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May 26, 2006
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NOW Transcript - Show 221
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Transcript - May 26, 2006

BRANCACCIO: Welcome to NOW.

There's no shortage of evidence that undocumented immigrants live a life open to exploitation. The work tends to be hard, the hours run long and the workplace protections are few. But how much better is it for people who come to this country to work with the proper visas and permits?

The answer is not much. They are called guest workers and are part of a little known program that is in place right now. Congress is proposing legislation that would expand the program enormously.

Producer Michelle Smawley and Senior Correspondent Maria Hinojosa visited the mostly hidden world of guest workers, and brought back a cautionary tale.

HINOJOSA: Everyday at 5am it's the same story for these Mexican workers

Three men share a bed in a motel room in Montana. It's early spring and there's still a chill in the air and there is no heat.

Exhaustion permeates the room ...

There's time for only a quick breakfast of cookies and milk ... outside the rest of the crew gathers in the cold ...

The men pile into the van which will take them to work ... they are roughly 2000 miles away from the place they call home in Mexico.

An hour into the trip they arrive at the Lolo National Forest -- cradled in the Rocky Mountains.

You may think these men are undocumented workers but they are here legally -- part of America's guest worker program. We came to Montana to take a closer look at the program. There are allegations of widespread abuse of guest workers and there is a proposal in Congress that would increase their numbers significantly.

Today this crew will plant pine seedlings in an area previously devastated by a wildfire.

Ausencio Yanez has been coming to the United States as a guest worker for the last four years. Even so, he knows little about what a guest worker is ...

HINOJOSA: What do you know about what the H2B visa program is all about?

YANEZ: I don't know exactly what it is, just that it's a work permit we're given.

HINOJOSA: How do you get motivated for a day long work like this, and most people don't even know you are here?

AUSENCIO: We don't have enough resources in our country, and here we have to work, to struggle, to survive better in Mexico.

HINOJOSA: Yanez and his fellow guest workers make this job look easy. But it's back- breaking labor.

The mountains are steep ... the soil is loose and rocky, making it easy for the workers to slip. The work is tough, repetitive, physical labor.

They plunge their tools into the earth ... plant a seedling -- move on -- repeat -- for eight hours a day, six days a week, sometimes more.

Most of the labor intensive work in the woods is done by Latino labor ... . They have earned a nickname because of it: los pineros -- the men of the pines.

The Federal Forest Service has contracted with a company called Oaxaca reforestation to replant these mountains.

Silvino Escalante supervises the crew for the company ... he watches them closely -- urging the workers to keep up the pace.

HINOJOSA: Does it seem at all strange for you, Silvino, that the replanting that's happening in the U.S. forest preserves is being done by Mexican workers?

ESCALANTE: All the time I work in the -- forest -- in the forest service with the s -- pretty much are the same people. All Mexican all the time. Sometimes in a while bring -- American peoples but just for two or three days. And then leaving. They don't like the hard work.

HINOJOSA: Escalante's says most of his men have come over on the H2B visa which allows companies to request foreign labor to do seasonal. Like this crew the vast majority of the guest workers come from Mexico.

Escalante says the program has been good for the workers because they are here legally.

HINOJOSA: You would say, your workers feel more secure --

ESCALANTE: Right.

HINOJOSA: -- because they have H2B visas. They don't have to worry about the --

ESCALANTE: I think so. Yeah.

HINOJOSA: -- immigration coming in and --

ESCALANTE: I think so.

HINOJOSA: and doing raids.

ESCALANTE: Yeah. The way I feel, the peoples is -- feel more comfortable, more happy ... more, more happy.

HINOJOSA: You think it makes them better workers?

ESCALANTE: I think so. Uh-huh.

HINOJOSA: "Better workers" in Escalante's world may mean harder workers. While we were there production was nonstop. The only break, if you want to call it that was when the crew climbed back up the mountain to stock up on more seedlings, which they did 3 times during the day.

There was also a paid, lunch break -- so to speak. The men gathered round ... heating tortillas on a small burner. But the meal only lasted 18 minutes.

The crew was alone in the woods except for two Forest Service inspectors. The government employees trailed the team at a distance. Their job is to make sure the planting is up to specifications.

HINOJOSA: And so the actual role of the U.S. Forest Service in a contract like this is what?

