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News from EPI New legislation would bring transparency to America’s work visa system and help fight human trafficking

Experts from the Economic Policy Institute, Global Workers Justice Alliance, and Polaris are expressing support for a newly introduced bill designed to shed light on the poorly understood temporary foreign worker visa system. The Visa Transparency Anti-Trafficking Act, a new bill introduced today in Congress by Representatives Lois Frankel (D-Fla.), David Schweikert (R-Ariz.), Ted Deutch (D-Fla.), and Jim Himes (D-Conn.), and by Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), would create a uniform system for reporting data that the government already collects on temporary visa programs and require that the information be made publicly available.

As exposed by Global Workers Justice Alliance’s report Visas, Inc., work visas are easily manipulated to hurt U.S. and foreign workers alike, resulting in serious abuse of vulnerable workers and in human trafficking.

“For too long, heinous crimes have been committed against guestworkers who believe that having a visa means that the job is secure and that their employer can be trusted,” said Global Workers Justice Alliance Executive Director, Cathleen Caron. “When a visit to the United States devolves from what appears to be a legitimate, government-sanctioned job opportunity to severe exploitation and human trafficking, something is terribly wrong with our system. If this bill is enacted, it will give us the tools to understand how different work visa programs are being used and allow us to craft responses so that no person is ever again trafficked on a visa.”

Every year, hundreds of thousands of workers from abroad come to the United States to temporarily fill jobs in a number of occupations, including farm labor, landscaping, hospitality and seafood processing, as well as information technology jobs or teaching jobs in universities and grade schools. They come through temporary foreign worker visas which are distinguished by different “nonimmigrant” visa classifications, each having their own distinct purpose and history. The workers granted these nonimmigrant visas are commonly referred to as guestworkers and are allowed to live and work in the country for a limited period of time, depending on the terms of their specific visa. The visas, however are controlled by a single employer, which means that if a guestworker gets fired, he or she becomes instantly deportable. Guestworkers usually have to pay exorbitant fees to recruiters to secure their jobs, so as a result, when things go wrong, or if an employer treats a guestworker unfairly or breaks the law, the worker has a strong incentive to keep quiet.

“The media have reported countless cases of worker abuse, but little else is known about guestworker programs, despite the fact that hundreds of thousands of guestworker visas are issued every year,” said Daniel Costa, Director of Immigration Law and Policy Research at the Economic Policy Institute. “That makes it difficult to craft rational policy solutions to improve how the programs are managed and to ensure that the labor standards of guestworkers—and of Americans who work in major guestworker occupations—are protected. The dearth of information also results in an outsized role for corporate interest groups that spend millions lobbying to expand and deregulate guestworker programs, because it’s difficult for lawmakers to verify claims about how guestworker programs impact the economy and labor market.”

Keeli Sorensen, Director of Government Relations and Public Policy at Polaris said, “Based on reports of labor trafficking and labor exploitation made to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center, Polaris knows that the abuse of temporary visa holders is undeniable. But to truly understand this phenomena of exploitation, we need more data, more records, and more information. This legislation will be critical to developing pointed interventions that will help end the abuse of temporary visa holders.”

If Congress passes and the president enacts the Visa Transparency Anti-Trafficking Act, policymakers and the public will for the first time have evidence needed to evaluate the impact of temporary visa programs on the economy and to know whether guestworkers are being paid fairly, and advocates will have a valuable tool at their disposal that allows them to inform and reach out to potential victims of labor and sex trafficking.