Undocumented immigrants are under scrutiny in the United States, especially for their reputed—but unproven—negative effect on the native job market. However, some American firms benefit from undocumented immigration—because they can exploit these workers beyond the reaches of the US legal system. Employers can expect unreasonable performance due to the desperation of workers who have travel debts to pay and few other employment options. In the immigrant-heavy sectors of construction, day labor, agriculture, and the food industry, the most common form of abuse is fear. Since these jobs are unstructured and underground, the immigrant employees lack the most basic regulations that, for native workers, ensure safety and fairness.
Perhaps the best example is seasonal agricultural work. 78% percent of US farm workers were born in another country, and about 60% are undocumented. This work is physically difficult, low-paying, and has no security. Farm workers must work long hours in outdoor conditions, which can cause heatstroke. They are paid in piece rates, based on the amount of food they harvest, which disincentives taking water breaks, increasing the risk of injury, and can also result in wages below the legal minimum. This work by nature also requires chasing the crops that are in season, leading to constant relocation, a lack of educational continuity for children, and poor job security. Since undocumented laborers often work by the day, there exists no insurance or benefits. It is also common for employers to exploit undocumented workers by threatening to call immigration authorities to deport them if they complain about conditions or do not comply with demands. Since these workers are off the books, they have no resources other than their employers. Not being citizens, they cannot unionize or report their employers. They must either obey, or risk deportation, firing, or both.
A controversial program called H-2A was created to alleviate these problems by allowing US firms to legally employ foreign seasonal workers. It requires minimum worker wages and that employers cover housing and transportation costs, as well as compensation for injuries. This option is nominally regulated by the Department of Labor, though housing quality inspections are uncommon.
The program has faced opposition from all sides. Employers hate the delays and fees that stem from so much paperwork. Some H-2A workers protest substandard living conditions and limited flexibility. But the voices of US-born workers also oppose it. The program gives employers an incentive to hire foreign workers instead of them, since they do not need to pay social security or unemployment taxes as part of the H-2A wages. Employers go through the recruiting and interview process with Americans to satisfy Department of Labor rules, only to reject them in favor of the H-2A workers. All of these factors contribute to the low adoption rate of this program: only 2% of workers fit in this category in 2013.
In the end, it is cheaper for US employers to hire immigrants, and they prefer to do it without the burden of legislation that protects workers’ rights. H-2A is a failed program with good intentions—but the issue of immigrant labor is too complex to be solved with one bill. Undocumented workers also face additional obstacles in obtaining work. They cannot receive a license to drive, and in most cases, higher education, meaning that they cannot escape exploitative jobs. Native workers also face challenges, as even if farm jobs hired them, the salaries are often insufficient to sustain a family. H-2A is a Band-Aid, and a first step towards protecting the rights of human beings, but policymakers in both the US and feeder countries must resolve larger societal issues before guest worker programs can make a real impact.