I titled this post "indentured servitude" because that's more what this reminds me of.
Once in America, the workers found themselves at the mercy of the traffickers, who allegedly kept "them as modern-day slaves under threat of deportation," in the words of James Gibbons of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The recruiters apparently took care to keep the workers in debt, charging them fees for uniforms, for transportation, and for rent in overcrowded apartments. Paychecks would frequently show "negative earnings," in the words of the indictment. And if the workers refused to go along with the scheme, the traffickers held the ultimate trump card, the indictment claims: They "threatened to cancel the immigration status" of the workers, rendering them instantly illegal.
I am appalled by the scheme, and saddened at the way our country's immigration laws have made it possible. I have second-hand experience with the crippling sense of helplessness, the sense that you cannot quit, that comes from your employer controlling your immigration status.
But I called this post "indentured servitude", even though this is rather more reprehensible than indentured servitude usually was -- indentured servitude typically ended eventually. Because the primary threats to slaves were usually imprisonment, corporal punishment, and torture. The ultimate threat was death. Deportation is bad, but it's not quite the same as being flogged to death.
That's one thing that struck me: "Once here in America, of course, they can't quit, or else they lose their visa status.".
Was that really the traffickers' ultimate trump card? Were these workers actually willing to put up with menial jobs, negative wages, and overcrowded homes because all of that was still better than going back to where they came from?
A little more research turned up information Mr. Frank didn't mention in his piece: that Giant Labor Solutions threatened $5000 fines against their employees if they returned to their home countries, and also that the visas they used were obtained using false information.
Still, I remain bewildered by Mr. Frank's solution to the problem, which appears to be 'stop offering the visas at all': "What I keep wondering is why we have such a program. Unemployment is over 9% and climbing. Why make it worse?"
I keep wondering why we have such a program, too. But what I keep thinking is that these limited, temporary visa programs make a mockery of the legend on the Statue of Liberty: Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.
I would like those words to be true. I would like to take this "ultimate trump card" out of the hand of these traffickers by telling these immigrants they are welcome in my country, with or without an employer to go through umpteen legal hoops to obtain a piece of paper to hold over their heads.
I would like for the end of this story for these immigrants to be that they get paid the wages due them and are free to go back to their home countries -- or stay in this one, which they worked so hard to get to.
Instead, I suspect the end to their ordeal will be deportation anyway.
Somehow, that fails to make me feel like my government is doing so much better by the would-be immigrants than the traffickers were. And weren't the immigrants the victims?
Oh, I see. I missed Mr. Frank's point entirely. I wasn't supposed to feel sorry for the people he called 'modern slaves'. I was supposed to feel sorry for the Americans who didn't get the jobs the slaves were doing. The fate of the enslaved is quite irrelevant.
... I always get that part wrong.