David Bacon Stories & Photographs


By David Bacon and Bill Ong Hing
The Nation, May 18, 2009

When the Obama administration recently reiterated that it will make an immigration reform proposal this year, hopes rose among millions of immigrant families for the “change we can believe in.” That was followed by a new immigration position embraced by both AFL-CIO and Change to Win unions, rejecting the expansion of guest worker programs, which some unions had previously supported.

As it prepares a reform package, instead of clinging to the deals that failed over the past several years, the administration should look seriously at why those deals failed and consider real alternatives. Beltway groups are again proposing employment visas for future (post-recession, presumably) labor shortages, and continued imprisonment of the undocumented in detention centers, which they deem “necessary in some cases.” Most disturbing, after years of the Bush raids, is the continued emphasis on enforcement against workers.

We need a reality check.

For over two decades it has been a crime for an undocumented worker to hold a job in the U.S. To enforce the prohibition, agents conduct immigration raids, of the kind we saw in meatpacking plants in the last few years.

Today, some suggest “softer,” or more politically palatable, enforcement—a giant database based on Social Security numbers. Employers would only be able to hire those whose numbers “verify” their legal immigration status (“E-Verify.”) Workers without such “work authorization” would not legally be able to work, and would have to be fired.

Whether hard or soft, these measures all enforce a provision of U.S. immigration law on the books since 1986—employer sanctions—which makes it illegal for an employer to hire a worker with no legal immigration status. In reality, the law makes it a crime for an undocumented worker to have a job.

The rationale has always been that this will dry up jobs for the undocumented and discourage them from coming. Those of us who served on a UFCW commission that studied ICE raids at Swift plants across the country learned that in reality the law has had disastrous effects on all workers. Instead of reinforcing or tweaking employer sanctions, we would be much better off if we ended them.

Raids and workplace enforcement have left severe emotional scars on families. Workers were mocked. Children were separated from their parents and left without word at schools or daycare. Increased enforcement has poisoned communities, spawning scores of state and local anti-immigrant laws and ordinances that target workers and their families.

Employer sanctions have not reduced undocumented migration at all. They’ve failed because NAFTA and globalization create great migration pressure. Since 1994 over six million Mexicans alone have come to the U.S. Ismael Rojas, who arrived without papers, says, “you can either abandon your children to make money to take care of them, or you can stay with your children and watch them live in misery. Poverty makes us leave our families.”

Attempting to discourage workers from coming by arresting them for working without authorization, or trying to prevent them from finding work, is doomed to fail. To reduce the pressure that causes UNDOCUMENTED migration, we need to change our trade and economic policies so that they don’t produce poverty in countries like Mexico.

Ken Georgetti, president of the Canadian Labour Congress, and John Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO, wrote to President Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Harper, reminding them that “the failure of neoliberal policies to create decent jobs in the Mexican economy under NAFTA has meant that many displaced workers and new entrants have been forced into a desperate search to find employment elsewhere.” The new joint position of the AFL-CIO and Change to Win federations recognizes that “an essential component of the long-term solution is a fair trade and globalization model that uplifts all workers.”

Continued support for work authorization and employer sanctions contradicts this understanding. Even with a legalization program, millions of people will remain without papers as more come every year. For them, work without “authorization” will still be a crime. And while employer sanctions have little effect on migration, they will continue to make workers vulnerable to employer pressure.

When undocumented workers are fired for protesting low wages and bad conditions, employer sanctions bar them from receiving unemployment and disability benefits, although they pay for them. It’s much harder for them to find another job. An “E-Verify” database to deny them work will make this problem much worse.

Workplace enforcement also increases discrimination. Four years after sanctions began, the GAO reported that 346,000 U.S. employers applied immigration verification requirements only to job applicants with a “foreign” accent or appearance. Another 430,000 only hired U.S.-born applicants.

Despite these obstacles, immigrant workers, including the undocumented, have asserted their labor rights, organized unions, and won better conditions. But employer sanctions have made this harder and riskier. When raids and document verification terrorized immigrants at Smithfield’s huge Tarheel packinghouse, it became harder for black and white workers to organize as well. Using Social Security numbers to verify immigration status makes the firing and blacklisting of union activists all but inevitable. Citizens and permanent residents feel this impact because, in our diverse U.S. workplaces, immigrant and native-born workers work together.

Low wages for undocumented workers will only rise if they can organize. The Employee Free Choice Act would make organizing easier for all workers. But “work authorization” will rob millions of immigrant workers of their ability to use the process that Act would establish.

The alternative to employer sanctions is enforcing the right to organize, and minimum wage, overtime and other worker protection laws.

Eliminating sanctions will not change the requirement that people immigrate to the U.S. legally. The Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement will still have the power to enforce immigration law. And if a fair legalization program were passed at the same time sanctions were eliminated, many undocumented workers currently in the U.S. would normalize their status. A more generous policy for issuing residence and family-unification visas would allow families to cross the border legally, without the indentured servitude of guestworker programs.

Immigrant rights plus jobs programs, requiring employers to hire from communities with high unemployment, can reduce job competition and fear. Together they would strengthen unions, raise incomes, contribute to the nation’s economic recovery, and bring the people of our country together. Employer sanctions will continue to tear us apart.

Bill Ong Hing, Professor at UC Davis Law School, was a member of the commission convened by the United Food and Commercial Workers, which held hearings last year to examine the impact of the raids at Swift meatpacking plants, the largest workplace enforcement action is U.S. history. David Bacon, associate editor at Pacific News Service, is the author of several books on immigration, the most recent of which is Illegal People: How Globalization Creates Migration and Criminalizes Immigrants (Beacon Press, 2008).


Top of Page



photographs and stories by David Bacon © 1990-1999

website by DigIt Designs © 1999