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Flawed Guest Worker Programs

Temporary or nonimmigrant work visas are granted to individuals coming to the U.S. to fill the temporary needs of U.S. employers. For the purposes of worker justice and immigration reform advocacy, two of the most important categories are H-2A and H-2B, which deal with unskilled labor.

  • H-2A: temporary or seasonal agricultural workers.
  • H-2B: temporary or seasonal nonagricultural workers, e.g., at a ski resort, carnival, etc.

Shortage of Unskilled Labor 

Applying for a temporary work visa is fraught with bureaucratic red tape that makes it time-consuming and difficult. Moreover, there simply aren't enough to go around. The H-2B category is limited by an annual cap of 66,000 visas, far below current demand. Permanent immigrant visas for unskilled laborers are available, but the cap is even lower at 5,000 per year, creating ten year backlog. As a result, it is extremely difficult for enough unskilled workers to legally enter the United States, causing employers and workers to seek ways to circumvent the system.

Opportunities for Employer Abuse

Once in the U.S., many workers face unrealistic productivity requirements and unsafe working conditions, underpayment for their difficult and dangerous work, insufficient work, and unsuitable living conditions. Despite these conditions, workers are reluctant to complain because their employers or contractors exercise control over them and they fear losing their job or not being rehired the following season. Seeking to escape exploitation, some workers leave the employers who sponsored their visa and become undocumented workers.

For more information contact socialjustice @ uua.org.

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Last updated on Wednesday, November 30, 2011.

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