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The temporary visa programs that the United States offers to foreign workers aren’t being handled equitably or fairly by the government. They force workers to leave the U.S. at a moment’s notice if they are laid off and are geared to treat educated tech workers with kid gloves while running roughshod over those who come to do agricultural work. With a dearth of skilled workers during the tech boom, especially in the fields of engineering and programming, Silicon Valley companies were able to sway the government to increase the number of H-1B temporary visas to enter the United States. Now that demand has virtually dried up, temporary skilled workers find themselves out of work and without legal status in the United States. As reported in The Recorder this week, immigration attorneys are being flooded with laid off H1-B workers who must find other employment within 10 days or face deportation. Of deportation, Danielle Sheahan, an INS spokeswoman, says, “Our top priority is out-of-status criminal aliens. Out-of-work H-1Bs are definitely not our first priority.” There’s no doubt about that. You aren’t likely to find the Immigration and Naturalization Service sitting in Sand Hill Road parking lots waiting to bust laid-off techies. While H-1B workers, by definition, are foreign professionals with specialized knowledge, such as scientists, engineers, programmers, accountants and journalists, H-2A workers are foreign agricultural laborers with few prospects in their native countries. Low-end wages and vulnerability to exploitation put the agricultural workers in a much worse position than the skilled H-1B workers. Ever since the “bracero” program was begun in 1942 to increase immigrant labor that was needed during the labor shortage of World War II, laborers have been invited and kicked out of the United States again and again. Human Rights Watch, which interviewed farm workers in North Carolina, says, “[Those with H-2A visas] share with undocumented migrant workers an acute fear of retaliation and deportation if they exercise the right to organize and bargain collectively. � The prospect of seeking legal counsel or taking legal action to vindicate their rights inspires similar fears.” While an H-1B visa holder can change companies if offered a job, provided a petition to transfer is filed, H-2A workers are not allowed to switch employers. “Right now if you don’t get along with an employer, you go home,” says Sharon Hughes, executive vice president of the National Council of Agricultural Employers. But her group — which represents employers of H-2A workers — is trying to make changes that will benefit the temporary workers, including giving them the right to switch employers. H-2A visa holders’ wages are set by the government according to prevailing wages and the state in which they are employed. For example, according to the Federal Register, the Adverse Effect Wage Rates for California are $8.02 per hour this year. In contrast, the INS says that the national median earnings for H-1B workers in 2001 were $55,000 per year, or about $26 per hour. If H-2A or H-1B workers bring family with them to the U.S., the family members are not allowed to work. They must subsist on one person’s wages or work illegally in order to supplement the income. This makes it virtually impossible for H-2A workers to save enough money to hire counsel to either fight deportation or cross over from a temporary visa to permanent status. Bruce Goldstein, lawyer and co-executive director of the Farmworker Justice Fund, writes, “Private-practice lawyers rarely take guest workers’ cases because the wage losses are too small to make the cases economically viable. H-2A workers are eligible for federally funded legal services. Diminished resources and restrictions of their activities, however, limit the effectiveness of legal services offices.” There are benefits to being an H-2A worker, including transportation to and from one’s home country, earning more than minimum wage and free housing. However, the lack of freedoms and rights associated with being in the United States recalls the Middle Ages of indentured serfs and paternalistic kings more than democracy and individual rights. The plight of both H-1B and H-2A visa holders is a difficult one, and the government should look into creating a safer, more stable environment for them. Future labor shortages should be addressed with more open immigration laws, allowing guest workers a viable means to apply for permanent status with an eventual path to citizenship.

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