Image: Toribio Jimenez
Josh Anderson  /  AP
Toribio Jimenez, who lives in the basement of a Nashville, Tenn., home he shares with 10 others, is one of a dozen workers suing two companies that use the U.S. guest worker program for labor.
updated 10/21/2009 2:19:08 PM ET 2009-10-21T18:19:08

Toribio Jimenez says an asbestos removal company used a guest worker program to trap him in virtual servitude, then fired him when he complained, forcing him to work illegally. Robert Martin believes the same company kept him unemployed by hiring foreigners like Jimenez.

The men have become surprising allies in a lawsuit that claims a long-standing guest worker program harms American and immigrant workers alike. The program has issued visas for 22 years amid steady complaints, and both sides of the immigration debate say it warrants close scrutiny as the Obama administration prepares to tackle comprehensive immigration reform next year.

"I don't blame Latino workers for this at all," said Martin, 49. "Immigrants don't own the heavy equipment, the trucks, the warehouses. You have to get mad at the people who own these businesses and take advantage."

Jimenez, 32, said he was promised work as a janitor, only to be told on his arrival from El Salvador that he would be removing hazardous asbestos — work that Martin said he would have taken after 13 months of unemployment.

Jimenez was fired after complaining, and losing the job meant he also lost his visa. He said that forced him to work illegally so he can pay back the money he borrowed to make the trip.

"I feel terrible that I may have taken someone else's job," he said in Spanish, "only to end up being taken advantage of myself."

Two companies sued
Jimenez and Martin are among a dozen U.S. and immigrant workers who allege Cumberland Environmental Resources Company of Brentwood, Tenn., and Accent Personnel Services Inc. of Baton Rouge, La., discriminated against them by abusing the H2-B nonagricultural guest worker program.

The U.S. Department of Labor issues 66,000 visas a year under the program, but only after certifying that there were no qualified domestic applicants for the jobs. Another requirement is that prevailing wages be paid to guest workers to ensure the program does not drive down salaries for the U.S. work force.

Image: Robert Martin
Josh Anderson  /  AP
Robert Martin now works in a lab where he is studying to become an electrician at Tennessee Technical College in Nashville.
The plaintiffs' federal lawsuit maintains that the companies lied in documents that stated the U.S. workers turned down job offers. It also contends the companies required workers from El Salvador and Peru to pay illegal fees and accept less than the prevailing wage. If they complained, the men said, they lost the job and their visa.

Both companies deny the charges, and have filed documents blaming each other in the case.

Cumberland's Nashville attorney, Ben Bodzy, called the plaintiffs "disgruntled former employees and applicants." He has offered the guest workers partial settlements of about $10,000 each.

Accent attorney Jeff Weintraub of Memphis said that firm has followed all of the program's rules.

Not everyone does.

The Economic Policy Institute, a Washington think tank, found in a 15-state survey last year that 98 percent of H2-B workers were paid less than the prevailing wage in occupations they commonly filled.

Dan Stein of the Washington-based Federation for American Immigration Reform, which calls for strict immigration control, believes H2-B should be scrapped because U.S. workers are "incrementally squeezed out of their jobs and their livelihoods."

Marielena Hincapie, executive director of the National Immigration Law Center, a Los Angeles-based immigrant rights organization, said rules making the visas non-transferrable should be changed "to ensure guest workers can leave an abusive situation and do not take jobs U.S. workers have applied for."

A spokesman for Sen. Charles Schumer, who is working on a sweeping proposal for immigration reform, declined to comment on the future of H2-B. Schumer, D-N.Y., has said reform should include a commitment to "discourage businesses from using our immigration laws as a means to obtain temporary and less expensive foreign labor to replace capable American workers."

President Barack Obama has said he expects to see draft legislation for an immigration overhaul by year's end, with changes to the system waiting until next year.

It's unclear how many lawsuits have been filed over the H2-B visa program. Current cases include a claim that Kansas City businesses fraudulently obtained visas to fill hundreds of hotel cleaning jobs, allegations that 2,000 landscapers were not properly paid in Arkansas and a charge that a Utah law firm raked in fees by securing as many as 5,000 fraudulent visas.

In the Nashville case, the Latin American workers say they borrowed $3,000 to $4,000 each to pay illegal fees for visa expenses and travel costs charged by recruitment companies in their homelands. They also faced fees of $350 for a training class and $200 a month for housing in a Madison, Tenn., apartment where half a dozen workers slept on the floor, according to the lawsuit.

From mid-2008 through early this year, they said they were rarely given the full-time work needed to pay their debts to family and friends who loaned them money for the fees.

One plaintiff plans to go home
So Jimenez has gone underground, into the basement garage of a house outside Nashville shared by seven immigrants. He sleeps on a mattress on the concrete floor, suitcases piled at its head for privacy, and pressed shirts from a second hand store dangling in a makeshift closet.

He wears the shirts to work at a sparkling restaurant where he wiped down tables on a recent Friday night ahead of fashionably dressed couples who never knew he was there.

"After all of this, I just want to be back home," said Jimenez, who decided to take Cumberland's settlement offer of $9,191 but won't see the money for up to three months. After paying legal fees and back rent at the house, he plans to return home with just enough to repay the $5,000 he borrowed from his family.

Martin, who is studying at a community college to become an electrician, said he is in even worse financial shape after borrowing nearly $15,000 from relatives during his job search.

"To be doing what some companies are doing is just totally un-American," he said. "Just straight greed that doesn't care about anybody who needs work."

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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