WASHINGTON - Foreign citizens who come to the United States as guest workers are routinely cheated out of wages, forced to live in squalid conditions, and denied medical care for workplace injuries, a report released Monday by a civil rights group found.
The report "Close to Slavery: Guestworker Programs in the United States" comes as Congress is poised to debate a major bill that would create a large temporary worker program and offer a path to citizenship to millions of illegal immigrants.
"Congress should reform our broken immigration system, but reform should not rely on creating a vast new guest worker program," said Mary Bauer, director of the Montgomery, Ala.-based Immigrant Justice Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center and author of the report. "The current program is shamefully abusive in practice, and there is almost no enforcement of worker rights."
In 2005, about 120,000 low-skilled temporary workers came to the United States under an H-2 visa, according to the report. Of those, 32,000 worked in agriculture and 89,000 in other industries such as forestry, seafood processing, landscaping and construction.
The report likens the H-2 programs to a "modern-day system of indentured servitude" where employees are bound to sometimes unscrupulous employers who stiff them on wages, gouge them with high rents, transportation costs and other expenses, and keep them in poor living conditions.
"If guest workers complain about abuses, they face deportation, blacklisting or other retaliation," says the report, which is based on interviews with thousands of guest workers and dozens of legal cases.
In one instance, a group of Thai workers alleged that a company held them captive and sometimes watched over them with guns in North Carolina and New Orleans, where they were transported to help demolish flooded buildings after Hurricane Katrina, the report says.
In another, 12 Guatemalan guest workers were allegedly held captive and then forced to work 80 hours a week in a Connecticut nursery field for $3.75 an hour before deductions for telephone service and other costs.
The Department of Labor, which administers the programs, did not return several calls for comment.
Sens. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., and John McCain, R-Ariz., are expected to announce immigration legislation as soon as this week. The bill is expected to be similar to a measure last year that included a guest worker program for 200,000 more workers and a path to legal residency for most illegal immigrants.
President Bush has also pushed for a new temporary worker program, which he says would bring illegal immigrants out of the shadows and ease congestion at the border. Most of the guest workers cited in the report come from Latin American countries such as Mexico and Guatemala, where Bush is traveling this week.
Rep. Brian Bilbray, R-Calif., who chairs a caucus pushing for stronger immigration enforcement, said Monday that "Congress must not adopt a so-called 'guest worker' program that is really a back-door to amnesty."
"Repeating the failed policies of the past will only induce the amount of illegal immigration activity we experience in America," he said.
On the Web:
Southern Poverty Law Center: www.splcenter.org
U.S. Department of Labor: www.usdl.gov
Eunice Moscoso's e-mail is emoscosocoxnews.com
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