A Working Class View of Immigration Reform

We need an immigration policy based on human, civil and labor rights, which looks at the reasons why people come to the U.S. and how we can end the criminalization of their status and work.bacon11.jpg

While proposals from Congress and the administration have started the debate over the need for change in our immigration policy, they are not only too limited and ignore the global nature of migration, but they will actually make the problem of criminalization much worse.  We need a better alternative.

This alternative should start by looking at the roots of migration – the reasons why people come to the U.S. in the first place.  Movement and migration are human rights.  But we live in a world in which a lot of migration isn’t voluntary, but is forced by poverty and so-called economic reforms. 

Our trade policy and the economic measures we impose on countries like Mexico, El Salvador or the Philippines make poverty worse.  When people get poorer and their wages go down, it creates opportunities for U.S. corporate investment.  This is what drives our trade policy.  But the human cost is very high.


The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) did even more damage than the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA).  It let U.S. corporations dump corn in Mexico, to take over the market there with imports from the U.S.  Today one company, Smithfield Foods, sells almost a third of all the pork consumed by Mexicans.  Because of this dumping and the market takeover, prices dropped so low that millions of Mexican farmers couldn’t survive.  They had to leave home.


During the years NAFTA has been in effect, the number of people in the U.S. born in Mexico went from 4.5 million to 12.67 million.  Today about 11 percent of all Mexicans live in the U.S.  About 5.7 million of those who came were able to get some kind of visa, but another seven million couldn’t.  They came anyway because they had very little choice, if they wanted to survive or their families to prosper. 

Our immigration laws turn these people into criminals.  They say that if migrants without papers work here it’s a crime.  We need a different kind of immigration policy – one that stops putting such pressure on people to leave home, and that doesn’t treat them as criminals if they do.


We should tell the truth, as the labor-supported TRADE Act would have us do, which was introduced into Congress by Mike Michaud from Maine.  We should hold hearings as the bill says, about the effects of NAFTA and CAFTA, and collect evidence about the way those agreements have displaced people in the U.S. and other countries as well.  Then we need to renegotiate those existing agreements to eliminate the causes of displacement. 

It makes no sense to negotiate new trade agreements that displace even more people or lower living standards.  This administration has negotiated three so far, with Peru, Panama and South Korea.  It is now negotiating a new one – the Trans Pacific Partnership.  These are all pro-corporate, people-displacing agreements. We should prohibit these and any new ones like them. 

When diplomacy doesn’t work, U.S. military intervention and aid programs are designed to support trade agreements, structural adjustment policies or market economic reforms.  This has been U.S. policy in Honduras and Haiti, for instance.  This also must stop.  Finally, we should ratify the UN Convention on the Rights of Migrant Workers and Their Families.  This international agreement would give us an alternative framework for recognizing the rights of displaced migrants, and the responsibility of both sending and receiving countries for their protection.


The failure of successive U.S. administrations to even present this agreement to Congress for ratification highlights the unpleasant truth about the real effect of our immigration policy.  When millions of migrants arrive here, they are criminalized because they lack immigration status, especially when they go to work.

The 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act contained employer sanctions, which say that employers will be fined and punished if they hire undocumented workers.  It was promoted by those who said that if work became illegal, then undocumented migration would end.  This clearly failed, since the number increased many-fold in the years that followed.  Compared to the pressure to leave home, criminalizing work was not a deterrent to those who sought work here so that their families at home would survive.

This provision sounded like a law against employers, but it was not.  It became an anti-worker law.  The true objects of punishment under this law have always been workers, not employers.  Now Congress is talking about a new reform, and we have to use this opportunity to push to repeal this law. 

Even the most positive predictions about a new legalization assume that millions of people will not qualify because of stringent qualifications, high fees and decades-long waiting periods.  Those people will still be subject to the sanctions law.  And after a new reform passes, millions more people will come to the U.S. because of the same pressures that caused past waves of migration.  This is especially true if a new immigration reform ignores the need to renegotiate trade agreements and eliminate the huge displacement of people.


These future migrants are not strangers.  They come from the same towns, and are linked to neighborhoods here in the U.S. by the ties that have been created by migration, work and family.  They will work in our workplaces, participate in our organizing drives, and belong to our unions.  We need to keep the sanctions law from being applied to them, making it a crime for them to work. 