AUSTIN: Is to insure that the work that we need to have done is being done appropriately and correctly to -- to an acceptable quality.

HINOJOSA: But it's about the trees.

AUSTIN: Right.

HINOJOSA: It's not necessarily about the workers.

AUSTIN: No.

HINOJOSA: The government has no hard statistics on how many guest workers are actually in the country, the best estimate is roughly 120,000 -- the number of visas that have been issued.

Around the country there have been news accounts and lawsuits highlighting the exploitation and lack of oversight of guest workers. So, there is mounting pressure on the forest service to look after the workers and not just the trees.

AUSTIN: ... our people are trained in natural resources. That's their background, that's -- that's what they know how to do. But we have had a lot of recent training and education on what to look for in terms of the workers.

HINOJOSA: And what up until now have -- have you noticed from your own teams that are doing inspections here?

AUSTIN: I've noticed again with this particular contract, and this is the second year of this contract with this company, it's been exceptionally high quality.

HINOJOSA: The crew would agree that sentiment -- this is as good as it gets for guest workers. Even so, Yanez told us that after almost a year of hard labor -- he ends up with just $9,000 to support his wife and three kids.

Still, he and his crew are grateful for even those kinds of earnings -- but they worry about something else ... once a guest worker is hired they are tied to their employer.

Yanez says it is a reality his crew talks about a lot.

YANEZ: In a way, it might feel like slavery. When you have that visa, you work for that particular company. You can't go work for another company. So in that sense, you are enslaved. What happens is that if you wanted to ask for, say, a raise, if the boss realizes you're the one organizing it, the next year there's no visa for you, you get cut off.

HINOJOSA: When you hear Americans saying that workers like you are taking jobs away from American citizens, what do you say?

YANEZ: I would simply liken to see them do that work, and I don't see them doing it. That's why we Hispanics are here. Because of that difficult work. They wouldn't do it, and much less for the pay one gets.

RAMOS: We bring in single -- males, able bodied; we use 'em, and then we want 'em to go back home

HINOJOSA: Roman Ramos is a paralegal with the Texas Rio Grande legal aide. Over the course of his career he has advocated for numerous guest workers in their complaints of unfair treatment by us companies.

Ramos is part of a growing chorus of critics who believe the guest worker program is good in theory but is often highly exploitative in practice.

RAMOS: The guest worker comes into the country after going through a great deal of expense. Once in the U.S., he's vulnerable he can only work for one employer. You know, one employer. He has to put up with whatever crap that employer wants to put on him. He has no choice. I've seen workers get fired for asking for clean drinking water.

Ramos has documented these abuses. And for him, there is a personal history as well. His parents were migrant workers and as a young man he worked in farming too.

He says conditions now are often similar to those he witnessed as a boy.

RAMOS: Most of these jobs are in isolated areas the workers are sort of kept separate and apart from society.

RAMOS: Talk about dependency, talk about isolation. You know, you depend on this person for your basic survival, food. And then you've got to depend on him to take you into town to buy the damn food.

HINOJOSA: Just how bad can it get for guest workers? Meet Hugo Martin Recinos.

Six years ago Recinos says he worked as a farmer in Guatemala, earning the equivalent of two U.S. dollars a day, while supporting his family. He says a cousin told him about a recruiter in Guatemala who was looking for workers to reforest private lands in the United States.

RECINOS: They told us it was to plant pine trees. But in Guatemala, we didn't know anything about what it meant to plant pine trees. I asked him how much it would cost to get the job, and he said all the expenses would be $1600. I told him that would be fine, because I needed to improve my family's situation.

HINOJOSA: Sixteen hundred dollars, a fortune in Recinos world, but he was told it was the only way to get the job. Which is why he says he agreed to the next demand, he claims the recruiter asked for the deed to Recinos' family home as collateral.

RECINOS: We had to leave the deed with them so once we got to the United States, no one would run off. No one would leave the company. And if you left the company, and broke the contract, then you'd lose your property, according to them.

HINOJOSA: Recinos came to the States and began working with a company called Express Forestry. He was told he would receive an hourly wage but once he began working, he says the company reneged and paid him for piece work. He was paid for the number of trees he planted -- in the end he says he sometimes made less than minimum wage.

HINOJOSA: When you came to this country for the first time, what did you feel?

