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Bids For H-2B Visas raises doubts - (12/3/2007)

 

 Contractor's bid to bring in foreign workers raises doubts By L.M. SIXEL

The request by Baystone Contractors was pretty simple. The company wanted visas to bring in 6,000 foreign unskilled workers to build and repair ships for four big oil refining companies in Southeast Texas.

The only problems were that the refiners didn't need the work, weren't in the market for unskilled foreign labor and never asked for Baystone's help. Besides, a Texas union chief says there would have been plenty of American applicants for the jobs — if they existed.

Yet the request appeared to be cruising past state and federal regulators until it was smothered in a union-backed avalanche of U.S.
job applicants for the positions that Baystone hoped to fill with unskilled foreign workers.

"I don't think anyone is paying attention," said U.S. Rep. Gene Green, the Houston Democrat who has been meeting with union officials over their concerns that temporary staffing firms have been using the so-called H-2B visa program to import foreign construction workers to Texas for substantially below-market wages.

Even the lawyer for Harvey, La.-based Baystone says the company's claims weren't true in the request it submitted under the federal visa program that allows companies to import temporary workers for jobs they can't otherwise fill.

Baystone signed the application "thinking once the workers are here, they'll find them jobs," said company immigration attorney Beth Broyles, who said the visas are supposed to be for people with specific jobs lined up. "You can't do it based on hope or speculation."

Broyles said Baystone and third-party recruiters, whom she said she didn't know, planned to bring workers in from the Philippines, Singapore, India and Mexico.

The Evanston, Ill., lawyer said she assumed from conversations with her client that Baystone had lined up placement commitments in the Beaumont-Port Arthur area with Valero Energy Corp., Motiva Enterprises, Total Petrochemicals USA and Exxon Mobil Corp. to hire the workers.


The process

Once the applications were completed, their first review took place at the Texas Workforce Commission, which said it vets all such requests.

"The fact the applications are canceled periodically for more information shows that our staff is looking carefully to make sure the applications meet all the requirements," said Ann Hatchitt, director of communications for the commission in Austin.

But the refining companies said the commission didn't contact them to verify the information. "We didn't make an application, we didn't approve it, and we didn't ask for the workers," said Bill Day, director of media relations for Valero, referring to the application filed by Baystone with the U.S. Labor Department to hire 1,500 foreign pipe-fitters and welders starting Oct. 1.

Valero complained to federal law enforcement officials when it heard from reporters that the company's name was used on the application, Day said. The other refiners on separate applications issued similarly strongly worded denials of any involvement whatsoever, noting they pay welders far more than the $15 per hour prescribed in the application and don't hire unskilled craftsmen. And then there's the shipbuilding issue.


Numbers caused concern

"We don't build ships," said Total spokesman Rick Hagar, adding that qualified Port Arthur-area welders can expect to make north of $25 an hour.

Broyles said she was initially concerned that such a small company would be looking for so many foreign workers, but when she went to New Orleans to meet with Baystone, she was assured the four refineries needed them. The shipbuilding references were her mistake, she said.

After the Workforce Commission had given Baystone the go-ahead to advertise the 6,000 openings — a requirement to make sure U.S. workers have the first shot at the positions — Mike Cunningham erupted when he got wind of it.

Cunningham, executive secretary-treasurer of the Texas Building and Construction Trades Council AFL-CIO in Austin, quickly mobilized a campaign to generate a huge number of domestic applicants.

"We're trying to burn those fax machines to the ground," he said at the time.

The commission complained that Baystone wasn't responding to phone messages from U.S. workers about the job openings as required under the visa program, according to a notice the agency sent Baystone in August.

Soon after, the commission canceled Baystone's application, according to the rejection notice, which cited Baystone's failure to answer calls.


Now seen as a mistake

Roland Orgeron, general manager of Baystone Contractors, now describes the failed application as a "screw-up."

"I shouldn't have gotten involved in it in the first place," he said.
Orgeron describes Baystone as a small, family-owned construction business that also supplies workers for other jobs. He said the paperwork for the visas was overwhelming and he worried about details, like how he'd house 6,000 workers.

Orgeron said he was approached by H&W Welding, a staffing firm in Louisiana that said it had connections to the big refineries in the Beaumont area, as well as ties to an overseas recruiter.

H&W Welding president Sam Holloway said his only tie to the Baystone Contractors' foreign labor applications was that he told Orgeron that if Baystone obtained some visas, he could place some of the workers, but he never said how many or where they'd work.

"My company is just not involved in the applications," said Holloway, who described H&W as an international labor broker.


Bureaucratic steps

The process is rife with bureaucracy. It starts with the U.S.
Department of Labor and almost immediately moves to the Texas Workforce Commission for initial vetting.

Then it's back to the Labor Department.

While the Labor Department can reject applications, investigative authority rests with the Department of Homeland Security.

Maria Elena Upson, a spokeswoman for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services for the Department of Homeland Security, said her agency has a national program that detects fraud in immigration-related paperwork.
She would not say if the agency is looking into Baystone's application.


Diffusion of responsibility

Mary Bauer, director of the immigrant justice project at the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala., said the oversight of the program suffers because so many agencies are involved.

"Everyone sees their jurisdiction as extremely limited," said Bauer, referring to the two federal agencies responsible for reviewing applications along with the state work force commissions. Bauer added she's surprised union officials in Texas learned of Baystone's visa application because in many states, that information is not available.

"In a lot of places, nobody would have heard about it and it would have sailed right through," she said.

Hatchitt said Texas officials have passed along questions that have been raised about the Baystone application, including the validity of the labor agreements, to the U.S. Department of Labor.


66,000 allowed a year

A recent Labor Department report shows Texas companies requested — and received — the most temporary visas between Oct. 1, 2005, and Sept. 30, 2006. The program allows 66,000 new foreign temporary workers a year, and in Texas alone, 26,119 foreign workers were approved, although it's not clear how many actually came.

"Congress needs to change the system," said Green, who, along with fellow Houston Democratic Rep. Al Green sent a letter to Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, asking for a congressional investigation into the problem and hearings.

lm.sixel@chron.com


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