America’s kafalah system

At Vox today, Dara Lind distills a report from The Urban Institute and Northwestern University on the underground forced labor market here in America, which in several respects sounds an awful lot like the kafalah system in place for migrant workers in the Persian Gulf:

Here’s how it happens: a person in Mexico or the Philippines, for example, finds out about an opportunity in the United States through a friend or relative. An employer is offering a nursing job that comes with a green card — so long as the immigrant pays many thousands of dollars in fees and puts her family in debt.

By the time the immigrant arrives in the United States, she finds out most of what she’s been told is a lie. Instead of a green card, she receives a restrictive, temporary work visa. Instead of nursing, she’ll be working as a domestic servant. Her passport and work papers are locked away, she’s not allowed to leave the house, and money is taken out of her paycheck for housing and food. Her employers remind her that if she tries to run away, they’ll make sure she gets deported.

Let’s see: migrant workers are recruited to come here with a list of outright lies, have their travel papers taken from them upon arrival, and have money taken from their paychecks by their employers (in return for providing them with a barely subsistence-level existence), all under threat of deportation if they don’t go along with the exploitation. Yep, that’s kafalah. The difference, in theory, is that this kind of thing is outright illegal in the U.S. (the workers are given legal work visas, but the treatment and threats to which they’re subject are not legal), where a place like Qatar keeps promising to enact some nebulous legal reforms at some point. But as Lind notes, when U.S. authorities mostly ignore cases involving exploited migrant laborers, the practical difference between what happens in the Gulf and what’s happening here is nil:

But the Urban Institute report shows that law-enforcement officials are pretty skeptical of “illegal” immigrants who claim to have been victimized. When police get called to traffickers’ houses or workplaces, for example, they often trust traffickers over victims. In one case, a farmer shot at a trafficked farmworker who was trying to escape. When the police came, they arrested the farmworker for being an unauthorized immigrant.

So the only option for trafficking victims to get legal status after their escape might be cut off based on the biases or whims of an immigration or law enforcement official. One attorney said that she’d only ever seen one immigrant pass an interview for a waiver — after which the immigration official told the attorneys that “he sounds really coached” (something officials say when they think attorneys are helping an immigrant cheat the system). And one victim of trafficking encountered an official who didn’t believe labor trafficking happened in America:

“The immigration officer is like, ‘Why did you overstay here?’ Like, he treat me like I commit…a felony. And I’m like, ‘Well, the situation asked for it. I am a victim of trafficking.’

“He’s like, ‘That’s not true. It’s not happening in the US.'”

There are several reasons why labor trafficking goes ignored: a (well-deserved) focus on sex trafficking that has (not so well-deserved) apparently rendered authorities incapable of dealing with other kinds of human trafficking, the effect of decades of vilifying “illegal” immigrants as a problem while ignoring the companies that recruit and employ them, the typical “exploiting labor good” attitude that feeds the plutocracy, and some good old-fashioned racism for good measure. It’s good to see some attention being focused on this issue.

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