By Richard J. Douglas
To complement the excellent series on human trafficking in MarylandReporter.com last week, two important labor trafficking “enablers” are worth considering: first, relatively easy migrant access to U.S. work permits; second, the strong appetite of American employers for unauthorized migrants who have them.
Over the years, and with good intentions, Congress created a cornucopia of work permit options for persons who enter the U.S. unlawfully. Ironically, in practice the availability of these permits actually enables human trafficking. U.S. work permit options for the undocumented are well-known beyond our borders, and they are a strong incentive to come here.
Temporary protected status
For instance, the Temporary Protected Status (TPS) program, signed in 1990 by President George H.W. Bush, was intended to benefit unauthorized migrants or status violators whose home countries suffer natural disasters or emergencies. TPS designation stops deportation proceedings against migrants while the emergency at home continues. In the U.S., TPS beneficiaries may obtain work permits to support themselves.
Because of access it affords to a work permit, TPS has been a powerful attraction to unauthorized migrants. Moreover, TPS is not “temporary”. TPS designations in 1999 and 2001 for natural disasters in El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua remain in effect today, years after the original emergencies. The permanence of this “temporary” program adds to its luster.
Asylum law enables trafficking
U.S. asylum law also enables labor trafficking. Each year thousands of unauthorized migrants and status violators file asylum claims in the U.S. to obtain work permits. Five months after the claim is filed, most applicants obtain permits even if the asylum claim itself is frivolous.
In Mexico and Central America, traffickers know U.S. work permit options as thoroughly as the Department of Homeland Security. Traffickers use this knowledge to lure migrants northward. Many arrive at our border with a basic grasp of work permit and asylum procedures, courtesy of trafficker coaching. Often traffickers market themselves in source countries using the prospect of a U.S. work permit as an inducement.
Hungry American employers
A second important human trafficking enabler is the strong appetite of American employers for unauthorized migrants with asylum-based, TPS-based, or other U.S. work permits. Even if American employers do not actively recruit unauthorized migrants, migrant networks show the way to opportunities with American builders, paving contractors, landscapers, and other employers with commercial and government customers. In effect, the tower cranes around you are “beacons” to human traffickers.
U.S. work permit programs were not created by criminal organizations which prey on foreign workers or the foreign workers themselves. They were created by a Congress seemingly indifferent to the “magnet” effects beyond our borders, or the impact on American workers, of congressional measures to accommodate those who reach our territory without authorization.
The undervalued American worker
A few words about the availability of migrant work permits and another victim of labor trafficking: the undervalued American worker.
Let’s compare. To protect U.S.-flag ocean carriers and airlines, Congress forbids foreign-flag ships and foreign-flag airlines from operating in the domestic trade between U.S. cities. In other words, Congress has “cordoned off” the domestic trade from foreign competition, preserving it for American shipping and aviation capital alone.
In contrast, Congress’s generosity with work permits forces American human capital in the domestic market to endure unchecked foreign competition from unauthorized migrants. This patently unequal treatment appears to be the result of congressional neglect, not logic.
In addition to ratcheting up competitive pressure on American workers in their home market, Congress’s cornucopia of work permits for unauthorized migrants, and the American employer’s appetite for their labor, attract and enable human traffickers.
Congress has the tools to fix it
It would be inaccurate to credit President Obama with the long list of work permit options for unauthorized migrants found in our law today. That list was extensive before he took office, and both Republicans and Democrats are responsible. Indeed, statutory foundations for Obama immigration initiatives of 2014 can be traced to the Gerald Ford Administration.
In 2015, Congress has all the legislative authority it needs to overhaul work permit practices to avoid damage to those who suffer the most from labor trafficking: the unauthorized migrant and the American worker. We only require men and women with the will to do it.
Richard J. Douglas, Iraq veteran and Maryland lawyer, has lived and worked in Mexico. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. He ran for U.S. Senate in 2012.