WASHINGTON – A civil rights organization wants Congress to closely examine what it says are abuses in existing guestworker programs before creating a new one to curb illegal immigration.
The Southern Poverty Law Center, based in Montgomery, Ala., said foreigners hired through programs for farm and non-farm laborers work in conditions akin to indentured servitude.
Workers are routinely cheated of wages, forced to turn over deeds to homes and pay thousands in fees to recruiters, leaving them beholden to unscrupulous employers to pay off debt, the center said in a report Monday.
"The title of the report 'Close to Slavery' is an accurate depiction of guestworker programs in the United States. It is not mere hyperbole," Richard Cohen, the center's chief executive officer, said at a National Press Club news conference.
Many of the workers are hired by recruiters in Mexico, Guatemala and other parts of Latin America, where President Bush has been visiting and promoting proposed immigration reform.
Bush and some in Congress have championed a new guestworker program to provide laborers for U.S. employers and curb illegal immigration. Immigration legislation crafted by Sens. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., and John McCain, R-Ariz., and Reps. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., and Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., is expected to be unveiled soon with a guestworker proposal.
The center recommends workers be allowed to become legal permanent residents, with their families, over time. That proposal has been backed by some supporters of immigration changes but is opposed by some conservatives.
Current abuses are an argument for immigration reform, said Bob Dolibois, executive vice president of the American Landscape and Nursery Association, which supports creating a new program. He said exploitation stems from unrealistic caps on workers' visas and failure to address the 11 million to 12 million illegal immigrants in the country.