Want to Win the Immigration Debate? Start Talking About Illegal Jobs

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The often-overheated immigration debate is a distraction that draws attention from far-reaching problems facing American workers, particularly those on the bottom rungs of the economic ladder.

Many immigrants' right advocates argue that newly arrived workers take jobs that Americans won't do. That's only partially true; many unauthorized immigrants fill nonunion jobs that are impossibly crappy, pay poverty wages and are rife with workplace violations, and they work those jobs side-by-side with millions of natives and legal residents. The reality is that there are not enough Americans who are willing or able to tolerate poverty wages and other workplace abuses.

Understanding that dynamic can lead to a radically different approach to the issue -- to different methods of decreasing the number of unauthorized immigrants in the United States and of regulating the flow of new immigration in the future.


Those who advocate more law enforcement to tackle the immigration issue often invoke images of America descending into anarchy -- of a nation losing control of its borders and, therefore, its sovereignty. Many blame "Big Business," believing that the corporate world, through its congressional lackeys, has pushed to "open" the borders to all comers in order to keep wages low and assure a steady supply of cheap labor.

That narrative is objectively false. For more than ten years, lawmakers from both parties have thrown billions of dollars into beefing up border security. In 1994, the United States spent just $550 million to guard its borders, but that figure quadrupled under Bill Clinton and then quadrupled again under Bush -- by 2005, it had increased to $7.3 billion, and most analysts expect the border security industry -- that's what it is, an industry -- to continue its strong growth.

During the same period, the number of illegal entries into the United States also increased significantly. Pumping billions of dollars into more patrols and installing all manner of shiny new security gizmos along our 2,000-mile southern border has only resulted in an increase in arrests, detentions and deportations, and a nice, fat profit for Department of Homeland Security contractors. It has had just about zero effect on the number of immigrants coming into the country, largely because the incentives for them to come here have been left untouched.

But the picture is reversed when you look at the enforcement of American workplace laws. While spending on immigration enforcement has gone through the roof, the resources allocated to enforcing overtime, minimum wage, workplace safety and other protections for workers have been cut and cut again.

There is anarchy in America, there is lawlessness, but you'll find a lot more of it in the kitchen of your favorite diner or on that gardening crew cutting your lawn, for example, than along the Rio Grande.

Consider the numbers. According to research conducted by NYU's Brennan Center for Justice (PDF), the number of workplaces that fell within the jurisdiction of the Department of Labor's wage and hour division more than doubled between 1975 and 2004, and the number of workers in those establishments increased by 55 percent. But during that period, the number of inspectors available to enforce basic labor standards declined by 14 percent, and the number of "compliance actions" the agency completed plummeted by more than a third.

Unfortunately, there is little nationwide data on workplace violations, but we do have a large body of local and state studies, and all point to the same conclusion: workplace violations, especially at the lower end of the economy and among vulnerable populations, are simply rampant.

Consider the findings of just a few of those studies, and bear in mind that a majority of the people represented in these studies are American citizens or legal residents:

  • A 2004 study of 200 workers conducted at multiple sites by Fairfax County, Va., officials found:
    • 54.6 percent getting paid less than agreed
    • 53.1 percent reported nonpayment for work done
    • 35.6 percent said they'd been victims of racial discrimination
    • 25.8 percent had been given bad checks
    • 16 percent reported that they'd been subject to violence on the job
    • 14.9 percent said they'd received threats from employers
  • A 2002 study of chicken processors found that six in 10 plants failed to pay workers overtime
  • In a 1998 study of restaurant workers in Los Angeles, researchers discovered that only 2 of the 43 establishments studied complied with basic labor laws.
  • A 2005 study of grape pickers in California's Central Valley found that half of all workers reported pay stubs that reflected less than the total number of hours worked, and half reported that they had not received all of the overtime pay they were owed.
  • A 1998 study looking at workers in the restaurant, garment, hotel and motel industries -- all occupations with large numbers of unauthorized workers -- found that only one in 20 restaurants complied with minimum wage laws. Only a third of hotels and motels were in compliance, as were only four of ten shops in the garment industry.

Similar findings have been repeated in study after study. And while these illegal jobs appear to be clustered in industries in which many unauthorized workers toil, millions of American citizens work those same jobs and are also victims of widespread employer abuses. According to one 2003 study, the percentage of workers being ripped off via minimum wage violations is not that much lower for natives than it is for immigrants -- 13 percent versus 9 percent among women and 9 percent versus 6 percent among men.

Obsession -- it's always all about the immigrants

Every unauthorized immigrant works an illegal job, by definition. But lacking effective legal or social protections, many unauthorized immigrants work jobs that also violate minimum wage laws, occupational safety and health regulations, overtime laws, etc. Others work jobs that are substandard -- dangerous, humiliating or disgusting -- or jobs that pay poverty wages. Employers also know that it's exceptionally easy to keep undocumented workers from organizing -- if they attempt to do so, the boss needs only to call in "La Migra" and fire any pro-union workers who lack valid papers (or have them deported).

