US guest worker rights

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Monica Ortiz Uribe reports on a US legal aid group that helps Mexican immigrant workers pursue legal cases to protect their rights. Many of the workers leave the US without pursuing legal action because of their immigration status.

KATY CLARK: I'm Katy Clark. This is The World, a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH Boston. Illegal immigration to the US is an explosive issue. As evidence, there's the controversy over the law the Arizona legislature passed to try to stem the flow of illegal immigrants from Mexico. The Obama Administration wants to tighten security along the Mexican border and offer a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants working in the US. They are currently vulnerable to abuse and have few means to defend themselves. But they do have one American legal organization on their side. Monica Ortiz Uribe visited that group's headquarters in north central Mexico.

MONICA ORTIZ URIBE: Something's always happening in the historic center of Zacatecas whether it's a political rally or a musical clown show. It's here where you'll find the main Mexico office for the American non-profit organization, Center for Migrant Rights, or CDM by its Spanish initials. The office is a modest second-story flat where a staff of nine is focused on promoting the legal rights of Mexicans who work in the United States.

TORY GAVITO: We're the first trans national law center based in Mexico.

URIBE: Tory Gavito is CDM's legal director. The center has four attorneys specialized in American law. CDM is located in Zacatecas because this is one of the Mexican states that sends the most immigrants to the United States. The majority go illegally, but others go temporarily under the US guest worker program. Jobs range from construction to harvesting tobacco. But even though these workers are legal, they can still run into problems. Their worker rights are easily violated. So what can a small group of American attorneys accomplish in the middle of Mexico?

GAVITO: A lot. We work very closely with US partners to be able to bring claims for migrant workers who are currently in Mexico in US courts.

URIBE: Say an American labor organization in California is building a case about Mexican farm workers who were unfairly paid, but the workers have all returned to Mexico. CDM can help the organization find the workers and get them to participate in the case. Thanks to the network they've formed, CDM can help build a case from just a handful of plaintiffs to hundreds. Another part of CDM's mission is to educate workers about their rights before they leave for the United States. Rachel Micah-Jones is CDM's executive director.

RACHEL MICAH-JONES: I think the work that CDM does is important because first off it's preventative. I think a lot of abuses are avoided when folks know what their rights are and know what to do when their rights are violated.

URIBE: Still, abuses do occur. One afternoon at the CDM office, two middle-aged men from a nearby city stop for a visit. Both worked legally in the United States cutting grass for the city of Thornton, Colorado. The job was a good one, they were paid well and taken care of. But then, their supervisors began extorting money from them. Jose Macias, who likes to go by his nickname Lobo explains.

SPANISH SPEAKING

JOSE MACIAS: The managers asked us if we wanted more overtime. Well yes, we did. So they said why don't you give us $20 and we'll give you overtime.

URIBE: Later, Lobo says the supervisors asked the men to tell their friends who wanted jobs that they could have them as long as they paid $500. Lobo said he and his co-workers went along with the demands for fear of losing their jobs. Meanwhile that extra money was being pocketed by their supervisors. When someone made an anonymous report against them, the city of Thornton began to investigate. Tory Gavito says CDM in Mexico was able to help.

GAVITO: We were able to give key testimony and witness information to the attorneys.

URIBE: The case went to trial in 2007 and the two supervisors were found guilty of extortion. Now the affected workers are waiting for compensation checks. CDM has helped with dozens of similar cases. In its five years, the organization says it's won back 5 million dollars in unpaid wages owed to guest workers.

ART READ: They have been immensely helpful to our ability to communicate with significant numbers of clients when they are in Mexico.

URIBE: Art Read is general consul at Friends of Farmworkers Incorporated, a non-profit legal service organization in Pennsylvania. Together with CDM and others, Friends of Farmworkers brought a significant case against an American landscaping company. As a result, federal minimum wage law now requires US employers to assume the costs a worker accumulates as a result of taking a temporary job. These costs could include travel, visa expenses and recruitment fees. It's a decision that benefits workers from any country, including US citizens.

READ: That is very significant because many workers come from very poor communities and in some cases have to go into debt to pay those expenses in order to get here.

URIBE: Back at the CDM office, the two men who worked in Colorado joke around. There's little work for them in Zacatecas and both would go back to the United States if given the opportunity. Only now, they say, ?We'd be less vulnerable. Now we know our rights.? For The World, I'm Monica Ortiz Uribe in Zacatecas, Mexico.