By Jheanelle Wilkins, Field Manager, The Leadership Conference Education Fund
Judith and more than 100 other Jamaican immigrants came to the United States in April to work at a laundry cleaning company in Florida through an H-2B temporary immigrant worker visa. Judith paid $1,500 in fees expecting to quickly recoup the money from her employer. She was guaranteed decent housing and good wages. Instead, she had to live in a two-bedroom apartment with 15 other workers. She had so many mandatory deductions from her wages that she often received $0 paychecks or was sometimes told she owed money to her employer on payday.
After hearing objections from workers to these living standards and pay, the laundry company employer threatened them with deportation. Judith and many of her fellow workers went on strike and are bravely organizing for a remedy.
Judith’s story—living in a foreign country with no money, no family, and completely dependent on an unscrupulous employer—is not unusual. But it is an example of why passing immigration reform legislation is so critical. Immigrant workers are largely unprotected and vulnerable to abuse, and when they speak up, employers often threaten to retaliate against them based their immigration status. For immigrants working without legal protections, speaking out against abuse can mean shining a light on their immigration status and ultimately deportation.
In June of this year, the Senate passed a bipartisan, comprehensive immigration reform bill that includes legal protections for immigrant and native workers, including remedies for immigrants who experience workplace abuse, exploitation, or retaliation. Civil rights groups and immigrant rights activists are demonstrating across the nation on October 5 and gathering for a march in Washington, D.C., on October 8 to pressure Congress to pass a bill that includes these protections along with a roadmap to citizenship for the 11 million aspiring Americans who call this country home.
Check out http://octoberimmigration.org/ to find an event near you and join the National Day of Dignity and Respect for Immigrants.