United States officials say the country needs more foreign workers to keep some American businesses from struggling.
The Department of Homeland Security has announced plans to make 15,000 additional H-2B visas available. It says businesses can use the visas to offer employment to temporary, non-agricultural foreign workers before the end of September.
The decision comes as Congress is considering ways to fix the immigration system. Many lawmakers say they want to reform the system, while guaranteeing jobs for U.S. citizens.
Yet many groups argue that current federal rules fail to protect foreign visa holders from discrimination and other abuses. The Center for Migrant Rights or CDM is one of them. It notes the rules do not protect the visa holders from job misrepresentation, payments to employment agencies and even cheating by an employer.
American businesses use the H-2B visa when offering seasonal employment to non-immigrant foreign workers. But the work must not be agricultural. And, businesses must show evidence that there are not enough American workers willing and able to perform these services.
Four women who came to the United States on H-2B visas were part of a group discussion last week in Washington, D.C. The CDM organized the event to raise awareness about a system it says often treats human beings like property.
Adarelo Hernandez is a former H-2B worker from Hidalgo, Mexico. At the discussion, she said, "In the workplace, there were about 80 of us, women, and we had a hard time."
Hernandez said she looked for a job for two years before finally receiving an H-2B visa to work at a chocolate packing factory in Louisiana.
Inequality in the workplace
Men who worked at the factory earned higher wages by carrying and handling boxes. Women, however, had to pack chocolates on assembly lines. Hernandez said the women were not given time away for sickness.
"We weren't able to make complaints, because if we did make complaints, we were threatened by the manager," she said. "We were told we didn't have a right to file complaints, because we didn't have rights here in the United States."
But, after four seasons as an H-2B visa worker, Hernandez and about 70 other workers fought for better work conditions. She said that although conditions improved, the company decided not to give her or her co-workers jobs again.
The statement of Hernandez and 34 other worker stories is part of a report about gender inequality in U.S. labor migration programs. CDM and the University of Pennsylvania Transnational Legal Clinic worked together on the research.
One suggestion in the report is that all temporary labor migration programs be required to follow the same rules and protections. The goal is to stop abusive employers and recruiters from avoiding legal punishment for worker abuse.
The Economic Policy Institute says about 1.4 million people are recruited to work in the U.S. each year through temporary work visas. These include:
· H-1B for specialty jobs
· J-1, the exchange visitor program
· and TN for Canadians and Mexicans in specialized jobs under the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA
These visas may be different, but immigration and labor organizations report that recruited foreign workers face common abuses.
In 2015, the Department of Labor and Department of Homeland Security took action against abuse within the H-2B system. Its hope was to prevent the abuse of workers and ensure that U.S. workers knew about available jobs.
"Rosa" is a doctor who specializes in treating animals. She asked that her real name not be made public for fear of punishment.
She was unable to join the CDM event because the U.S. government rejected her request for a tourist visa. But she provided a statement that was read during the event.
"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," Rosa's statement said. "Anyway, that's not going to stop me from sharing my story."
Rosa is a former TN visa worker. She received permission for an animal scientist position in Wisconsin. She was excited about the chance to work at a place where she would use skills she gained as a graduate from a top Mexican university.
Rosa says her employer was dishonest. They promised her specific wages and then failed to pay them, her statement said. They were also abusive.
"The supervisors would yell at us constantly and tell us that our visa was only good for obeying orders," she said. "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."
Protecting American workers
Rachel Micah-Jones is the head of CDM. She said foreign workers need protections, including the right to understand a written agreement before signing one with a U.S. company.
Immigration conservatives agree about the need to protect visa workers, but they also express concern about the needs of American workers.
Jessica Vaughan is director of policy studies at the Center for Immigration Studies. She said she agrees these visa programs can be good. But, she says, there is a "big problem" with employers giving jobs to workers they can pay less and who may replace American and legal immigrant workers.
Vaughan told VOA the solution is not necessarily to end the programs, but to change them and for government agencies to do a better job of enforcing laws.
I'm Bruce Alpert. And I'm Alice Bryant.
Aline Barros reported this story for VOA News. Alice Bryant adapted it for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor.
Words in This Story
awareness - n. the act of knowing that a situation, condition or problem exists
packing – adj. of or related to putting something into boxes or containers
assembly line – n. a series of workers and machines in a factory by which a series of the same items is progressively put together
complaint – n. a formal charge saying that someone has done something wrong
gender – n. the state of being male or female
recruiter – n. someone who finds suitable people to join or work at a company or organization
yell – v. to say something very loudly because you are angry, surprised or trying to get someone's attention
trough – n. a long, shallow container from which cows, pigs, horses and other animals eat or drink