Dr. Camayd-Freixas argues for a "fair and just" transnational workers program.

A temporary guest worker program is the most immediate solution for Georgia companies’ labor needs while awaiting comprehensive immigration reform, certified federal court interpreter Erik Camayd-Freixas told GlobalAtlanta in a recent interview.

“It is all going to be about compromise,” Dr. Camayd-Freixas said of a potential guest worker program that would allow foreign nationals to be hired by U.S.companies for a designated period to satisfy labor demand, a concept that is being discussed in Congress, the White House and among business leaders.

“Businesses insist on a guest worker program because they need, and in some cases depend on, the additional workers. In the absence of legalization, and with the new enforcement emphasis on employer compliance, companies are under enormous pressures to hire legal workers,” said Dr. Camayd-Freixas, associate professor of Spanish and director of a translation and interpretation training program at Florida International University in Miami.

Dr. Camayd-Freixas spoke at Emory University about his experience interpreting for some 400 illegal immigrant workers arrested last May in a U.S. Department of Homeland Security raid on a meatpacking plant in PostvilleIowa.

Following the conclusion of the case, he broke the interpreters confidentiality code to speak out about the raid on Agriprocessors Inc., which was, to date, the largest criminal enforcement operation by immigration authorities to take place at a business.

The interpreter circulated a 14-page essay outlining the Postville proceedings, which he felt violated workers’ rights because the defendants were not aware that they were being charged with the criminal offense of intentionally using falsified social security cards or residence documents.

He contended that federal prosecutors pressured the workers to plead guilty to the criminal charges and be sentenced to five months in jail, rather than be deported immediately for immigration violations, which had been standard procedure in previous workplace raids.

The Postville case, Dr. Camayd-Freixas said, has had dire economic consequences for the small Iowa town, as well as the surrounding region, and has implications for businesses throughout the country. Following the raid last year, Agriprocessors was not able to replace the deported or jailed workers and was forced to declare bankruptcy. The plant closure represents a $250 million-per-year loss for suppliers in a 200-mile radius, he said.

He added that the Postville devastation, which he noted has been called “economic terrorism” by some critics, has been widely replicated across the United States since 2006, and has been “one of the triggers of the present economic crisis.” Mass persecution of immigrants throughout the U.S. has had the same negative economic impact as in Postville, although the damage is more diluted, and thus less noticeable, in larger communities, he said.

“It is perhaps too late for Postville.  But the Postville tragedy has valuable lessons for America,” Dr. Camayd-Freixas asserted. “One of the lessons is that migrant workers don’t take away our jobs; rather, the kinds of jobs they do actually create higher-level jobs for Americans. It’s simple economics.” 

Considering the current economic crisis, a timely solution to the immigration dilemma is critical for supporting U.S. industry, he added, citing an example of Florida agriculture growers not receiving even one American-born job applicant in the past 18 years.

Dr. Camayd-Freixas stressed that the current economic crisis is an opportunity for the Obama administration to exercise its “legitimate prosecutorial discretion, prevent any more Postvilles, and restore due process and human rights in America.”

He noted that Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has already “sent a clear message that the administration has bigger fish to fry in these economic times than to be persecuting poor workers, separating families and deporting the moms and dads of American citizen children.”

Immigration reform, however, is going to take time, Dr. Camayd-Freixas added, suggesting that guest workers will be needed before, during and after the legalization process.

While broader immigration reform may have to wait until 2010, there is no excuse not to pass this year three urgent pieces of legislation,” he said, referring to the Agricultural Job Opportunities, Benefits and Security (AgJOBS) Act, the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act and a bill that calls for the assignment of a U.S. citizen guardian to represent the rights of U.S.-born children of immigrants.

Jerry Gonzalez, executive director of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials, a group that advocates immigration policy reform, encouraged Georgians to urge their congressional representatives to support the AgJOBS bill and the DREAM Act as part of broader immigration reform efforts.

The AgJOBS proposal supports a program enabling undocumented farm workers and guest workers holding H-2A temporary foreign agricultural worker visas to earn “blue card” temporary immigration status with the possibility of becoming permanent U.S. residents.

The DREAM Act would provide immigrant students who graduate from U.S. high schools and have been in the country for at least five years the opportunity to earn permanent residency if they complete two years of higher education or military service.

