Thursday, May 24, 2007



Some Americans speak about slavery so firmly in the past tense, it’s as though they think the shameful legacy would never be repeated on our shores. Of course, this is typical of the myopia of a population inured to inhumane horrors that happen all the time in our country, and elsewhere. In fact, there is modern-day slavery in happening right here under our upturned noses, in the guise of immigrant exploitation.

Now, it’s perhaps axiomatic to most individuals with an active cerebrum that immigration is a complex issue with no simple solutions. However, one thing is for sure: most of the anti-immigration sentiment in the U.S. today has its roots in virulent ignorance and perilous prejudice. And most people seem blissfully incognizant of just how badly immigrants are abused – and with government backing, no less.

The Southern Poverty Law Center has published a harrowing report about the United States guestworker programs called “Close to Slavery.” In particular, the report details the myriad abuses migrant workers endure at the hands of guestworker recruiters and employers.

According to the report, guestworkers “are routinely cheated out of wages; forced to mortgage their futures to obtain low-wage, temporary jobs; held virtually captive by employers who seize their documents; forced to live in squalid conditions; and denied medical benefits for injuries.”

Guestworkers often live with other employees, sometimes 10 or more to a space, in cramped hotel rooms or unkempt trailers, and they work long days, sometimes up to 14 hours.

The most appalling aspect of the guestworker situation is that most workers must pay fees, some as high as $15,000, in order to get jobs in the U.S. Furthermore, it is not uncommon for workers to have to leave the deeds to their house as collateral.

Some people might suggest that guestworkers seek legal recourse, but such workers are simply not covered under free labor laws. They cannot change jobs if they want; they are welded to the contracts of their current employer. And if they do attempt to seek legal protection for any abuse, they and their families are often threatened with deportation or blacklisting.

In my view, immigration is more convoluted than your garden-variety liberal or conservative makes it out to be. I don’t buy the standard liberal line that illegal immigrants simply do the work that Americans don’t want to do. There are many millions of native-born homeless people who need jobs, and would do the jobs that immigrants perform if it weren’t for the fact that the recruiters don’t offer them the work because they are savvier than immigrants when it comes to on-the-job abuse. The immigrant who comes from, say, a farm in Guatemala has a lot more to lose than a homeless person on his or her own soil. The peasant from Guatemala usually has a family to feed, and since there is a dearth of jobs in his home country, he will travel far distances to make ends meet, and hence endure all manner of abuse to fulfill his domestic obligation. The native-born homeless person is in his own country, and is more aware of American legal protections - and so he figures, if he can somehow make a life for himself on the streets, horrific thought it may be, he’d rather do that than be a virtual slave for “the man.” After all, the majority of homeless are black men, and black men are not exactly eager to regress to slavery-era maltreatment.

Now, admittedly, I may be overlooking some crucial parts of the scenario, but I do think I’ve painted a more honest portrait than the one your typical liberal paints. In the end, however, no matter how you look at it, there is conclusive evidence that recruiters and employers seek out immigrants as opposed to native-born Americans, because immigrants are more ripe for exploitation.

And I certainly don’t espouse the regressive ideology of your average neo-con, who would denigrate all illegal immigrants and shovel them into dungeons tailor-made for “illegals” if they could. Illegal immigrants are human beings, and are simply seeking a happier, healthier life for themselves – something we can all relate to. Never mind that the American-backed trade agreement NAFTA is part of what causes immigrants to flood across our borders in the first place; starry-eyed flag-frenzied Americans are resistant to acknowledge that twisted bit of irony, wherein U.S. government policies help promote the illegal immigration that so many Americans are so opposed to.

It is sickening that guestworker recruiters and employers make so much profit on hapless immigrant workers, who merely seek a better life. It is indeed government-sanctioned slavery, any way you slice it.

And so no matter what one’s view on illegal immigration, the fact of the matter is, American policies and American companies and recruiters foster the phenomenon – indeed helped birth it.

So if we are to work toward promoting a society mostly free of illegal immigrants – would-be immigrants would be happier in their own countries, anyway, if only those countries had thriving economies – then America government needs to cease propping up corrupt politicians in Latin American countries and backing harmful trade agreements that plunge so many into poverty, and it needs to crack down on companies and recruiters that so egregiously exploit immigrants.

Until then, however, and as long as the Guestworker Programs are in place, then we should petition the government to enforce fair labor laws for immigrants, so that the workers are not so crassly enslaved.

Greed-fueled enslavement of others is not merely something that happened in the shadows of history; it is a very much a modern-day practice that happens in the stark light of day. If we the people refuse to help quell immigrant exploitation, then we have no one but ourselves to blame for having to refer to the deeply disgraceful practice of slavery in the present tense.

Petition to stop guestworker abuse:

Guestworker Petition

A link to information that dispels some malevolent myths related to immigration:

Getting the Facts Straight

No comments: