June 27, 2013

Today the Senate passed the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act, S. 744, by a vote of 68 to 32. The Senate bill would create a roadmap to citizenship for millions of aspiring citizens and help families stay together. The Senate bill includes worker protections from recruitment abuse and retaliation, and increases migrant workers’ access to justice. This is the first time in U.S. history that the Senate has passed a bill that guarantees transparency and accountability in the hiring of internationally recruited workers.  It is a moment that has been paved by the sacrifices of many, with difficult compromises made in order to achieve a roadmap to citizenship for millions of aspiring citizens.

For Don Leonardo Cortez, a former CDM client and a leader in the Workers’ Defense Committee, the Senate immigration bill is deeply personal. When Don Leonardo was recruited in Zacatecas, Mexico, several years ago to work in the United States, his recruiter promised a job with good wages. Don Leonardo paid hundreds of dollars to the recruiter to work in the carnival industry. However, he worked under very exploitative conditions, including twelve-hour workdays, seven days a week. For all his hard work, he was paid a lump sum that was far below the minimum wage. His boss also forced him to hand over his passport and his visa.

Don Leonardo finally had enough and left his abusive employer. Unfortunately, this meant he had to return to Mexico while he was still paying back his recruitment debt. “It was really hard to come home to my family. I was supposed to come back with money. I came back with even more debt,” Don Leonardo said. Since then, he has become a leader to prevent the exploitation of migrant workers from Mexico.

The Senate bill is an important step in ensuring that workers like Don Leonardo do not arrive in the U.S. deeply indebted and vulnerable to abuse. The bill, if it becomes law, prevents the economic coercion of migrant workers by prohibiting recruiters from charging workers fees. The bill ensures that workers receive information about the terms and conditions of their employment before they leave their home countries, thus allowing migrant workers to make informed decisions.  The Senate bill also increases transparency in the currently murky recruitment process by creating a publicly available recruiter registry so that workers and employers know which recruiters are legitimate.

Today is a historic day, one that came out of the incredible sacrifices and courage of immigrants and migrants, like Don Leonardo. However, the immigration bill that the Senate passed today is not perfect. There is still a long journey ahead to ensure an immigration system that is just and fair and includes a broad roadmap to citizenship.  Together, we can keep families and communities unified, fight back against the worst parts of recent compromises, and ensure that important provisions to prevent recruitment abuse and human trafficking remain a part of the ongoing immigration reform discussions.