Proposed visa could tie more foreigners to abusive employers

May 9, 2013

Supporters of a proposed visa for low-skilled, nonseasonal laborers say it would break the mold for U.S. guest-worker programs. They point out that the visa, part of a sweeping immigration bill that a Senate committee took up Thursday, would allow foreigners to switch employers and would provide a path to citizenship.

But a WBEZ examination of the legislation suggests that the W Visa could, in practice, tether the foreigners to potentially abusive bosses and would not provide any guarantee of a future in the country.

The program, developed in talks between the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO, would set up a legal mechanism for bringing in as many as 200,000 foreigners a year to worksites that could range from meatpacking plants to nursing homes. Business groups behind the plan say it would help provide a “future flow” of legal workers into positions that Americans don’t want.

The AFL-CIO, the nation’s largest labor federation, agreed to help formulate the W Visa as part of the proposed immigration overhaul, which would provide legal status to millions of low-skilled workers who lack authorization to be in the country. The federation negotiated despite viewing guest-worker programs as a drag on wages.

For W Visa holders, the AFL-CIO managed to insert safeguards. The foreigners would have whistleblower protections and the employers would be subject to all labor laws. Theoretically the workers would get overtime pay, safety gear, lunch breaks and so on.

The practical question is whether the W Visa holders would have the freedom to speak up for such rights.

Saket Soni, executive director of the New Orleans-based National Guestworker Alliance, points out that existing guest-worker programs tie the foreigners to their employer. “If they complain about working conditions or organize, there is a readymade retaliation button,” Soni said. “Employers can simply terminate a worker and deport their problem because, once they’re fired, those workers are deportable.”

The groups behind the W Visa say the program would be different. They point to a “portability” provision that would allow the foreigners to switch employers. “Portability is, really, the foundation of all labor rights,” said Tamar Jacoby, president and CEO of a pro-business group called ImmigrationWorks USA. “If you want to ask for better wages or better conditions or better anything, your leverage comes from being able to say, ‘I’m leaving.’ ”

But there’s some fine print. The Senate bill, as it stands, would require unemployed W Visa holders to find a job within 60 days. And they could not apply just anywhere. They would have to work for another employer registered in the program.

The search for such an employer could be daunting. Few of the workers would speak English well and know their way around. “Sixty days to find a job these days is pretty challenging,” Soni said, even for workers born and raised in the United States.

For portability to be most meaningful, lawmakers would have to provide jobless W Visa holders protections against blacklisting, and would have to provide the registered employers incentives to hire unemployed W Visa holders instead of bringing in new foreigners for openings, Soni said. Jobless W Visa holders could also benefit from coordination and support programs.

Such proposals have not emerged from the Senate Judiciary Committee, the panel working on the immigration bill.

Another selling point for the W Visa program is that these foreigners, unlike most guest workers, could eventually become citizens.

“These workers have the possibility, at least, of getting a green card in the future,” said Robert Sakaniwa, an associate director of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. “In the past, when there was no hope for the immigrant to get a green card and stay in legal permanent status in the U.S., the opportunities for misuse and abuse abounded.”

But pursuing a green card could be dangerous for W Visa holders. The bill specifies only one path for them — a petition by the registered employer. That would deepen their dependence on potentially abusive bosses.

A W Visa holder could also self-petition for a green card, but that would mean competing with other foreigners in a new merit-based visa system created to give a leg up to highly skilled applicants. A “tier” of that system for low-skilled workers would award points for each year of lawful U.S. employment, but the size of the applicant pool could be huge. Holding a W Visa itself would provide no advantage.

Chip Mitchell is WBEZ’s West Side bureau reporter. Follow him on Twitter @ChipMitchell1 and @WBEZoutloud, and connect with him through Facebook and LinkedIn.