Yet most of the focus of the immigration debate in this country has been on the immigrants themselves -- especially unauthorized immigrants. One could easily conclude from watching a typical screaming heads segment about immigration policy on CNN that "illegal immigrants" exist in a vacuum. Very little attention is paid to the other side of the transaction -- the incentives that American companies and households have to hire an unauthorized worker over a citizen.

Even the highly publicized immigration raids that the Bush administration has launched in recent years barely touch the demand side. Most people probably assume that when a goon squad of ICE agents raids a workplace and carts off dozens of workers in handcuffs, the employers are also being punished. But as the Washington Post noted, while "federal immigration authorities arrested nearly four times as many people at workplaces in 2007 as they did in 2005 ... only 92 owners, supervisors or hiring officials were arrested in an economy that includes 6 million companies that employ more than 7 million unauthorized workers. Only 17 firms faced criminal fines or other forfeitures." Those raids devastate immigrant families, but they represent little more than an inconvenience to employers, who have little incentive to improve working conditions when they can hire a new work force that's just as easy to exploit.

Illegal immigrants sell their labor on a black market, a market similar in many ways to those for other illicit goods and services -- the drug trade being a good example. The sellers' incentives are well-understood: The lion's share of those who have moved to the United States in the past decade are economic refugees, fleeing economies back home that don't offer them an opportunity to live a minimally dignified life. Human traffickers, who can realize enormous profits shipping people across national boundaries, provide for the market; their incentives, again, are well-understood.

The buyers, of course, are Americans, and not just corporate America. Middle-class households and many small firms use illegal labor, but their side of the transactions goes largely undiscussed.

Without looking at both sides of the coin -- at the demand as well as the supply -- it's virtually impossible to arrive at a reform agenda that has a chance of resulting in an effective, humane and sustainable system of immigration control.

The hazards of supply-side immigration control

Law enforcement that focuses primarily on the supply side has proven to be remarkably ineffective when it comes to other "gray" and "black" markets. While Elliott Ness was busting up Al Capone's liquor network, America went into the speakeasies and kept drinking. We've invested hundreds of billions of dollars in a 30-year war on drugs, but illegal drugs are widely available in big cities and small towns alike. They call prostitution the "oldest profession"; it's illegal in every state except for Nevada and Rhode Island, but a quick perusal for "escorts" and "massages" in the phone book of any American community will reveal that the industry is alive and well.

Those who hire immigrant laborers not only have huge financial incentives to do so but also believe they're committing a "victimless crime," much like those who visit prostitutes, take illegal drugs or who drank liquor during Prohibition. On the other hand, the workers who fill those jobs -- native and foreign born alike -- do so out of desperation.

Law enforcement "crackdowns" can lead to short-term results in these kinds of shadowy markets. They can push the markets further underground, or push sellers and buyers out of a given neighborhood or city. What they have failed to do, consistently, is provide any real and lasting results over the long-term.

The enforcement approach also leads to some ugly and often unintended consequences -- families being separated, employers becoming nervous about hiring perfectly legal workers who look like they might not be and people being detained for lengthy periods of time without the kind of legal protections we like to believe is the bedrock of American jurisprudence. There have even been instances -- rare but not isolated -- in which American citizens have been deported to countries where they've never set foot before because they couldn't provide adequate proof of citizenship.

Immigration control at the root level

An unregulated sector of the economy, rife with illegal jobs, represents the largely unexamined "pull factor" for much of the current wave of immigration to the United States. Most recent immigrants are economic refugees seeking jobs that essentially fall in between what's available in their native countries and the kind of jobs one would expect to find in a highly advanced economy. They also tend to be jobs that can't be easily outsourced to countries with an abundance of cheap labor.

A good example of these kinds of jobs can be found in New York City, where the cost of living is among the highest in the country. A report in Crain's New York Business found that in underregulated New York restaurants, green grocers, retail corner laundries and private households, "typically, workers will be quoted a flat weekly salary of $300 and then have to work 60 hours a week, receiving an effective of wage of $5 an hour with no provision for overtime." New York State's minimum wage is $7.15 per hour, and federal and state law require overtime pay for all hours worked over 40 per week at a rate of 1.5 times the base salary.

In order to create a sustainable model for immigration control, we need to look at decreasing the demand for workers who are willing to fill those jobs. That means breaking Americans' addiction to exploitable labor. As long as there are $5-per-hour jobs in New York City that few natives can afford to work while there are millions of workers who don't have a job that pays a fraction of that in poorer countries, we'll have a large number of people who want to migrate to our shores. As long as our immigration system doesn't permit enough of them to migrate legally, we'll have an "illegal immigration problem." It's simply the law of supply and demand at work.

Yet, it's not true that all unauthorized immigrants work those kinds of jobs. There's no question that employers are sometimes legitimately unable to find citizens or legal residents to fill even decent jobs. That's especially true in many rural communities, where young people tend to take off for the big city and the population is aging and declining. Last fall I spoke with Oklahoma State Sen. Harry Coates soon after his state passed one of the most restrictive immigration laws in the nation. Employers in Oklahoma weren't just having problems filling low-paying "McJobs," he told me. "In the oil fields, they're paying $18 to $20 per hour to start," he said, "but they can't find enough willing workers to fill the jobs. We've told our young people to work with their minds, not with their hands." Oklahoma's unemployment rate of 3 percent is the fourth-lowest in the United States according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. "We've shot ourselves in the foot by running off willing workers for willing employers," Coates said.

