Coming to America: U.S. aids import of mx workers

 - October 30, 2009, 8:49 AM

Here’s an entry worthy of Ripley’s Believe It or Not: in the midst of the Great Recession of 2009, as U.S. jobs evaporate across the country, especially in the airline industry and particularly among skilled maintenance workers, Uncle Sam is working feverishly to fill jobs at domestic repair stations.

Does this mean helping jobless Americans find jobs? Retraining them to fill these desirable jobs? No indeed! The U.S. government is busy handing out hundreds, maybe thousands, of visas to foreign workers to fill aviation maintenance jobs in America. And these are not low-wage jobs, not jobs that only unskilled, migrant workers would be willing to do. These are solid middle-class jobs at high-tech repair stations averaging $1,000 per week. How many unemployed U.S. workers would give anything for a shot at these jobs? How about underemployed U.S. workers forced by the recession to accept jobs far below their former pay and skill levels?

In a story uncovered by WFAA-TV in Dallas, the U.S. State Department has granted hundreds of visas to workers from dozens of foreign countries to work in maintenance jobs at San Antonio Airport. (Investigators have found that once granted visas, these workers have moved to airports throughout the U.S.)

The TSA has helped these employees obtain the badges necessary to gain secured access to aircraft. As if that were not appalling enough, many of these employees reportedly do not even speak or write English. And as far as qualifications, the applications I saw contained copies of transcripts and certificates in Spanish! No translations and no apostille (the internationally recognized method for verifying the accuracy and authenticity of foreign documents). How did anyone determine what these certificates said and whether they were real? I can’t imagine everyone even at the State Department speaks the language of the dozens of countries represented by these imported workers. Certainly there is the potential for fraud in obtaining visas to enter the U.S.

As a safety advocate first and foremost, I’m astounded that the U.S. government is supporting the importation of non-English-speaking workers to do critical maintenance work. Safety of aircraft maintenance depends on the ability to read technical manuals and communicate with supervisors and fellow workers in English. If the manuals were translated and the workers had interpreters, that might mitigate the safety impact; but no such manual translations were found, and interpreting for these workers, from what I’ve been told, is haphazard at best.

Where is the FAA in all this? Surely, part of an inspector’s job should be to review the maintenance qualifications of workers at domestic repair stations and question the qualifications of workers who don’t speak, read or understand English. Has anyone from the government charged with aviation oversight–yes, that should be the FAA–actually looked at the work performed by these non-English-speaking workers?

Call me crazy, but there’s at least some chance that a mechanic’s inability to read the instructions and technical manuals, to write maintenance findings and work performed and to communicate with supervisors and co-workers could have a negative effect on the maintenance work performed. The FAA really doesn’t need an NTSB recommendation or an IG audit to do the right thing before an accident happens.

And why has the TSA decided that 10-year background checks are necessary only for maintenance jobs performed by U.S. citizens or resident aliens with green cards? It’s unlikely that anyone has performed or even could perform background checks on the workers being issued visas, given the paucity of documents uncovered. I’m not sure all the countries these workers came from even have the computerized criminal records that would render any kind of background check meaningful. Haven’t the recent terrorism arrests energized Homeland Security about the importance of vigilance? Maybe the TSA needs to do a video for its own employees on how to identify potential terrorists, starting with following the law on background checks.

While the recession seems to be over as far as the Federal Reserve is concerned, those pesky unemployment numbers just keep going up. And given the upward-trending unemployment rate, it’s hard to imagine that skilled aviation maintenance professionals are unavailable to fill these jobs. But even if that were the case, there are hundreds of thousands of unemployed auto workers who, with some specialized training, could fill many of these aviation-maintenance jobs.

It’s time the U.S. government heard from taxpayers and labor organizations that handing out visas to fill U.S. aviation jobs is not the way to enhance safety or improve the unemployment rate. I thought for sure labor organizations–fresh from their victory supporting President Obama–would have found their voice and let themselves be heard on the issues of safety and jobs. Isn’t that what unions are all about? Maybe we’ll still hear from them. For now, where’s Lou Dobbs when we need him?