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Week of 5.26.06

Be Our Guest

Video: Be Our Guest
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America's guest worker program is coming under increasing scrutiny as Congress scrambles to find a solution to the country's immigration crisis and considers expanding the current program. But how is America treating guest workers who are already here? Are we welcoming temporary employees with open arms, or are they being exploited in ways that make employee rights groups cringe?

This week on NOW we travel to the remote mountains of Montana and follow a number of guest workers, most of them from Mexico, to find out what life is really like on this side of the border.

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"That's why we Hispanics are here. Because of the difficult work. [Americans] wouldn't do it, and much less for the pay that one makes," says Ausencio, a guest worker from Mexico.

Ausencio is one of thousands of guest workers, mostly Latinos, who toil in America's forests performing tough, repetitive, physical labor. He says he often works six days a week, sometimes more. Once hired, a guest worker cannot switch employers, which some say has led to widespread abuse.

Ausencio is one of many men nicknamed 'los pineros', which means 'men of the pines' in Spanish, who work for companies contracted by the U.S. Forest Service.

View a photo essay on guest workers Roman Ramos, a paralegal with the Texas Rio Grande Legal Aide, has worked as an advocate for many guest workers in their complaints against unfair treatment by U.S. companies.

"[The guest worker] has to put up with whatever crap that employer wants to put on him ... I've seen workers get fired for asking for clean drinking water," Ramos said.

One guest worker who says he was threatened for demanding his paycheck is Hugo Martin Recinos Recinos, from Guatemala, who worked for Express Forestry for four seasons.

He says he paid a recruiter in his home country around $1,580, which did not include his travel expenses, to come to the U.S. He says he also handed over the deed to his family's home as collateral.

"We had to leave the deed with them so once we got here, no one would run off, no one would leave the company ... If you left the company, and broke the contract, then you would lose the property, according to them," he says.

Recinos says the company paid him for piece work rather than an hourly wage, and deducted the cost of equipment from his paycheck; both actions are illegal under the terms of his visa.

He adds that he worked 60-70 hour weeks with no overtime, and after taxes and expenses were taken from his check, and sometimes he received as little as $50 a day. To save money he shared a hotel room with four or five other workers.

Don Mooers, an immigration attorney, says while there has been some exploitation of guest workers, it is far from the norm. "For workers ... they're able to go back home with usually a lot of money in their pockets," he said.

Is the guest worker program the fulfillment of an American dream or a nightmare of exploitation? This week on NOW.

Interview: Lila Azam Zanganeh

Also this week, Lila Azam Zanganeh talks with David Brancaccio about the multi-faceted realities of Iran's political and cultural life and what Americans need to understand about Iran. Zanganeh is the editor of the new book MY SISTER, GUARD YOUR VEIL; MY BROTHER, GUARD YOUR EYES: UNCENSORED IRANIAN VOICES, a collection of essays by Iranian writers.

Read an excerpt from MY SISTER, GUARD YOUR VEIL