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Stolen Wages and Arizona's Draconian Immigration Law

Our labor laws apply to all workers employed in the U.S. regardless of immigration status.

The Arizona Interfaith Alliance for Worker Justice, a worker center in Phoenix, has seen a “huge spike” in  wage theft since SB 1070, Arizona’s draconian immigration law, passed in April. Trina Zelle, the group’s executive director, has seen a “noticeable shift” in the four months since the measure was signed into law.

"Employers are even more brazen in their mistreatment of workers," Zelle says. "Increasingly, “Go ahead, try and make me pay you” is the response workers hear when they confront their employers over unpaid wages.

Under S.B. 1070, scheduled to be implemented on Thursday, the police are required to question anyone they have a “reasonable suspicion” is in the country illegally, and arrest and move to deport anyone who can’t prove their legal status. The law will lead to racial profiling, deter immigrants from reporting crimes, and further exacerbate racism and intolerance.

As early as May, the measure had cast an ominous shadow. A friend of Zelle’s, a Latino U.S. citizen, was pulled over by police and asked for his birth certificate. Naturally incredulous – who travels with their birth certificate? – he was told by the cop, “Well, you look like an illegal.”

So even before its official implementation, the law has made a palpable impact. The measure’s mere passage, say worker center organizers, has begun to drive immigrant workers even further underground, having a silencing effect on them in the face of rampant violations of their rights in the workplace.

The Houston Interfaith Worker Justice Center has also seen more cases of wage theft recently. “Workers do frequently mention that employers verbally abuse them because of their immigration status (or assumed immigration status),” says Laura Boston, the worker center’s director. “Frequently,” she adds, “employers use immigration status as an excuse to justify not paying them.”

“We’ve certainly seen a marked difference,” says José Oliva, Policy Coordinator for the  Restaurant Opportunities Centers (ROC) United, which organizes restaurant workers:

Workers, on the one hand, are a lot more fearful to start workplace justice campaigns with us. What used to take our organizers a couple of weeks of house visits and one-on-one meetings is now dragging on for months.

On the other hand, high-road employers who are paying living wages and providing benefits are fearful and confused – even if they’re not in Arizona, they somehow think cops anywhere can bust in and check peoples’ documents. It’s definitely a lot worse, and the law isn’t even being enforced yet!

Pablo Alvarado, Executive Director of the  National Day Laborer Organizing Network (NDLON), sees the new law as a direct attack on workers.

“The first place the authorities will go is to day laborer corners,” he says. On Monday, a day laborer from Guatemala fell off a roof and died in Phoenix. “The employer is nowhere to be found,” says Alvarado. “When S.B. 1070 goes into effect, do you think the wife of that man is going to call the police or the Department of Labor? People are not going to be filing claims. The abuse is going to get worse. It’s a human rights crisis.”

This is what Michelle Chen,  writing for this blog, recently called “the downward spiral of exploitation across the entire labor force.” And with a broken national immigration system, legislators in more than 20 states are considering  copycat measures, tapping into anti-immigrant sentiment that has only been exacerbated by the economic crisis.

But despite the media hype surrounding those measures, anti-immigrant initiatives around the country in the wake of S.B. 1070’s passage seem to be failing. As the Progressive States Network  points out, “the reality is that from Nevada to Arkansas to Massachusetts to Kansas and Rhode Island, anti-immigrant bills and ballot initiatives largely didn't move or failed to make this fall’s ballot.”

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