Does Top GOP Xenophobe Cash in on Undocumented Labor?

Human Rights

When President Bush signed into law on Oct. 4 a bill authorizing the construction of a 700-mile wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, the man who stood to reap the greatest political profits did not join the president in Arizona. Instead, Congressman James Sensenbrenner is back in his Milwaukee district fending off a growing chorus of local critics who claim he is also reaping financial profits from the very immigration policies he has championed.

Immigration rights advocates, the congressman's Democratic opponent and some constituents are pointing to Sensenbrenner's investments in companies they say are generating profits from the labor of undocumented immigrants. They also say the congressman stands to benefit from investments in companies contracted by the federal government to provide services he has proposed as part of his immigration reform legislation -- such as building massive immigrant detention centers or providing surveillance systems to monitor immigrants near the border.

An analysis of companies identified in Sensenbrenner's most recent financial disclosure forms (2005) reveals that the congressman has invested in companies that have directly hired or subcontracted with employers who hire undocumented workers.

Drawing especially strong criticism are the $86,500 in stocks Sensenbrenner holds in the construction and infrastructure colossus Halliburton. The Texas-based giant has been the subject of Senate hearings into its labor practices in the Gulf Coast following Hurricane Katrina. News reports and several panelists at Senate hearings have stated that Halliburton used subcontractors hiring hundreds, perhaps thousands of undocumented workers as part of no-bid federal contracts to cleanup Belle Chasse Naval base and other military facilities in the devastated region. Halliburton has also secured a $385 million Department of Homeland Security contract to build gigantic immigrant detention centers near the U.S.-Mexico border and stands to secure further contracts from proposals to reopen closed military bases to house deportees and detainees.

Halliburton has also been mentioned as one of the main contractors to build increased security infrastructure, security roads and improved employment verification systems at ports of entry.

Sensenbrenner owns more than $563,536 in General Electric stocks. GE's Security Unit has been a Pentagon subcontractor, providing video surveillance and other electronic security systems at the border. and contributed to Sensenbrenner through its employee PAC. Boeing, which recently secured a $2.5 billion contract order to install sensors, radar and cameras along the U.S. borders, is among the top contributors to Sensenbrenner's PAC.

Sensenbrenner's filings showed a total net worth in excess of $10 million in 2005, with just under $1 million in stock investments in Kimberly-Clark, maker of tissues and personal care products.

The multibillion dollar federal contracts and proposals to build the physical and virtual walls at the border -- which were signed into law on Oct. 4 -- were first proposed in Sensenbrenner's now historic immigration bill, HR 4437.

As November elections draw near, Sensenbrenner, like other elected officials, is spending more time in his district. But the immigration issue may not be giving him the political traction it once did. Usually predictable Town Hall meetings with constituents are increasingly becoming more heated. A June 25, 2006, town hall held in Thiensville, Wis., is revealing. Sensenbrenner was confronted by constituent Lester Schultz, who asked the congressman about the "moral and ethical" implications of investing in companies like Halliburton, which hire undocumented workers.

Sensenbrenner said the investments in question were "bequeathed to me before I began my public service." When pressed he insisted that his portfolio didn't affect his votes. "We don't believe it," some audience members responded.

Asked about Schultz' and others' criticisms of the congressman's investments in companies hiring undocumented workers and benefiting from immigration policies, Sensenbrenner spokesperson Jeff Lungren said, "I'm unaware of these complaints."

Sensenbrenner's HR 4437 calls for "systematic surveillance of the international land and maritime borders of the United States through more effective use of personnel and technology, such as unmanned aerial vehicles, ground-based sensors, satellites, radar coverage, and cameras."

Sensenbrenner's Democratic opponent in the upcoming Congressional race in Wisconsin's fifth district, Bryan Kennedy, has publicly asked Sensenbrenner to divest himself of Halliburton and other companies he believes benefit by hiring undocumented workers.

Sensenbrenner has criticized companies that profit from exploitative working conditions that, he recently said, make it "cheaper to hire an illegal alien than a citizen or a legal alien who is present in this country with a green card."

Other investments raising flags in Milwaukee include the $44,179 in shares Sensenbrenner holds in Darden Restaurants Inc. Darden operates chains like The Olive Garden and Red Lobster, which have been reported to employ undocumented workers. "Jose," a cook at a Red Lobster restaurant in the Milwaukee suburb of Wauwatosa in Sensenbrenner's district, was unaware that he was working for a company that made the Congressman that proposed "el Muro" (the wall) richer. "I don't have papers and had to cross the border from Mexico," Jose said. "Is he schizophrenic? Does he like our work and hate us?"

Cristina Neumann Ortiz, a Sensenbrenner constituent who organized the largest marches in Milwaukee history in response to HR 4437, finds typical the alleged contradiction between the congressman's anti-undocumented immigrant policies and rhetoric and his pro-undocumented stock portfolio. "This is a classic case of exploiting workers. He (Sensenbrenner) is for their work while doing everything he can to make sure that they don't get any rights. I see this among exploitative employers. I see it in Congress."

After finishing his shrimp scampi at the Red Lobster restaurant in Wauwatosa, Sensenbrenner constituent Jim Rehtman defended the congressman. Rehtman was joined by his nephew, John, a tattooed trucker who stood in the restaurant lobby wearing a T-shirt with a large American flag that read "Welcome to America…NOW LEARN ENGLISH."

"I support what he's doing to try to stop those illegals," said Rehtman, a 73-year-old retired welder.

Asked how he felt about the fact that his food may have been prepared by one of the undocumented workers interviewed for this story, a cook in the back kitchen, Rehtman leaned his head sideways, raised his shoulders and said, "I don't like it. Not one bit. They shouldn't be back there. That's why we need to change the laws." When told that Sensenbrenner, who recently referred to employers of the undocumented as "21st-century slave masters," was also an investor in the company that owned Red Lobster, Rehtman shook his head.

"Car salesmen and politicians, they both..." He then stopped short. "I don't want to insult car salesmen that way."

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