RECINOS: I was thinking about making money. Earn a little bit and send it home. Do something to live a better situation later. When I got here, everything changed. You didn't earn that much in that company. It was hard to make money.

HINOJOSA: Recinos says Express Forestry deducted the cost of the equipment from his paycheck and that he also had to pay for motel rooms while on location. After taxes and with all of his expenses, he says he sometimes made as little as $50 a day. Recinos also claims he typically worked 60-70 hours a week, sometimes more and says he never received any overtime compensation.

To save money he told us he shared a room with 4 or 5 other workers. He says the few times he attempted to question how dire his situation had become his job was threatened.

HINOJOSA: You understood that you were in this country legally. And yet you felt like you had no rights?

RECINOS: You have no idea, no experience in this country, no one has told you what your rights are, no one told us how to live here in the U.S. We lived from work to the hotel, and from the hotel to work.

Recinos slowly began to realize that his work conditions would not get any better. And then at the end of his fourth season he says Express Forestry stopped paying him all together. He alleges he confronted management and got the run around. Eventually working with the Southern Poverty Law Center, he filed a lawsuit against the company claiming violations of minimum wage and overtime protections.

Recinos says he still has not received the deed to his family's land.

RECINOS: We made repeated attempts to contact Express Forestry to get their side of the story, but never heard back from the company.

HINOJOSA: There are many people in the business community who say guest workers are a good idea. Don Mooers is an immigration attorney who advises companies on how to get H2B workers. He says that while he has heard about exploitation in the program -- it is hardly the norm.

MOOERS: For workers they come, they're able to go back home with usually a lot of money in their pockets. Many of them come back after having bought a new house, having bought property, paid for the school of their kids and family members.

HINOJOSA: How broad is the American economy's dependence on foreign guest workers?

MOOERS: For the country as a whole the GDP would barely register a blip, if there was no H2B guest worker program. Specific communities though around the country it would be devastating. From Alaska salmon roe processors, the Eastern shore or Maryland are seafood processors, landscape folks up the northern half of the U.S., so it's widespread

HINOJOSA: It appears that the needs of the business community have been heard. On Thursday the Senate passed legislation that would create a new and expanded guest worker program of 200,000. Ramos is concerned congress is selling out to big business.

You would say what about a guest worker program? Is it a good thing to do? It's a right thing to do?

RAMOS: Well, it's -- it's -- it's the political thing to do. Because it -- it's -- it fits politician's purposes. If you really want to do something for folks, give them the freedom of choice, not to be -- tied down to just one employer.

HINOJOSA: The Senate bill proposes a fix, it is called portability. It allows workers to move between jobs within the guest worker program. But the bill faces an uphill challenge in the House before it becomes law. Ramos says if history is any indicator of how guest workers will make out in the new program, it doesn't look good.

ROMAN: Foreign guest workers don't vote. U.S. employers vote. And who's on their side? The U.S. government. The U.S. government is not on the side of guest workers. Never will be.

BRANCACCIO: You can find out more about the guest worker program and proposed legislation on our website, PBS-dot-org.



We're about to meet someone who's spent lots of time thinking about another key issue facing us.

BRANCACCIO: What to do about the one, not with the Q but the N, Iran, the country the US suspects of developing nuclear weapons? Nuclear weapons. Iran's UN ambassador said late this week, his country wants to work directly with the US to resolve the nuclear issue. But first, the US has to agree that Iran has the right to nuclear technology for peaceful purposes.

US officials reject talks unless Iran stops enriching uranium. Joining me with a special perspective is the Iranian French journalist, Lila Azam Zanganeh, who's recently edited a collection of essays on contemporary Iranian culture and politics. Welcome, Lila.

ZANGANEH: Thank you.

BRANCACCIO: So, here we have another Middle Eastern country that seems spooky. What can we learn from the experience in Iraq that might help us find a path forward with Iran?

ZANGANEH: Well, certainly one of the first things we can learn from the Iraqi experience is that violence does not work. Antagonizing the people of the Middle East does not work. Unfortunately, the more you call them evil, the more you refuse to engage in dialogue, the more you conjure up a reality that perhaps didn't quite exist in that way before you pronounced those words.

BRANCACCIO: It's hard to be friendly though with that Iranian regime. I mean, they are pretty extreme. And it makes it easier for the Bush administration to wedge Iran into their axis of evil paradigm when the president of Iran says things like the holocaust is a myth.

