Continuing to Draw Inspiration from David Carliner

February 15, 2013
Guest Post

by Cathleen Caron, founder and executive director, Global Workers Justice Alliance. Ms. Caron is the 2010 recipient of ACS’s David Carliner Public Interest Award. The deadline to apply for this year’s Award is March 15.

David Carliner’s ingenuity is still inspiring us -- it is quite clever really. Although he is no longer with us, the American Constitution Society’s David Carliner Public Interest Award helps to continue the good fight by giving progressive young attorneys with big ideas, the unprecedented opportunity to get the word out about what they do, why they do it, and have some fun at the same time. 

I founded Global Workers Justice Alliance in 2005 to combat worker exploitation by promoting portable justice for transnational migrants through a cross-border network of advocates and resources.  Portable justiceis the right and ability of transnational migrants to access justice in the country of employment even after they have departed. Portable justice is an under addressed element in achieving justice for today’s global migrants. Global Workers’ core work is to train and support a Defender Network, comprised of human rights advocates in migrant sending countries to educate workers on their rights before they migrate, to work in partnership with advocates in the countries of employment on specific cases of labor exploitation, and to advocate for systemic changes. We currently operate programs in the United States, Canada, Mexico, and Central America and regularly provide advice and referral for cases around the world.

But that description (developed over the years as we better framed the work) is certainly not how it started. It all started scrappy, as most brand new organizations do when founded by the non-famous underdogs. By 2010 we were just getting noticed by major funders.  

Winning the award at that juncture was opportune, to say the least. Debbie Carliner, Mr. Carliner’s daughter called me up to tell me I had won. That was followed by an invitation to join them for a family dinner the night before the awards ceremony held at the ever-impressive annual ACS National Convention. Suddenly Global Workers, the scrappy start-up was getting national attention and the momentum and energy that the awardprovided launched us into a period of tremendous growth.

Now, three years later with the excitement of the award and the ceremony as cherished memories, I continue to draw inspiration and see parallels to David Carliner’s work.

In Naim v. Naim, the case challenging the prohibition on interracial marriage, David Carliner was fighting not only to end the ugly law but for the integration of immigrants into our society. This now strikes me as similar to what we do -- ensure that the migrant workers who come to the United States are not treated as separate or disposable. 

Immigration reform is once again at the center of attention on Capitol Hill. A less visible issue in the debate is the future of this country’s guest-worker programs, or more accurately described as temporary foreign worker visas. Our recent publication, “Visas, Inc.,” delves into 9 different visas categories to show how employers are misusing the visas to avoid protections designed to protect U.S. and foreign workers alike.

What is striking about these temporary work visas is that there are no structures in place to ensure portable justice. It is foreseeable, in fact the core design of the program, is that workers do not remain in the United States. The temporary worker visas are, well, temporary. They must go home. But if the employer has stolen wages or harassed them on the job, these workers are easily silenced by sending them back to where they came from. The government has no meaningful structure in place for workers to learn about their rights before they come to the United States or complain from abroad once they go home. We have handled cases where, unfortunately, the best advice would have been for a worker to overstay the visa in violation of immigration law in order to enforce their rights under labor laws.

Global Workers is creating the civil society structural response through our Defender Network, to empower these workers, however, the government must play a role. This is a missing piece of immigration reform.

Really at the core of the immigration debate regarding “future flow” is this -- do we want to change the course of U.S. history by limiting immigrant workers right to stay and integrate into our society? I often jokingly say that the temporary foreign worker visas are designed so that the workers don’t stay and marry our daughters. Now the obvious parallel to David Carliner’s work on Naim v. Naimin the 1950s is almost too painful to bear. Why don’t we want migrant workers to stay?

As foreigners the workers cannot vote in the United States, though they pay taxes and fill jobs that allegedly no American wants. These jobs include, mind you, entry-level information technology jobs but not some dirty, dangerous and difficult jobs such as trash collection. The impact is that we have a growing number of workers, almost one million annually entering on these visas (see “Visas, Inc.” for a complete analysis) who give us the fruit of their labor but have no political voice in the United Sates. Immigration reform will likely greatly expand these visas without major improvements to the program. 

David Carliner confronted political disempowerment as well by supporting the movement in the District of Columbia in the 1950s, to ensure that the tax paying citizens in our nation’s capital had a voice in Congress.

Despite many of unfortunate parallels to an era, I wish we could say was bygone, we plug ahead in the imperfect system and fight the daily battles to make our society a little more just. 

Thank you to David Carliner for his important work for the politically unpopular and powerless and to his family for keeping his legacy alive and inspiring lawyers of today.