comments_image Comments

The Brutal Dark Side of Obama's "Softer" Immigration Enforcement

'Sanctions pretend to punish employers but in reality, they punish workers.'

Ana Contreras would have been a competitor for the national tai kwon do championship team this year. She's 14. For six years she's gone to practice instead of birthday parties, giving up the friendships most teenagers live for. Then two months ago disaster struck. Her mother Dolores lost her job. The money for classes was gone, and not just that.

"I only bought clothes for her once a year, when my tax refund check came," Dolores Contreras explains. "Now she needs shoes, and I had to tell her we didn't have any money. I stopped the cable and the internet she needs for school. When my cell phone contract is up next month, I'll stop that too. I've never had enough money for a car, and now we've gone three months without paying the light bill."

Contreras shares her misery with eighteen hundred other families. All lost their jobs when their employer, American Apparel, fired them for lacking immigration status. {Her name was changed for this article.] She still has her letter from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), handed her two months ago by the company lawyer. It says the documents she provided when she was hired are no good, and without work authorization, her work life is over.

Of course, it's not really over. Contreras still has to keep working if she and her daughter are to eat and pay rent. So instead of a job that barely paid her bills, she had to find another one that won't even do that.

Contreras is a skilled sewing machine operator. She came to the U.S. thirteen years ago, after working many years in the garment factories of Tehuacan, Puebla. There companies like Levis make so many pairs of stonewashed jeans that the town's water has turned blue. In Los Angeles, Contreras hoped to find the money to send home for her sister's weekly dialysis treatments, and to pay the living and school expenses for four other siblings. For five years she moved from shop to shop. Like most garment workers, she didn't get paid for overtime, her paychecks were often short, and sometimes her employer disappeared overnight, owing weeks in back pay.

Finally Contreras got a job at American Apparel, famous for its sexy clothing, made in Los Angeles instead of overseas. She still had to work like a demon. Her team of ten experienced seamstresses turned out 30 dozen tee shirts an hour. After dividing the piece rate evenly among them, she'd come home with $400 for a 4-day week, after taxes. She paid Social Security too, although she'll never see a dime in benefits because her contributions were credited to an invented number.

Now Contreras's working again in a sweatshop at half what she earned before. Meanwhile, American Apparel is replacing those who were fired. Contreras says they're mostly older women with documents, who can't work as fast. "Maybe they sew 10 dozen a day apiece," she claims. "The only operators with papers are the older ones. Younger, faster workers either have no papers, or if they have them, they find better-paying jobs doing something easier.

"President Obama is responsible for putting us in this situation," she charges angrily. "This is worse than an immigration raid. They want to keep us from working at all."

Contreras may be angry, but she's not wrong. The White House website says "President Obama will remove incentives to enter the country illegally by preventing employers from hiring undocumented workers and enforcing the law." On June 24 he told Congress members that the government was "cracking down on employers who are using illegal workers in order to drive down wages -- and oftentimes mistreat those workers." The law Obama is enforcing is the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, which requires employers to keep records of workers' immigration status, and prohibits them from hiring those who have no legal documents, or "work authorization." In effect, the law made it a crime for undocumented immigrants to work. This provision, employer sanctions, is the legal basis for all the workplace immigration raids and enforcement of the last 23 years. "Sanctions pretend to punish employers," says Bill Ong Hing, law professor at the University of California at Davis. "In reality, they punish workers." The Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) division of DHS said early this year that it was auditing the records of 654 companies nationwide. The audit at American Apparel actually began in 2007, under President Bush. In Minneapolis, another Bush-era audit examined the records of janitors employed by American Building Maintenance. In May, the company and ICE told 1200 workers that if they didn't provide new documents that showed that they could legally work, they'd be fired. Weekly firings in groups of 300 began in October. The janitors belong to Service Employees Local 26, and work at union wages. The terminations took place as the union was negotiating a new contract.

See more stories tagged with: