Senate Immigration Legislation Would Improve Human Trafficking Protections for Guestworkers

A recently concluded trial highlights how weaknesses in the country’s guestworker programs can facilitate human trafficking. Last week, a federal jury convicted Kizzy Kalu, a Denver-area man, of “89 counts of mail fraud, visa fraud, human trafficking and money laundering.” While both progressives and conservatives have complaints about the Senate immigration bill, it’s important to point out that the Senate took an important step forward in terms of new rules that would protect vulnerable foreign workers like the ones recruited by Kalu from abroad through guestworker programs.

The workers Kalu recruited thought they were coming to the United States to work full-time at an American university as “nurse instructor supervisors” through the H-1B guestworker program, which allows U.S. employers to hire workers from abroad for occupations requiring at least a college degree. But Kalu lied to the government and the foreign workers, and with disastrous results. According to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the university that was supposed to be the employer “existed largely in name only and had no genuine need for nurse instructor supervisors.” Thus, the workers had no jobs, and had to look for work on their own (although Kalu would not even let them travel freely). H-1B workers are legally required to be paid a “prevailing” wage, but the workers who were able to find jobs ended up working in nursing homes (not as instructors) earning less than the prevailing wage. Some were not able to find a job at all. On top of that, Kalu required the workers to pay him “between $800 to $1,200 per month or face deportation” and required them to sign employment contracts specifying the workers would owe Kalu “$25,000 if they left his employment.”

As organizations like the Centro de los Derechos del Migrante, Jobs with Justice, and the International Labor Recruitment Working Group (a coalition of organizations) have pointed out, provisions in the Senate immigration bill would protect foreign workers from these types of recruitment abuses and human trafficking in three ways: 1) by prohibiting recruiters from charging fees to workers that lead them into debt bondage; 2) by improving transparency in the system by creating a publicly available registry of foreign labor recruiters; and 3) by including meaningful sanctions for employers and recruiters that violate the law, including a private right of action in federal court for workers if the government fails to act in a timely manner.

Ultimately I do not believe the Senate immigration bill would do enough to prevent the human trafficking of guestworkers or to improve labor standards for them. (For example, as a result of industry lobbying, guestworkers in the large but disastrously-managed J-1 visa program will have fewer protections than workers in other visa categories.) But the bill certainly moves the status quo in the right direction in this respect. And although some people—including well intentioned progressives—argue that the economic benefits of guestworker programs currently outweigh the abuse and exploitation suffered by guestworkers at the hands of employers, recruiters and human traffickers, I believe situations like these are never acceptable. But if you consider just how extreme and shocking human trafficking and guestworker abuses are in the United States, any meaningful progress on this front should be taken into consideration when deciding whether or not to support the Senate immigration bill.