Progressive immigration and workplace reform would focus our finite enforcement resources on cleaning up the bottom end of the labor market -- at the jobs that bring people to our shores, rather than on the immigrants who work them. Guaranteeing workers -- immigrant and native alike -- the right to organize and enforcing wage and overtime laws would equalize the price of hiring unauthorized and legal workers, and would go a long way towards addressing the demand for illegal labor without the ugliness that our current approach entails.

Once the goal of eliminating substandard and often illegal jobs -- un-American jobs -- from the U.S. workplace is established, then there's likely to be little resistance to new workers coming into the work force to fill jobs that can't be staffed by Americans. Public opinion research shows that when people perceive the economy to be functioning well for them, much of the anxiety over immigration disappears.

It's the way to build a humane and self-regulating system. Immigration researchers talk about the effect of "transnational social networks" on migration -- a fancy way to describe communities that spill across international borders. Such networks exist between the United States and the countries that account for the lion's share of new immigration, and researchers have found that they are highly effective mechanisms for communicating information about job markets, legal environments and other factors that people weigh when deciding whether (and to where) they might emigrate. Decreasing the pool of unregulated jobs available to undocumented workers and making it less difficult to migrate here legally will result in less incentive to bypass the system, and the message will get around.

The Devil is in the details when it comes to any public policy, but broadly speaking, the approach has to be built on four pillars:

  • Workplace enforcement, including protecting the right to organize and requiring employers to pay living wages and overtime
  • A legalization process for workers who don't have valid papers, have no record of violent criminal activity, and can prove they've paid their taxes and meet certain other requirements
  • Repairing a dysfunctional immigration system and expanding the legal avenues for immigrants needed to meet the demand for those jobs -- livable, legal jobs -- that can't be filled by natives alone
  • Finally, immigration enforcement

Without the first pillar, many Americans will continue to reject the idea that immigrants take jobs Americans don't want -- and rightly so.

Wedges, pivot points, and the limits of the other side's aspirations

Not only does a progressive, demand-side approach offer the best hope for a sustainable model of immigration control -- a win-win model for native and foreign-born workers alike -- it also has the potential to be a political game-changer, redrawing the lines of the debate in a way that unites progressives and divides the corporate Right from the GOP's culturally insular base.

Conservatives have used the issue of immigration to discuss issues that serve them well. It's been a "pivot point" -- a topic of intense public interest that they've then turned to an issue that advances their larger worldview. Much of their analysis has focused on the perceived "dangers" associated with outsiders and people of color and the need for an expansion of the state's security apparatus. Illegal immigration has been framed as a national security issue, an issue of terrorism prevention, a result of Roe v. Wade -- solid ground for the American Right.

Focusing on illegal jobs rather than the workers who fill them can provide progressives with a similar opportunity -- it can be a pivot point leading to a discussion of the very real pain that millions of American workers are feeling after 30 years of corporate-sponsored trickle-down voodoo economics. This is comfortable ground for progressives, who, traditionally, have been at their best when fighting for economic fairness for the little guy.

Immigration has become an acrimonious "wedge" issue for both of America's major parties, dividing traditional constituencies. But it's an issue that divides Republicans more than Democrats; the GOP's conservative base is fired up with xenophobia, while its traditional big-business side both values the cheap labor immigrants provide, and, consisting mostly of sophisticated urban elites, lacks the visceral hatred for immigrants that many in the party's base display.

On the Democratic side, divisions also exist, but they've been more muted. Comprehensive immigration and workplace reform would allow progressive reformers to dominate the populist side of the debate, and that can only deepen the divide within the GOP and leave immigration hard-liners with only angry, exaggerated arguments -- cultural arguments -- on the table. That, in turn, would go a long way towards marginalizing their views in the mainstream discourse over immigration.

The approach would also fundamentally redefine the debate, moving from pro- versus anti-immigrant (or illegal immigrant, if you prefer) to the question of how we deal with the issue.

And, because it's an approach that would necessarily rely on an increase in law enforcement, it also neutralizes the anti-immigration movement's best argument. Instead of progressives being forced to effectively defend "law-breakers," the question becomes: What kind of enforcement do we want to pursue, and to what end do we use our finite enforcement resources?

And, because immigration hard-liners in and out of Congress by and large oppose minimum wage increases, stronger work force protections, anti-union-busting measures, etc., it can only highlight the fact that while they may have many things in mind when they beat their breasts over the issue of immigration, the economic health of American workers is not one of them.

And that brings us to the most powerful argument that a progressive demand-side approach to immigration control offers: the limits of the other side's aspirations. At the end of the day, even if advocates of an enforcement-heavy approach were to get everything they wanted, the best they could offer is the promise that every citizen who is sufficiently desperate to take a crappy, strenuous or demeaning job that pays a poverty wage will be able to find one.

That's it, the sum total of their aspirations, and that's an argument that progressives would do well to embrace in every discussion of the immigration issue.

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