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Guest workers vulnerable

President Bush touted the proposed new guest-worker program Monday. Critics slam the current program.

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Eleven dollars and five cents per hour. It was more than Francisco Fernández Sánchez had ever made in all his years working as an electrician in Zacatecas, Mexico - and it was completely legal. A recruiter was in town taking down names of those interested. Mr. Fernandez signed up and waited. Two months later, he got a phone call.

That was how Fernández's journey to the US on a much-coveted guest worker visa began. But it would end badly less than a year later, with Fernández $500 poorer, humiliated, angry - and in the process of suing his former Florida employer in a federal court.

As US lawmakers gear up for more debate this week on whether to grow the guest worker program as part of a comprehensive immigration reform bill, immigrant-rights advocates warn of problems with the current guest-worker system. They point to widespread cheating and abuse of migrant workers that continues due largely to lack of US government oversight of corrupt firms, and say this should be addressed in any upcoming guest-worker legislation.

"It's crucial to establish guidelines for preventing abuses," says Robert Willis, a lawyer for the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, the union representing migrant farm workers. "If we allow guest workers to come work, we also need to treat them right," he says. "Just creating the program is not enough."

The proposed Senate bill calls for allowing illegal immigrants who have been in the US for five years or more to apply for a three-year guest-worker visa, which could be renewed if they paid a fine and passed a background check. Other would-be immigrants wishing to find work in the US would be able to apply for the same guest-worker visa, which in this case would be capped at 400,000 annually.

After six years, if these guest-worker visa holders demonstrate English proficiency and pay certain fines and back taxes, they could apply for permanent residency, the first step toward citizenship. This bill, if passed, would create the largest guest-worker program since the Bracero program brought 4.6 million Mexican agricultural workers into the country between 1942 and 1960.


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