Migrant workers often face long, hard hours without protection from the abuses of employers. Weyer

Be our guest?

The U.S. should be a good host and protect the migrant workers who knock on our door.

In the colonial period the destitute and desperate escaping the poverty of European backwaters made their way to America as indentured servants, signing away the only commodity they had to offer: themselves. Frequently used up to the end of human endurance by their “employers,” these earliest members of America’s working class experienced a dehumanization that was only exceeded by the treatment of Africans brought over as slaves.

The pattern of desperation finding exploitation has characterized the history of America’s laboring masses ever since—from 19th-century European migrant “wage slaves” in America’s mills and mines right through to the Bracero program for imported Mexican agricultural workers in the 1940s through mid-1960s. According to a new report from the Southern Poverty Law Center, the pattern persists today under the guise of the nation’s H-2 temporary worker visa program.

The SPLC charges that thousands of workers in American agricultural, forestry, food production, landscaping, and construction industries are essentially enthralled to the employers who “import” them, denied the right to seek other work if their wages are too low or their treatment too appalling. Though the program looks good on paper, the SPLC says the current system tolerates widespread abuses: workers paid below the minimum or prevailing wage, enduring “squalid” working and living conditions, held virtually captive by employers or labor brokers who seize their documents, denied medical benefits for on-the-job injuries, and generally silenced within a legal structure that fails to protect their rights.

That federal authorities are having such a difficult time enforcing existing standards now, with no more than 121,000 guest workers, is a cause for grave concern as Congress debates comprehensive immigration reform. A cornerstone of that reform is a proposal for a vast expansion of America’s guest worker program that one day could include millions of people abandoned to the perhaps not-so-tender mercies of employers across the country.

While a huge expansion of the program will no doubt satisfy those seeking new flows of cheap labor into the United States, folks interested in throwing a stick into the spokes of this next historical cycle of labor exploitation need to get active. Can we become the first generation of Americans to get it right—to pull together a system that protects the basic human rights of guest laborers, offers new opportunities to native workers for a better standard of living, and provides ethical employers the human capital they need to propel our economy into the next century?

It all depends on how well we citizens supervise those who work for us in Washington. Many of our lawmakers, befuddled as they are over how best to respond to the “problem” of immigration, seem less doubtful about public displays of Christianity. I’ll save them some Bible-thumbing as they puzzle over the WWJD on guest workers.

Try Leviticus: “When an alien resides with you in your land, do not molest him. You shall treat the alien who resides with you no differently than the natives born among you; have the same love for him as for yourself; for you too were once aliens in the land of Egypt. I, the Lord, am your God” (19:33-34). Wow. That’s really not too hard to parse at all.

President Bush has called for a “legal and orderly path for foreign workers to enter our country to work on a temporary basis” so “they won’t have to try to sneak in.” This is a laudable goal. How to make it a practical reality is the challenge we must take up today. The SPLC offers a number of recommendations, including freeing more resources for enforcement, guaranteeing acceptable living standards and wages for workers, and fundamentally liberating guest workers from a kind of enslavement to a specific employer or the human traffickers who now prey on them.

These are commonsense proposals well worth incorporating into an ethically sensible temporary worker visa system. After all, when you throw out the welcome mat, you shouldn’t hit your guests over the head with it.

Kevin Clarke is senior editor at U.S. Catholic and online content manager at Claretian Publications. This article appeared in the May 2007 (Volume 72, Number 5; page 38) issue of U.S. Catholic.

All active news articles