ZANGANEH: Of course. It's a -- it's a tricky situation. It's infinitely difficult in terms of diplomacy. But it's also vital at this point for the American government to try and engage them in a way.

There was a letter as you know that was published ... to President Bush a few weeks ago.

BRANCACCIO: The famous eighteen page letter from the Iranian President.

ZANGANEH: Exactly. And that letter in reality was reeking with insecurity and inferiority complex. And those people, they are just waiting to be addressed. And the more you address them, even if it's in a diplomatic way, even if you're playing games and you never lose track of who you're really talking to.

That's how you're going to break the ice and be able to make progress. And -- and that's a more cunning and probably a more efficient way to get out of the deadlock today.

BRANCACCIO: You see these signs of insecurity in that famous letter. Do you think it's the President of Iran? Or do you think it's symbolic of the deeper insecurity that you might see more pervasively in Iranian culture?

ZANGANEH: Of course, I think it's both. And part of the reason why people have been talking about the nuclear bomb is that it gives them a sense of identity, the more they say, well, we are a power to exist, we want to be counted in the nuclear plan and in the nuclear game.

And that speaks to of course an enormous identity crisis after twenty years of Islamic revolution. And -- and when you think of the fact that these people are so very different from their leaders. They're humane. They have very private lives. They go about thinking their own thoughts, having their own political hopes and dreams.

And of course, they're very -- they're taken aback. They're puzzled. They're frustrated to see that the government representative unfortunately just is not really -- does not present an accurate image of who they are. But what they show is a deep sense of -- of fear and, again, insecurity.

BRANCACCIO: It's one of the ironies. Because this government that is so repressive of any kind of dissident thought. I mean, just this week, there was practically a riot by some Iranian students. A lot of rocks were thrown. Some police went to the hospital, some students that were under arrest. That same government, someone like you is asking us to take it slowly, to engage. There's no irony there?

ZANGANEH: Of course there is. But again, unfortunately, I don't -- certainly don't believe that politics is necessarily the realm for -- for morals with Iran. You need a more pragmatic approach. Otherwise, we're on a collision course. And collision is not a good idea for Iran.

Because as we saw in Iraq as you just said, if -- if -- and we're not even talking about invasion. But if there are military strikes against Iran, the consequences can be devastating, both for the population of Iran, and in terms of geo politics.

So you have to try, in order to -- to somehow divert this collision from happening, you must try to engage them somehow. We should try and open up Iran. Of course, that's counter intuitive. Because when you're dealing with a very fierce enemy, you just want to antagonize it and threaten it and tell him you're going to crush him with all your might. But maybe that's not the right way.

Opening the country is an enormous hope for Iran. Because Iran is a very educated country. Quite different in many ways from neighboring Arab countries in terms of the education of girls, for instance. Sixty percent of students at the University of Tehran are girls.

They can work. They can drive. They have public jobs. You have women in parliament. You have women lawyers, as we know because of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003, Shirin Abadi. There's an electoral process. You have a thriving civil society in Iran.

And the more you give it a chance to speak, the more you are really fueling the hope of Iran. And there is so much of it. It's not just education -- it's also a youthful -- 70% of the country is under the age of thirty.

BRANCACCIO: Well, that's an important point, Lila. That it is a very young country. But the Bush administration hasn't just been talking a war of words in the past three years. We have been trying -- the United States has been trying to environment change from within. But it keeps getting pushed back.

ZANGANEH: We have to let time run its course. I think there's great hope for democracy in Iran. But it's not going to be tomorrow. Look even at the Soviet Union and Putin and all the convulsions. It might come in forty, fifty years.

I believe Iran might well be one of the first real home bred democracies of the Middle East. But it's not going to happen tomorrow. And I know in the meantime, the situation is very tricky. It's awfully difficult and very, very complex. But there are still ways to talk to them before it's too late. And we must talk to Iran.

BRANCACCIO: Well, Lila, thank you.

ZANGANEH: Thank you.

BRANCACCIO: Journalist Lila Azam Zanganeh is a social critic and a writer and also editor of the book, MY SISTER, GUARD YOUR VEIL; MY BROTHER, GUARD YOUR EYES: UNCENSORED IRANIAN VOICES.



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