Jeremy Beck's picture

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  by  Jeremy Beck

An investigative report on H-2 visa programs shows that the displacement of U.S. workers isn't limited to the tech industry but is a feature of guest worker programs for both high and low-wage workers.

In "All You Americans Are Fired," the investigative reporting team of Jessica Garrison, Ken Bensinger, and Jeremy Singer-Vine at BuzzFeed News tell the stories of Americans on the lower-rungs of the economic ladder who are losing job opportunities as employers avoid them in favor of guest workers.

Although their socio-economic backgrounds are different, these workers share strikingly similar experiences with American tech workers also displaced as a result of guest worker programs.

The Goal Is Not To Find Qualified American Workers

Within the BuzzFeed story is a "Cheater's Guide: How To Not Hire Americans" that outlines seven ways employers avoid U.S. workers even as they lobby for more H-2 guest workers.

One popular step is to work around the requirement that employers advertise "in the area of intended employment":

In January 2011, Talbott’s Honey, a small honey producer, placed ads as required soliciting workers for jobs in Kimball, South Dakota. The ads, however, ran in Elkader, Iowa; Dalhart, Texas; and Hobbs, New Mexico -- towns that are hundreds of miles from Kimball.

"Talbott’s then told the government there were no available American workers and got permission to import 12 foreign workers instead."

Another trick is to put job requirements in the ad that will discourage U.S. workers from applying:

"Such requirements are a way to 'filter out U.S. workers,' said Lori Johnson, an attorney at Legal Aid of North Carolina. She noted that some fruit and vegetable picking jobs now require three months of experience. And, Johnson said, there is little evidence that such requirements are ever imposed on the foreign guest workers who ultimately get the jobs."

And when "compelled to interview qualified American workers," some employers will find bogus reasons for disqualifying them in order to be approved for foreign guest workers.

Most employers seeking H-1B workers aren't required to post job ads at all but those who are will often use the same ploys as above, posting job ads in places where they are not likely to be seen by U.S. workers, writing job requirements intended to automatically disqualify U.S. applicants, and interviewing applicants who can't be automatically disqualified for the sole purpose of finding a reason to disqualify them.

Each of these steps are explained in this video of a presentation from the Cohen and Grigsby law firm:

Disbelief and a Sense of Betrayal

The workers featured in Garrison and Bensinger's story share a sense of shock and disbelief that their employers - their country - won't give Americans the first shot at American jobs:

"They got rid of us,” said Mary Jo Fuller, referring to black workers. A field-worker on and off for most of her life, she said she was abruptly terminated from J&R Baker Farms, near Moultrie, as part of a mass firing in 2010. Unable to find other employment, the 59-year-old said she wound up homeless for more than a year. “We don’t really have jobs no more.”

"Moultrie is 'nowhere, really, for a young person trying to make it,' added [Derrick] Green. 'It just makes you angry, very angry,' he said. 'We right here in America, and you don’t want us to work. You’d rather get foreigners.'"

Fuller is just one of many displaced Americans BuzzFeed took the time to talk to. Nicole Burt, a qualified stable worker, is another:

"'I kept hearing the employers say that they couldn't find anybody. And I just want to smack them, because we're right here,' said Burt. 'I felt betrayed. I just felt like America had let Americans down.'"

Burt and Fuller's expressions of betrayal echo those of an IT worker quoted in Julia Preston's reporting earlier this year:

"'I just couldn’t believe they could fly people in to sit at our desks and take over our jobs exactly,' said one former worker, an American in his 40s who remains unemployed since his last day at Disney on Jan. 30. 'It was so humiliating to train somebody else to take over your job. I still can’t grasp it.'"

Resentment & Empathy

According to BuzzFeed the resentment between foreign and domestic workers competing for the same jobs runs both ways, but:

"...some Americans note that the workers who replace them get a raw deal too.

"'It ain’t hard to see. As long as they out there on that farm, they must work, and they never get to leave. I felt bad for them,' [a displaced American field worker] said."

Those sentiments are similar to those of the IT workers in Preston's story:

"They expressed no hard feelings toward the immigrants; they felt ill-treated by Disney."

Displaced Workers Maligned

Part of the "Jobs Americans Won't Do" argument is that Americans who compete for low-wage jobs jobs are lazy or unreliable. BuzzFeed News includes that perspective from an employer who isn't shy about sharing:

"'Foreign people will clean two rooms in one hour. The American will not even finish in one hour one room,'" he said speaking from the federal prison where he is serving a 12-year term for crimes related to visa fraud.

"'Foreigners are better,' [he] added. “Of course I tried not to hire Americans.'"

American tech workers are likewise blamed for losing job opportunities. That's part of the "Jobs Americans Can't Do" argument in the H-1B debate. Asked about the Disney workers who were forced to train their H-1B replacements, one employer says:

"If you're not going to work hard enough to be qualified to get the job ... well then, you don’t deserve the job."

The hard work and compliancy that employers value in guest workers is at least partially due to the nature of the visa programs themselves. BuzzFeed reports:

"The terms of their visas prohibit them from taking other jobs, so they have almost no leverage when it comes to wages or working conditions. And since they often come from abject poverty in their home countries, many visa holders put up with difficult or even backbreaking conditions without complaint to ensure they are invited to return the next year."

Another employer explains why he prefers immigrant tech workers to Americans in the Washington Post

"'They actually don’t demand a very high amount of salary, and the expectations are kind of grounded and they don’t jump around so much' between companies, said the 39-year-old Ashburn resident, an immigrant from India. U.S.-born technology and business analysts are hard to find and hard to retain, he said, while immigrants with the same skills and education 'are much easier to manage.'”