Georgia would benefit from a comprehensive immigration reform package that “restores the rule of law, includes workable enforcement provisions, unifies families, is efficient for employers to comply and protects workers,” Mr. Gonzalez told GlobalAtlanta.  The current situation, he contends, is “chaotic and inhumane in some cases. So long as we have a broken immigration policy, workers will be exploited by unscrupulous employers,” he noted, pointing to a recent report that suggests low-income Latino immigrants in the South are routinely targets of wage theft, racial profiling and other abuses.

“We need citizens and business groups to begin the advocacy now to ensure their interests are heard for a workable solution,” Mr. Gonzalez said.

Dr. Camayd-Freixas noted that most members of Congress insist on a guest worker program and pointed out that other developed countries throughout the world have legal temporary workers. Organized labor in the U.S. opposes a “large” guest worker program but has announced it would support improvements to the current system.

Labor organizations Change to Win Immigration Task Force and the AFL-CIO announced on April 20 a unified framework for comprehensive immigration reform legislation that calls for the creation of an independent commission to manage future immigration flows based on labor market need. It also demands an effective worker authorization system, control of the U.S.-Mexico border and legalization of the undocumented population currently living in the U.S. It also requests the improvement, but not expansion, of temporary worker programs, limited to temporary or seasonal, but not permanent, jobs.

Dr. Camayd-Freixas said that the reason labor organizations oppose a more broad-reaching temporary worker program is “the same reason they favor legalization (of illegal immigrants already working in the U.S.): to lift the floor on wages and working conditions to protect U.S. workers.” These organizations assert that both illegal and guest workers have been “grossly exploited” for decades, which has a depressing effect on the U.S. labor market, he said.

He added that he thinks organized labor and Congress would “absolutely support a Transnational Workers Program,” such as one that his research team at Florida International University is designing.

The plan emphasizes a commitment to worker protection and measurable stakeholder satisfaction, transparency, accountability and enforceability, as well as the promotion of circular migration through legal incentives, efforts to mitigate need in source communities through economic development increasing migrant wages and conditions and reducing the comparative advantage of hiring foreign workers.

The size and scope of such a program would ultimately be self-regulating, based on supply and demand in the labor market, Dr. Camayd-Freixas said.

He told GlobalAtlanta that in addition to a guest worker program, the best way to reform U.S. immigration policy is with a “prioritized path to legalization” that would include five categories of immigrants. First, would be children born in the U.S. to immigrant parents, who would be assigned an American citizen guardian who could assert those minors’ rights including the right to petition for their parents’ legalization. Second, would be minors who were brought to the U.S. by their parents, who “deserve a path to residency and a chance to go to college” through the DREAM Act, Dr. Camayd-Freixas said.

Family reunification immigrants would be a third priority, and fourth would be immigrants who have been living in the U.S. for a decade or more, he added. A fifth category would be immigrants who have served in the U.S. Armed Forces, Dr. Camayd-Freixas suggested.

He said that such a plan would not be considered “amnesty” because it would not allow immigrants who have committed crimes while residing in the U.S. to become legal residents. It would assist “those whom our country has an interest in becoming legal,” he said. Having some 12 million undocumented immigrants living in the U.S., as is the current situation, is a “security nightmare,” Dr. Camayd-Freixas said.

The number of visas available for immigrant workers must be increased and visa processing improved, he added. The 130,000 H-2A and H-2B visas available for agricultural workers, for example, is like “a drop in a lake” compared to the labor needs of the U.S. economy, Dr. Camayd-Freixas said.

Current U.S. immigration policy provides no viable alternative to illegal immigration, so a constant flow of illegal immigration will persist if the system is not reformed, he concluded.

While awaiting comprehensive policy reform, Dr. Camayd-Freixas’ advice to Georgia employers regarding immigration issues is, “Don’t mix business with politics. Know exactly what your duty and its limits are in regards to federal law.”

He suggested contacting the Federal Bar Associationto learn about employers’ responsibilities under federal statutes. “And be neither an immigration cop nor an alien harborer. Adopt a humane and conciliatory attitude towards all workers and suppliers, and realize that there are no sides. We are all in the same boat,” he added.

To reach Dr. Camayd-Freixas, call (305) 348-6222 or send an email to camayde@flu.edu

FIU translation program

Dr. Camayd-Freixas’ testimony and essay on the Postville case –

For GALEO – Jerry Gonzalez may be reached at jerry@galeo.org, or by calling (404) 745-2580