A distressing case of alien worker exploitation that just popped up on the West Coast reminds me that the worst of the many U.S. foreign-worker programs are those that are operated directly by the U.S. State Department — a government agency that, by definition, has no field staff within the United States.
The case in point deals with the nonimmigrant investor (E-2) program, which grants temporary work visas for aliens who have invested in an American business; the E-2 program is not to be confused with the EB-5 program, which routinely produces, after a two-year-wait, permanent green cards for the investor, the investor's spouse, and for his or her children.
E-2 visas are issued by the State Department overseas without any assistance from a U.S.-based agency; EB-5 visas are issued after at least some scrutiny by both the Department of Homeland Security here and by State overseas. For more on the operation of and the size of the E-2 program, see here.
So how can an alien on an E-2 visa, by definition a capitalist, be exploited as a worker?
In this case, now in the federal courts, the exploiters were Paul Jumroon, a naturalized citizen of Thai descent, and his wife, Tanya, owners of Thai restaurants in Lake Oswego, Ore., and Ridgefield, Wash. They had trouble retaining cooks and serving staff, so they started recruiting workers in Thailand, and brought them to this country on fraudulently obtained E-2 visas, indicating that the workers were investors in restaurants in this country, or key employees of an investor, when in fact they were either cooks or servers.
Then the Jumroons forced the aliens to work 12-hour days, often without paying them, or paying them in full, while forcing them to live in crowded conditions; one alien had to sleep on the floor for four months before he was granted a bed.
How the Jumroons held onto these workers is explained in an unusually perceptive sentencing memorandum, which can be seen in the PACER file 3:18-cr-00036-BR:
Jumroon did not resort to violence or physical restraints because he did not need to in order to compel A.U.'s labor [A.U. was one of the E-2 visa workers]. He [Jumroon] personally picked victims who he knew would be culturally subservient to him, who were culturally and linguistically isolated in Oregon, and who were dependent on him for work, housing, transportation, and other basic needs. Jumroon not only exploited the victims for his financial gain, but he crafted a scheme that deprived them of their autonomy, including the ability to work for anyone who may have treated them better.
So we have both the oft-told story of the successful, earlier arrival exploiting his newly arrived countrymen, and an illustration of the fact that just about any visa in the alphabet can be gamed.
Both of the Junroons have entered plea agreements: He will go to jail for three years; she probably will be in home confinement for six months, and on probation for three years. They have to pay back wages of $131,000 to four of the workers and $120,000 to the IRS for back taxes — they not only cheated the workers, they cheated the tax system, too. Among the court-ordered forfeitures was a set of seven one-ounce gold bars, presumably worth about $1,250 each.
As noted earlier, E-2 is a work program run by the State Department alone. Its sister program, E-1, is for treaty traders, usually executives of international corporations. State also has a series of exchange visitor (J-1) programs, which include work visas for au pairs, camp counselors, and for various academic purposes.
Perhaps the largest and most controversial of these J-1 programs is the Summer Work Travel Program, which my colleague Jerry Kammer exposed in a book-length report a couple of years ago.
This program, which has been repeatedly criticized by the Government Accountability Office and by State's own inspector general, recruits overseas college students and recent grads for low-paid summertime work and provides more profits for the employers that use it than cultural exchange for its participants. It also takes some 100,000 jobs away from America's teenagers and college students.
My sense is that the State Department has other, more important challenges — China and Russia, for example — and should remove itself from the grubby task of providing workers at below-market wages for some favored U.S. employers.