Bringing in foreign drivers to fill empty driver's seats in U.S. trucks may seem like the perfect answer to truckload carriers' driver shortage problems. But it's a controversial proposal, opposed by driver groups, and not backed by the federal government.
A huge driver-smuggling ring that was busted last year in Arkansas hasn't made it any easier for carriers wanting to try this option.
Articles this month in the widely different publications The Wall Street Journal and the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Assn.'s Land Line magazine both looked at the issue of foreign truck drivers brought to the U.S. to ease a perceived driver shortage.
In October, 10 people were charged with illegally bringing Australian and New Zealand drivers to Arkansas. Charges included racketeering, money laundering, visa fraud and alien smuggling. The year-long investigation led to simultaneous raids at 15 locations in the U.S. and Australia more than a year ago.
The Wall Street Journal reports that a group of about 90 truck drivers from Down Under are still in this country as potential witnesses. It interviewed the drivers and offered details on the various schemes used to get them behind the wheel of a U.S. rig.

At the center of the immigration operation, authorities allege, was Peter Ruston, an Australian truck driver based in Little Rock. He allegedly placed newspaper ads back home, where associates recruited the drivers for him and shipped them off to the States. Ruston allegedly pocketed a portion of the pay the drivers received. Ruston has pleaded not guilty.
To get the foreign drivers into the country, prosecutors allege that Ruston told some to apply for student and tourist visas, concealing their truck driving plans from authorities. Some even claimed to be workers in high-tech industries, reports the Journal, where worker shortages have made for more liberal employment visas. One driver told the paper he was brought in on a visa as a "satellite technician" - a description apparently based on the use of the satellite-positioning system in the truck.
There are legal options for bringing in foreign drivers, but the hoops are many and high.
M.S. Carriers is one of the few companies that has succeeded with bringing in drivers from outside the United States, with the first 20 drivers from Puerto Rico arriving last month for training. However, because Puerto Rico is a U.S. commonwealth, they have not had to deal with the obstacles companies face with trying to bring in drivers from other countries.
One problem is that, unlike the high-tech jobs many of these truckers claimed to be here for, the U.S. Department of Labor does not consider truck driving "skilled labor," and as a result doesn't regard it as "a profession worthy of employment visas," as the WSJ puts it.
The Land Line article also notes that the bad publicity generated by the Arkansas scam has hindered the prospects of legally bringing in foreign labor to drive trucks in the U.S.
In addition, the Teamsters have fought hard against such a plan. Last year, the Teamsters complained that St. Louis-based Hogan Transports was bringing in truck drivers from Barbados not for their special skills, but because the company could pay them less. The Hogan application was denied.
OOIDA itself takes the position that there isn't really a driver shortage - or there wouldn't be one if trucking companies paid drivers more.
"We don't think there's a driver shortage at all," says OOIDA's Todd Spencer. "That's a myth perpetuated by those who continue to seek lower income and longer work weeks for truck drivers. Unless you address the core income and working conditions for drivers, we will always have this as an unattractive occupation."
Since the Labor Department doesn't believe there's a shortage, either, it's nearly impossible for carriers to bring in foreign drivers legally - and makes illegal schemes like the one in Arkansas all the more tempting to the desperate.