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Bangladeshi Uses an Overseas Education to Fight for Worker Rights in U.S.

Farook Hossain has a master’s degree in political science and was working as a medical clinic director in Bangladesh when he won a green card through the diversity lottery. He gave it all up to move to America, in 2001, and was soon working for $5 an hour at a newsstand in New York’s Grand Central Station. “It was a dream come true,” he says. “Bangladesh is a poor country, and we all thought that if we came here, we could build better lives for ourselves and our kids.”

These days Hossain works in food service in Atlantic City and runs the New Jersey chapter of the Alliance of South Asian American Labor. The casino industry depends upon hardworking immigrants willing to do tiring, physical work, says Hossain, who takes pride in doing his part to help new arrivals settle in and take their first steps toward the American dream.

Hossain had moved to Atlantic City in 2002 after a friend told him there was work. It proved good advice. He quickly landed a job bussing tables at the Resorts Casino. “I came one day on a flight, and right away I was hired,” he says. There were plenty of opportunities for people willing to work hard, and Hossain was soon promoted. He became a banquet server at the Sands, the Tropicana, and the Revel casinos.

Immigrant workers run the casino industry in Atlantic City. Without us, it would collapse.

In New Jersey’s Second Congressional District, which wraps the southern tip of the state and includes Atlantic City, more than a quarter of entertainment and hospitality workers are immigrants. Hossain says it’s not unusual to see highly educated immigrants like himself working in service jobs. “I’m like everybody: I had a dream and a goal of a better job,” he says. But his language skills — in his case his accent —  held him back. It’s a common problem, and one with negative consequences for the U.S. economy. Studies show that a lack of English skills is the largest contributor to underemployment and a major contributor to unemployment in the immigrant population. Combined, these factors rob the U.S. economy of tens of billions of dollars in spending power and deprive federal and state governments of billions of dollars in annual tax revenue. One study found that an estimated 1.9 million high-skilled immigrants are underemployed, leading to an annual loss of $39.4 billion in earnings and $10.2 billion in tax payments.

For his part, Hossain has compensated by adding labor leader to his job title. As an organizer for UNITE HERE Local 54, a labor union for hospitality workers, he strives to improve the pay and working conditions for all casino workers — immigrant and U.S.-born alike. “I’m helping people who are working in our community,” Hossain says. “Some people are uneducated and don’t know their rights, and we’ve educated them. This is very important.”

Atlantic City casinos are diligent about checking paperwork, and most foreign-born workers are documented, Hossain says. Still, he can understand why people want to come to America, even if they lack legal status. “There are better opportunities in this country. If you compare to the Third World, it’s way better,” he says. “Here, people have rights — speaking rights, human rights, everything. In my country, no, they don’t have that. If you say something against the government, they’re going to arrest you.”

While Hossain doesn’t support amnesty for undocumented immigrants, he would like to see the U.S. adopt a humane and pragmatic way to provide people with a stable status. “I think those who are already here, we should look at their background,” he says. “If they aren’t involved in crime, they should be able to stay.”

More broadly, he says, Americans should recognize the economic benefits that immigrants provide, and do more to streamline the immigration process. “America benefits, and we benefit also,” he says. In Atlantic City, Hossain says, it would be impossible for casinos to operate without their foreign-born food servers and housekeepers. “Immigrant workers run the casino industry in Atlantic City,” he says. “Without us, it would collapse.”

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