Hired Hands Needed: The Impact of Globalization and Human Rights Law on Migrant Workers in the United States

Article excerpt

"Let's cross the border. I'll take you for $300 each. It's the ultimate for the poor. You won't have to sleep on the floor. Not like here, where you're dying of hunger. It's the land of money where you'll find beautiful houses and big cars. It's the most beautiful thing in life. Come with me to the North!" (1)


Globalization has hastened the integration of markets, allowing for easier access to resources and free flow of capital, and furthering the economic dominance of the United States on an international scale. But this process has not benefited most peoples of the world. Latin American migrant laborers, for instance, who have traditionally faced obstacles in the pursuit of their livelihoods, are encountering new challenges that imperil their jobs, freedom, and lives.

Migrant workers' rights have recently stepped to the forefront of U.S. politics and society as President George W. Bush proposed to make it easier for these and other immigrant workers to enter the United States. (2) In spite of this, at present, immigrant "hired hands" are subjected to low pay and harsh working conditions as a result of employers trying to minimize their losses from the competition spurred by globalization.

This article analyzes issues current to the globalization debate and its effects on Latin American migrant workers in the United States. These issues include workers' rights, immigration, and cross-national cooperation. Part I of this article introduces the conflict between globalization and human rights, setting the foundation for migrant labor demand. Part II illustrates the American experience with Spanish-speaking migrant labor, from the Bracero Program to the H-2 visa program. Part II also highlights contemporary American immigration issues, from the Patriot Act to modern case law, and the recent use of the Alien Tort Claims Act as a possible litigation tool for repatriated migrant workers.

Part III discusses international efforts to grant migrant workers' protections through the International Labor Organization, the United Nations and NAFTA. Part IV concludes, as the article begins, with the assertion that domestic and international agendas should focus on protecting migrant workers rights, rather than subordinating them wholly to employer demands. (3)


The Bureau of the Census estimates the number of unauthorized, foreign-born persons in the United States at 8,835,450. (4) Most, if not all of these foreign workers migrate knowing that it will be difficult to attain legal status to work in the United States, but come nonetheless in search of the American Dream--"a job, upward mobility, and security." (5) Clearly, the main attraction to immigrants from Mexico and Central America are U.S. wages, which can be six to ten times higher than prevailing wages from these regions. (6) As such, workers from across the class spectrum in Latin America risk life and family separation to enjoy even a working class U.S. salary. (7)

Subsequently, economic life in the United States has gone through a de facto integration of markets with its Latin American neighbors via the cross-border flow of labor and capital. (8) Migrant workers have experienced globalization concurrently with U.S. workers, but in drastically different ways and, undoubtedly, more adversely than their U.S. counterparts. (9) For one, Latin Americans cross the U.S. border daily in search of work, and consequently, many migrants experience unbelievable suffering and tragedy. (10)

Once in the United States, "immigrants toil in poor and often illegal working conditions to which they refuse" to report to authorities for fear of deportation. (11) Thus, in many instances, migrant workers face discrimination and abuse. (12) Their perils may include exclusion from certain forms of employment or denial of access to social services. (13) Their working conditions may be exploitative or hazardous, or they may face violence by their employers. …