Unlike legal permanent workers or citizens, guest workers cannot "jump around" because their employers hold their visas. BuzzFeed News:

"Americans are far less isolated than foreigners on H-2 visas, many of whom cannot speak a word of English. U.S. workers often know at least some of their rights and how to complain about abuses. They frequently have family nearby whom they can turn to for support. And, perhaps most importantly, they can’t be threatened with deportation."

Los Angeles Times:

"...workers on these temporary [H-1B] visas are typically paid less than U.S. employees doing the same work, and more complaisant with American bosses because they'll be deported if they lose their jobs."

Legal Loopholes

BuzzFeed News details several examples of illegal abuse (of guest workers and American workers alike) but the core abuses against American workers are legal:

"During the fiscal year that ended this July, the state’s job bank tallied work orders seeking H-2 workers for 17,496 agricultural job openings, according to the North Carolina Department of Commerce. More than 7,000 U.S. farmworkers had registered with the agency actively seeking work -- yet only 505 of them were referred to those jobs.

"Kim Genardo, spokesperson for the department, wrote in an email that the state's 'Foreign Labor Certification program is absolutely in compliance with federal law.'"

Legal loopholes are also at the center of the H-1B issue, reports Patrick Thibodeau of Computerworld:

"The [Department of Labor] is telling lawmakers that it can't initiate an investigation in the absence of a complaint by an employee. The department also seems to be suggesting, in a letter to lawmakers, that an investigation may be fruitless because it is legal to replace U.S. workers with H-1B workers."

No Labor Shortage

There is no shortage of labor in industries that heavily use H-2 or H-1b visas. BuzzFeed News reports:

"In the last five years, the number of H-2 visas issued by the State Department, which administers the program along with the Department of Homeland Security and the Labor Department, has surged by more than 50%."

There is no evidence that workers in H-2 industries have seen any wage gains that signal a labor shortage.

Landscaping companies, for example, were approved for more than 30,000 H-2 visas in the 2014 fiscal year. Yet Daniel Costa, a researcher at the Economic Policy Institute, which receives some funding from unions, found that over the same period, unemployment in landscaping was more than twice as high as the national average.

"'The problem with the system is that the H-2 workers who are coming in are not tied to actual, demonstrated labor shortages,' Costa said."

The same is true of the H-1B program. Joel Kotkin writes in the Daily Beast:

A 2013 report from the labor-aligned Economic Policy Institute found that the country is producing 50% more IT professionals per year than are being employed. Tech firms, notes EPI, would rather hire 'guest workers' who now account for one-third to one half of all new IT job holders, largely to maintain both a lower cost and a more pliant workforce.

Displaced To Cut Down on Labor Costs

The chief impact of H-2 and H-1B visa programs isn't to address labor shortages but to keep labor costs down. BuzzFeed News:

"Around the country, lawyers and labor brokers actively promote the H-2 program as a way to boost profit margins. Usafarmlabor, a labor broker serving the agricultural industry, until this month bluntly stated on its site: 'Our workers actually save you money each month in a comparison with U.S. workers.'"

An IBM hiring manager confirmed to an IBM employee that "the cost difference is too great for the business not to look for" guest workers before Americans.

Government's Responsibility

BuzzFeed News on H-2 visas:

"Companies that have difficulty finding American workers could attract more applicants by offering higher wages. But instead of encouraging or even subsidizing that, the government’s H-2 program effectively subsidizes the opposite effort -- helping companies find pliant foreign labor, often at the expense of American workers."

TechCrunch on H-1B visas:

"...It was the active policy of the government to encourage immigration, because one of the primary benefits was lower wages for industry, and thus, greater competitiveness for the United States."

Media Attention Can Change the Politics of Guest Worker Programs

Before the Disney story went national, the conventional wisdom was that Congress overwhelmingly supported expanding the H-1B program. From the Wall Street Journal (pre-Disney scandal):

"Improving access to the U.S. for foreign-born entrepreneurs has been talked about for years and has wide bipartisan support but has repeatedly hit snags amid bigger fights over how to overhaul the country’s immigration laws."

BuzzFeed uses similar language to describe the current state of play on H-2 policy:

"Bills in Congress to expand the guest worker program have won support from both Democrats and Republicans in recent years. Business groups such as the Chamber of Commerce have lobbied for as many as 400,000 additional H-2 visas per year. But the issue has been overshadowed by larger debates over the legal status of millions of undocumented immigrants."

The BuzzFeed story comes just as Congress considers expanding the H-2B visa program.

The media's attention to the displaced Disney IT workers changed the politics of the H-1B program. Presidential candidates who have supported increases in the program have walked back their rhetoric (and in some cases their policies) as a result.

The media's spotlight on Americans losing their middle-class job opportunities struck a chord. Time will tell if the stories of low-wage American workers will likewise capture the attention of the mainstream media and presidential candidates. Previous stories like this one from a local Florida news station in 2012 did not:

When displaced workers are excluded from immigration reporting - either by a severance agreement, fear of blacklisting, or simply being ignored - it leads the average person to falsely conclude that these are jobs that Americans either won't or can't do. 

The BuzzFeed story is a breakthrough, but the authors themselves report that while the story may be new the displacement of American workers is not:

"The H-2 program dates all the way back to 1952, and employers have been coming up with ways to game the system for almost as long."

Speaking on CSPAN's Washington Journal, John Miano, co-author of "Sold Out", says "The H-1B program is working exactly as it was designed to do....the only thing that's not working as expected, as it's designed, is that the news media is starting to cover it now." 

JEREMY BECK is the Director of the Media Standards Project for NumbersUSA

Updated: Fri, Dec 18th 2015 @ 12:30pm EST

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