In Pennsylvania, immigrants make up almost 7 percent of the population. In addition, they make up 8 percent of the workforce, but most are underpaid and abused.
These were statistics given Monday by economics professor Brandon Vick at the final Six O’Clock Series event of the year, “Migrant Workers: Indiana County and Beyond,” which focused on the growing topic of immigrants and working in America. It featured a panel of professors and attorneys.
The event was co-sponsored by the Refugee Working Group. Because of the sensitive discussion, it was requested that no video or audio recordings were taken.
The panel touched on the abuse that migrant workers face through employers and through labor trafficking in its discussions.
Vanessa Griffiths is an immigration attorney for Justice at Work who specializes in migrant housing.
Her company researches the registered sites and visits them at night to see if the workers are being treated well. If the living conditions are in violation, they talk to the workers to let them know their rights and that there are federal statutes that will protect them from going home.
She said that migrant workers face a lot of abuse and unfair treatment due to their status. They do not report the conditions out of fear that they will be sent back home.
“We have seen very nice places, but we have also seen places where the workers sleep on floors with broken windows,” she said.
Larae Kroons is another attorney at Justice at Work, but her specialty is labor trafficking in Western Pennsylvania.
Though there are various visas and programs that workers can go through, Kroons focused on the H2 program, which provides work for immigrants in areas where American citizens are not available to work. This process takes time.
“Employers need to prove that they tried to hire American workers before they can register to have migrant employees,” she said.
When given the approval, the workers then can work only for that particular employer, due to issues in labor trafficking.
She said that though the program does a lot of good, it is easily manipulated because of the imbalance of power, employees sometimes committing fraud and often paying workers less than they earned.
“A lot of these workers do not understand their rights,” Kroons said. “They think they are stuck and do not think they can leave.”
She reaffirmed the statutes mentioned by Griffith, which entitle workers to stay and have a new job.
Because of the political climate on immigration, there were questions from the audience regarding workers and how they affect Americans. The panel said that despite the many misconceptions regarding migrant workers, they provide benefits for the country.
Hilario Molina, assistant professor in the sociology department, said that migrant workers contribute more than they are given credit for.
“The rural areas in Pennsylvania are aging,” he said. “Young people are leaving, which means businesses are following. Migrant workers help fill in the age gaps.”
Molina said the workers also help make communities more diverse, which in turn makes the communities work on a global and social level.
“It not only benefits those who want to leave and those who want to work, but also the infrastructure,” he said.
The event also gave mention to the Syrian American Medical Society fundraiser, which will take place Thursday from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m. at the Christ Episcopal Church. The fundraiser will provide help and benefit to the crises in Syria.