Thursday, October 22, 2009

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) | Toribio Jimenez says an asbestos removal company used a guest worker program to trap him in virtual servitude, then fired him when he complained, forcing him to work illegally. Robert Martin thinks the same company kept him unemployed by hiring foreigners like Mr. Jimenez.

The men have become surprising allies in a lawsuit that claims a long-standing guest worker program harms American and immigrant workers alike. The program has issued visas for 22 years amid steady complaints, and both sides of the immigration debate say it warrants close scrutiny as the Obama administration prepares to tackle comprehensive immigration reform next year.

“I don’t blame Latino workers for this at all,” said Mr. Martin, 49. “Immigrants don’t own the heavy equipment, the trucks, the warehouses. You have to get mad at the people who own these business and take advantage.”

Mr. Jimenez, 32, said he was promised work as a janitor, only to be told on his arrival from El Salvador that he would be removing hazardous asbestos - work that Mr. Martin said he would have taken after 13 months of unemployment.

Mr. Jimenez was fired after complaining, and losing the job meant he also lost his visa. He said that forced him to work illegally so he can pay back the money he borrowed to make the trip.

“I feel terrible that I may have taken someone else’s job,” he said in Spanish, “only to end up being taken advantage of myself.”

Mr. Jimenez and Mr. Martin are among a dozen U.S. and immigrant workers who allege that Cumberland Environmental Resources Company of Brentwood, Tenn., and Accent Personnel Services Inc. of Baton Rouge, La., discriminated against them by abusing the H2-B nonagricultural guest worker program.

The U.S. Department of Labor issues 66,000 visas a year under the program, but only after certifying there were no qualified domestic applicants for the jobs. Another requirement is that prevailing wages be paid to guest workers to ensure the program does not drive down salaries for the U.S. work force.

The plaintiffs’ federal lawsuit maintains that the companies lied in documents that stated U.S. workers turned down job offers. It also contends the companies required workers from El Salvador and Peru to pay illegal fees and accept less than the prevailing wage. If they complained, the men said, they lost the job and their visa.

Both companies deny the charges, and have filed documents blaming each other in the case.

Cumberland’s Nashville attorney, Ben Bodzy, called the plaintiffs “disgruntled former employees and applicants.” He has offered the guest workers partial settlements of about $10,000 each.

Accent attorney Jeff Weintraub of Memphis said that firm has followed all of the program’s rules.

Not everyone does.

The Economic Policy Institute, a Washington think tank, found in a 15-state survey last year that 98 percent of H2-B workers were paid less than the prevailing wage in occupations they commonly filled.

Dan Stein of the Washington-based Federation for American Immigration Reform, which calls for strict immigration control, thinks H2-B should be scrapped because U.S. workers are “incrementally squeezed out of their jobs and their livelihoods.”

Marielena Hincapie, executive director of the National Immigration Law Center, a Los Angeles-based immigrant rights organization, said rules making the visas non-transferrable should be changed “to ensure guest workers can leave an abusive situation and do not take jobs U.S. workers have applied for.”

A spokesman for Sen. Charles E. Schumer, who is working on a sweeping proposal for immigration reform, declined to comment on the future of H2-B. The New York Democrat has said reform should include a commitment to “discourage businesses from using our immigration laws as a means to obtain temporary and less-expensive foreign labor to replace capable American workers.”

President Obama has said he expects to see draft legislation for an immigration overhaul by year’s end, with changes to the system put off until next year.

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