Southern Inhospitality: Are Korean Automakers Exploiting Mexican Workers on TN Visas?
South Korean automaker Kia is attempting to extricate itself from a class-action lawsuit that accuses the company of visa fraud and exploitation of immigrant workers at its plant in Georgia. Some 200 employees, mostly Mexican nationals, say they were recruited through a TN visa program intended for white-collar immigrants, but were shunted into low-paid assembly line jobs.
One of the plaintiffs, Isidro Arellano, told Bloomberg News he thought he’d found a good thing when industry recruiters showed up at Mexico’s Universidad Tecnológica de Torreón seeking engineers. What the 26-year-old got instead was a job lugging steering columns and installing bumpers, logging 60-hour-plus weeks at Kia’s factory in West Point, Ga.
The vehicle for this alleged bait and switch is the little-known TN visa. Issued by the U.S. State Department to Mexican and Canadian nationals, it has no annual cap. Employers simply provide a job offer letter to U.S. consular officials. No labor market documentation is required to certify an actual lack of American workers.
Hundreds of Mexican nationals were brought to West Point by labor brokers under contract to supply workers to Kia. Though there are reputedly more TN workers in the U.S. than any other category of temporary visa holder, the exact number is unknown because the federal government doesn’t track them, according to the Bloomberg report.
Meantime, children as young as 12 were found working at four Alabama companies that supply parts to Kia and sister Korean automaker Hyundai. Reuters reported that at least 20 boys and girls, mostly Guatemalans, were employed at one factory. They worked under fake names and did the same jobs as adults, even driving forklifts and operating welding equipment.
As with Kia’s plant in Georgia, staffing agencies recruited the migrant minors in Alabama. Kia and Hyundai contend that any labor law violations are on those firms, colloquially called “body shops” in the visa business.
But there’s another bad actor in these shady arrangements: Joe Biden & Co. The administration’s continued failure to enforce immigration laws has enabled worker exploitation schemes to take root and proliferate.
As FAIR noted last year, “President Biden and his secretary of Homeland Security, Alejandro Mayorkas, have made it clear that anyone who shows up at our border with children in tow will be given a free pass. Once in the country, Mayorkas has promised that there would be no policing of worksites, absent compelling evidence that employers are exploiting illegal workers.”
“Compelling evidence” is mounting as more plaintiffs come forward. One amended court filing in Georgia contains new allegations of abuse and intimidation, including threats of deportation and complaints that workers were being “too Mexican.”
In fact, the problem is a bipartisan one. Amidst growing reports of labor violations, Republican-led Georgia awarded its largest incentive package ever – $1.8 billion – to Hyundai to build electric vehicles near Savannah. It promises 8,100 direct jobs and thousands more from suppliers. Which begs the question: How many of those workers will be on ginned-up TN visas, or even of age?