Immigrants perform some of the hardest, most dangerous jobs in our economy – for the least amount of pay. But they are routinely cheated out of their wages and denied basic protections in the workplace. In their communities, they are subjected to racial profiling and harassment by law enforcement – and frequently forced to prove themselves innocent of immigration violations, regardless of their legal status. And they are, increasingly, targeted for violent hate crimes.
Politicians and media figures have only encouraged this environment by spreading false propaganda that scapegoats immigrants for our nation’s problems and foments resentment and hate against them. This discrimination against immigrants – primarily those from Latin America – constitutes a civil rights crisis.
The Southern Poverty Law Center is working to stop workplace exploitation and other human rights abuses – filing strategic lawsuits, exposing civil rights violations, educating the public and the media, and pressing the federal government to act.
We take on cases that few private lawyers will accept, seeking systemic reforms and representing victims of injustice, like these:
- Migrant workers who went months without being paid while cleaning up and rebuilding New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.
- Welders and pipefitters from India who each paid up to $10,000 for jobs in Gulf Coast shipyards after being told falsely they would gain permanent U.S. residency – only to discover they would be forced into guarded labor camps.
- A migrant bean picker who saw his life savings confiscated by police during a traffic stop in Alabama, even though he was never charged with a crime.
- Farmworkers who were routinely cheated out of their pay by a subsidiary of one of America’s largest and best-known food companies.
This type of exploitation is experienced by immigrants and migrant workers every day as they strive for opportunity in a country that welcomes their cheap labor but recoils at their presence and fails to protect their rights.
Reforming the Guestworker Program
The H-2 guestworker program, operated by the U.S. Department of Labor, results in the systematic abuse of foreign workers recruited to work in low-skill, temporary jobs in the United States.
In this program, the employer holds all the cards. Guestworkers frequently must pay exorbitant fees to unscrupulous labor recruiters, leaving them deeply in debt. They are prohibited from changing jobs if they are mistreated, putting them in a situation akin to indentured servitude as they work off their debt. Many are routinely cheated out of their wages. And many are held virtually captive by employers and labor brokers who confiscate their visas and identity documents. Meanwhile, the federal government has utterly failed to uphold their rights.
The SPLC has won justice for thousands of guestworkers and made substantial progress toward reforming this system by filing strategic class action lawsuits against abusive employers.
Since 2004, we have distributed nearly $2 million in settlement money to immigrant workers.
Photo by Sarah P. Reynolds