vote of 241-179 mainly along party lines with only six Democrats voting for the bill and five Republicans voting against it. HR 3009 would make state and local jurisdictions ineligible to receive “State Criminal Alien Assistance Program” funds if the local authorities follow any law, policy, or procedure that prohibits or restricts communication with DHS or other government entities regarding an individual’s citizenship or immigration status. The bill, authored by Representative Duncan Hunter (R-CA) also targets jurisdictions that prohibit state or local authorities from gathering information on an individual’s citizenship or immigration status. The Act would affect over 300 jurisdictions, including many localities that do not have community trust policies, but have policies aimed at protecting the Fourth Amendment rights of their community members.
There are several similar bills being drafted by Senators. For example, Senator Vitter’s (R-TN) bill, the Stop Sanctuary Cities Act (S.1814), would make it unlawful for state and local jurisdictions to fail to comply with federal immigration detainer requests. Violation of the law would make jurisdictions ineligible to receive State Criminal Alien Assistance Program funds and chronic offenders would be ineligible to receive Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant Program funds. The Senate Judiciary Committee was scheduled to mark-up his bill on Thursday but has postponed the markup until September.
Senator Feinstein (D-CA) has also outlined a bill that would make compliance with ICE requests for notification mandatory for state and local jurisdictions. Senator Boxer (D-CA) is considering joining Feinstein on the bill. More than 50 California organizations wrote a letter to the Senators opposing the bill.
The proposed laws are problematic for the same reasons the Secure Communities program was considered controversial. Extended detention based on foreign birth or speculation of immigration status results in violations of the Fourth Amendment rights of individuals. Mandatory compliance erodes trust and goodwill between federal agencies and state and local jurisdictions as well as between community members and local law enforcement agents, eroding the safety of local communities. Farmworker Justice signed a letter by the American Civil Liberties Union signed by 139 organizations opposing the Stop the Sanctuary Cities Act.