Scapegoating Illegal Workers Won't Seal the Borders
Let's hear it for those gonzo immigration cops from the Department of Homeland Security who so heroically swooped down on illegal Wal-Mart janitors last week. No longer will our homeland's security be threatened by undocumented workers vigorously wielding mops and brooms while good Americans sleep.
The only thing I can't figure out is, if those janitors worked every night of the year except Christmas and New Year's, as was reported, when did they have time for terrorism?
Oh, that's right, the Immigration and Naturalization Service was swept into the new federal mega-agency with the Orwellian name; this wasn't about finding Al Qaeda operatives embedded among the mostly Christian laborers from Latin America and Eastern Europe, but simply a public relations move to assuage the sensibilities of those xenophobic reactionaries who call for "sealing the borders."
Because to really stop illegal immigration, without greatly increasing legal immigration from poor countries, would mean wiping out the U.S. agriculture and garment industries, among others. To blame the worker, rather than the system they operate in, is the core hypocrisy our immigration policy has long been based upon.
If we really wanted to stop illegal immigrant workers from coming into this country, it would be straightforward and simple: Require a tamper-proof identity card for any applicant for a job in this country and impose stiff criminal penalties on employers who hire people who do not provide the requisite card. But most major business associations would oppose enforceable sanctions because employers would no longer be able to find a vulnerable labor force to exploit. Undocumented immigrants come here to work. If jobs didn't exist, the number crossing the border, mostly from Latin America, would plummet.
That's how you "seal the borders."
But the cost for ending those jobs would be high. Ending the endemic use of undocumented workers in low-wage, dead-end jobs would force employers to pay real wages and offer real benefits to attract "real Americans" to do the work, and some jobs would simply leave the country. Prices for food, clothing and any product that relies on dirt-cheap labor would rise for everybody, and those middle- and upper-class families that count on don't-ask, don't-tell relationships with undocumented housekeepers, gardeners, nannies and elder- care workers would be affected.
That is the conundrum faced by California Gov.-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger. In his campaign, he demagogically railed that a new law permitting undocumented immigrants to obtain a driver's license threatened national security. Yet many of the people who voted for him employ illegal immigrants and even expect them to ferry their children about. Why in the world wouldn't they want those people to prove they are properly qualified to drive? And why can't they make do with legal workers?
The answer is they are greedy and cheap, just like the executives of Wal-Mart. Too many employers are unwilling to abide by labor laws governing pay, overtime and worker safety that would attract legal workers. The undocumented workers are used to undermine the hard-won gains of the American labor movement. Three supermarket chains in California are currently trying to break their unions, citing the encroachment of Wal-Mart on their turf even as their profits soar.
Who will replace some of these workers if they aren't willing to give up salary and basic benefits? Take a guess.
As a matter of justice, we have to stop pitting one group of workers against another. The first step would be to make the undocumented workers already here legal. Or, failing that humane step, eliminate the jobs for undocumented workers by toughening the law on hiring -- and arresting employers who violate the law. We must increase the number of legal immigrants allowed annually, particularly from Mexico with its strong family and historic ties to this country. Also, immigration laws have been rigged to favor certain skilled occupations, ignoring the reality that much of our prosperity derives from the sweat of unskilled immigrant labor.
It is sad that our Austrian-born governor-elect, who qualified for U.S. citizenship mainly on the basis of his familiarity with dumbbells, should be so willing to exploit immigrant-bashing to win votes from nativist hypocrites.
Let's stop politicizing economic immigration -- or making it a "security" issue -- and start implementing obvious, fair and pragmatic solutions.
Robert Scheer writes a weekly column for The Times.