Proposal: Let's Look at All the Foreign Worker Programs as a Whole

By David North, June 7, 2012

Let's stop looking at the nonimmigrant worker programs one at a time and instead address them as a worrisome whole.

That was the central idea presented at a meeting hosted yesterday by the Economic Policy Institute, a progressive Washington think tank.

The proposal was made in an accompanying report, Visas, Inc.: Corporate Control and Policy Incoherence in the U.S. Temporary Foreign Labor System, from the Global Workers Justice Alliance (GWJA), a relative newcomer to the immigration debate.

GWJA's point is that all of the foreign worker visa programs operate in similar ways and cause harm to everyone involved except the employers. Thus, they argue, a comprehensive approach is needed to reduce and reform, if not eliminate, all of these programs in one fell swoop. This holistic approach is not the one usually taken by critics of these programs, and certainly not by the government, so it was a refreshing suggestion at a refreshing conference.

It was nice to see a group of young minds tackle a difficult social issue without ever bowing to the normal operating ways of Washington. I look forward to the organization's contributions in the future.

I would suggest, however, that "policy incoherence" is an appropriate but loaded term; certainly there is nothing incoherent about the ways these visa programs help the employers who invented, or re-invented, these arrangements.

Leading the discussion was Cathleen Caron, once a farm labor advocate/lawyer, she is the founder and executive director of GWJA. Joining her was the soft-spoken author of the report, Ashwini Sukthankar, and EPI staffer Daniel Costa, author of a very useful EPI report on the J-1 program described in an earlier blog of mine.

The star of the day, however, was someone else, Khanthi Salgadu, a Sri Lankan woman who had been bamboozled, trafficked, and forced into unpaid slavery for 26 months in a San Diego household. Her story was stunning, starting with her agreeing to work as a household servant in Singapore to support ailing parents back home. She had wanted to stay in Singapore, where she got some Sundays off work and was paid regularly, but the family there (and her recruiting agency back home) apparently forced her to agree to apply for a B-1 visa to accompany another family to the United States.

"I kept hoping the consular official would reject my application, but he approved it", she said. She then told of her long hours of work, seven days a week without respite, in the California house where she said "I scrubbed the bathroom floor with Clorox, Ajax, and a toothbrush." She was told that she could not go home and that she had no right to do anything but work in the house.

She was, though she did not state it this way, the perfect trafficked slave: she knew no one in America, did not speak much English, was not in touch with other Sri Lankans, and was completely intimidated. She was not allowed to leave the house or even to open the door when visitors arrived. "I did not even know about 911", she said.

Then through a mechanism that was not explained, some immigration officials came to the house, she was rescued, she was subsequently issued a T (for trafficking) visa, and eventually she was paid for the 26 months. (It would have been nice for many of us in the audience had this rescue been spelled out a little more thoroughly.)

She was vague as to what had happened to her former enslavers, despite a direct question on that subject. She seemed reluctant to talk about it.

My suggestion to the audience was that EPI should lean on someone in the State Department and get Ms. Salgadu an opportunity to lecture consular officials in training at the big training facility that State operates in Arlington, Va. I had some lecture gigs there a few years ago, so I know that there is a process for hiring outsiders to join that training program. Her message was something that all newly appointed career diplomats should hear.

The report sorted out the various visas in a new, different, and perhaps naive way. There are the "formal" work visas (H-1B, H-2A, and H-2B), the "other" work visas (E-1, E-2, and E-3; L-1; I; O; P; Q and R; TN; and the special ones for the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands), and the "definitely not for work visas".

This last category includes B-1 (business visitors), A-3 (diplomatic servants), G-5 (servants to international civil servants), and those in B-1 who are servants to other B-1s. Also, and here I would differ, F-1 (students, including former foreign students), and J-1 (exchange visitors). These last two categories bring us hundreds of thousands of migrant workers each year.

Sukthankar estimated the nonimmigrant worker population at 700,000-900,000. When challenged on these low numbers, she said she wanted to be conservative and not be accused of inflating the size of the population. Unfortunately, such deflated estimates will be seized on by the more-migration people to say "we do not need to worry about such small numbers." My sense is that there are nonimmigrant workers in the low millions in the United States at any given time; probably as many as 650,000 in the H-1B category alone.

GWJA is interested in "portable justice" for migrant workers and is seeking ways to help abused nonimmigrant workers sue employers in the United States, even after they have returned to their home countries. It has spent a lot of energy reaching out to groups in sending nations that help these migrants. It also has a strong interest in the least powerful of these non-powerful populations, alien domestic servants such as Ms. Salgadu.