As Congress looks into ways to fix the immigration system, often with the goal of safeguarding job opportunities for U.S. workers, at least one immigration organization argues that current federal regulations fail to protect foreign visa holders from job misrepresentation, recruitment fees, exploitation, fraud and discrimination.
Four women who came to the U.S. on temporary visas were part of a panel discussion Tuesday in Washington to raise awareness of a system they said often treats human beings like commodities.
"In the workplace, there were about 80 of us, women, and we had a hard time," Adareli Hernandez, a former H-2B worker, said in Spanish during a discussion hosted by the Center for Migrant Rights (CDM), a Mexico-based organization with an office in Baltimore, Maryland.
Hernandez, who is from Hidalgo, Mexico, looked for two years before she was finally able to get a H-2B seasonal non-farm work visa to work at a chocolate packing factory in Louisiana.
Inequality in workplace
While men who worked at the factory earned higher wages by carrying and stacking boxes, women were relegated to packing chocolates on assembly lines with no time off for illness.
"We weren't able to make complaints, because if we did make complaints, we were threatened by the manager. … We were told we didn't have a right to file complaints, because we didn't have rights here in the United States," she said.
But after four seasons as an H-2B visa worker, Hernandez fought for better labor conditions along with 70 colleagues. She said though work conditions improved, the company decided not to rehire her or co-workers.
Hernandez's testimony is one of the 34 detailed worker stories featured in a CDM report, Engendering Exploitation: Gender Inequality in U.S. Labor Migration Programs.
Though the report focuses on women migrant workers, CDM policy recommendations say, "All temporary labor migration programs should be subjected to the same rules and protection so that unscrupulous employers and recruiters do not use the patchwork of visa regulations to evade liability."
According to the Economic Policy Institute, about 1.4 million people are recruited to work in the U.S. each year through temporary work visas, including H-1B (specialty occupations), H-2B, J-1 (exchange visitor program) and TN (Canadians and Mexicans in certain occupations under the North American Free Trade Agreement).
The visas may vary, but immigration and labor organizations report that recruited foreign workers face common patterns of abuses.
In 2015, the U.S. Department of Labor and Department of Homeland Security cracked down on abuse within the H-2B system, hoping to prevent the exploitation of workers and to ensure U.S. workers' awareness of available jobs.
A licensed veterinarian, who asked to be called only Rosa for fear of retaliation, submitted a statement that was read during CDM's discussion. Rosa was unable to join the panel because the U.S. government rejected her application for a tourist visa.
"Although the U.S. government had no problem offering me a TN work visa at the employer's request, it won't allow me to visit the country as a tourist. Anyway, that's not going to stop me from sharing my story," Rosa's statement said.
Rosa is a former TN visa worker who was hired for an animal scientist position in Wisconsin. She was "thrilled" for the opportunity to work at a place where she would put in practice the skills she acquired as a recent graduate from a top Mexican university.
TN visas were created within NAFTA to allow U.S. employers to hire Canadian and Mexican workers for specialized jobs.
"I was deceived by my employer. They promised me a salary that they failed to pay, a contract they didn't respect," Rosa's statement said.
"The supervisors would yell at us constantly and tell us that our visa was only good for obeying orders. I cleaned animal troughs, unloaded them from trucks. As the only woman, they would also give me jobs they considered 'women's work,' cleaning the bathroom or the kitchen," she said.
Protecting American workers
Rachel Micah-Jones, CDM's executive director, said there is a need to ensure workers have basic protections, including the right to understand a contract before entering into an agreement with a U.S. company.
Immigration hard-liners agree about the need to protect visa workers, but they also express concern about the welfare of American workers.
Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies at the Center for Immigration Studies, said though she agrees these visa programs "can be beneficial to certain employees for legitimate purposes," there is a "big problem" with employers abusing the system as a way to bring in "workers who can be paid less, and who end up replacing American and legal immigrant workers."
"The solution is not necessarily to end the program, but to reform it and for the government agencies that are responsible for these programs to do a better job of oversight to make sure that they are not abused," Vaughan told VOA.
Vaughan was scheduled to speak about guest worker visa programs at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing that had been scheduled for Wednesday. The hearing was postponed because government officials were focused on hurricane response and recovery efforts after two storms struck in Texas and Florida.