Guest workers in the United States are trapped in low-wage jobs where they risk injury without health coverage and often live in squalid conditions, according to a national report released this week.
The report, which likens the current federal guest-worker program to slavery, comes as members of Congress reopen debate on an immigration-reform package that collapsed in the House ahead of last year's midterm elections.
President Bush has repeatedly said he supports expanding the guest-worker program, along with tougher border security, in order to crack down on the estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants currently working in the United States.
In Mexico this week, Bush told Mexican President Felipe Calderon he will urge Congress to overhaul immigration and include a larger guest-worker program.
In his State of the Union speech in January, Bush defended the guest worker program as a way of taking pressure off the border, while creating a path for foreign workers to enter the country and be gainfully employed on a temporary basis.
"As a result, they won’t have to try to sneak in, and that will leave border agents free to chase down drug smugglers and criminals and terrorists," Bush said.
More than 121,000 guest workers were employed in the United States in 2005, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, a Montgomery, Ala.-based civil rights group that released the report Monday.
Based on interviews with thousands of foreign workers employed under the Labor Department's so-called H-2 temporary-employment program -- an initiative created in 1943 to boost cheap labor for the sugar cane industry -- the 48-page report slams the government for failing to protect guest workers from unscrupulous employers.
"The current program is shamefully abusive in practice, and there is almost no enforcement of worker rights," Mary Bauer, the group's director of immigrant issues, said in a statement. She called guest workers the "disposable workers of the global economy."
Most H-2 class guest workers are employed in agriculture, followed by forestry, seafood processing, landscaping, construction, and other industries, according to the report. They are typically poor people who leave home with the promise of decent jobs, Bauer said.
Many pay hefty "recruiting fees" for U.S. jobs, on top of travel costs, and once they get here are housed in shabby hotel rooms and forced to work 10-hour days, the report said.
Since employers have nearly full control over the legal status of their foreign workers under the H-2 program, those that complain can face deportation, the report said.
"As part of the reform of our broken immigration system, Congress should eliminate the current H-2 system entirely or commit to making it a fair program with strong worker protections that are vigorously enforced," Richard Cohen, the group's president, said in a statement.