So let’s do a reality check about how has this law been used. One method for enforcing sanctions happens when an employer uses it to screen people it is going to hire, using an error-filled government database called E-Verify.  Congress and the administration are calling for making it mandatory for all employers to use this database, and to refuse to hire anyone whom it flags as undocumented.


For people who are working without papers, if they lose their jobs, it will be much harder to find others.  That will make them fear taking any action that offends their boss, like joining a union or complaining about illegal conditions. 

Employers also use E-Verify to re-verify the immigration status of people who are already working.  This is a violation of the law, but they do it, often to get rid of workers who have accumulated benefits and raises over years of service and replace them with new hires at lower wages. This just happened to members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union at Waste Management, Inc. in San Leandro, California.  Employers also use this to terrorize workers when they start to organize.  That’s what managers did at the Mi Pueblo supermarkets in northern California, where workers are supporting Local 5 of the United Food and Commercial Workers.

In another enforcement tactic, immigration agents go into the personnel records of an employer and compare them to the E-Verify database, looking for workers who don’t have legal immigration status.  ICE then makes a list and tells the employer to fire them.

This is what happened at Pacific Steel Castings in Berkeley, California, last year.  Two hundred and fourteen workers were fired.  Some had been there over 20 years.  Many lost their homes, and their children’s dreams of going to college were destroyed. Over the last four years, hundreds of thousands of workers have lost their jobs in these enforcement actions, called I-9 audits – almost 500 janitors in San Francisco and over a thousand in Minneapolis; thousands of workers doing some of the hardest work imaginable in meatpacking plants around the country.  Farm workers.  Construction workers.  But the employers were all given reduced fines, and many received immunity from punishment entirely, if they cooperated in firing their own workers.

We must change the sanctions law.  The use of the sanctions law against workers and unions is what led the California Labor Federation to call for its repeal as early as 1994.

One of the main purposes of making it a crime to work without papers is to force people into guest worker programs.  These workers get deported if they lose their jobs or get fired.  Guest worker programs have been called “close to slavery” by the Southern Poverty Law Center.  When sanctions are used to make workers vulnerable to pressure, to break unions or to force people into guest worker programs, their real effect is to force people into low-wage jobs with no rights.  This is a subsidy for employers, and brings down wages for everyone.  The sanctions law makes it harder for all workers to organize to improve conditions.


Some Washington lobbyists say E-Verify will become a mandatory national program for all employers.  But for unions and workers who have had to deal with its effects, it would be much better to immediately repeal it and dismantle the E-Verify database.

What would really help workers to raise wages and improve conditions is much stricter enforcement of worker protection and anti-discrimination laws.  Funding used for immigration enforcement on the job should be given instead to the Department of Labor, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the National Labor Relations Board and other labor law enforcement agencies.  It will be a good day for all workers when ICE agents instead become wage and hour inspectors.

Threats by employers who use immigration status to keep workers from organizing unions or protesting illegal conditions should be a crime.  When there’s no punishment for violating labor rights, workers have no rights. Instead, we should prohibit immigration enforcement during labor disputes or against workers who complain about illegal conditions.

We also have to eliminate the way undocumented people get ripped off by Social Security.  All workers contribute to the Social Security fund, but because undocumented people are working with bad Social Security numbers, they pay in but can never collect the benefits.  This will come back to haunt us when those workers need disability payments or get too old to work – something that happens to us all.  This is the reason we set up the Social Security system to begin with – because we don’t want old people eating dog food, regardless of where they were born.  Social Security numbers should be made available for everyone, regardless of immigration status.  Everyone should pay into the system and everyone has a right to the benefits those payments create. 

In the end, we need an immigration policy that brings people together, instead of pitting workers against each other, as our current system does.  During a time of economic crisis especially we need to reduce job competition rather than stoking fears, by setting up jobs programs for unemployed workers at the same time we give legal status to workers without papers. 


This proposal, and the others made here, are part of the Dignity Campaign (http://dignitycampaign.org), a plan for immigration reform based on human, civil and labor rights.  An immigration policy that benefits migrants, their home communities, and working people here in the U.S. has to have a long-term perspective.  Instead of just trying to please interest groups well-represented in Congress, we need to ask, where are we going?  What will actually solve our problems on our jobs and in our homes?

We need a system that produces security, not insecurity.  We need a commitment to equality and equal status.  We need to make it easier for workers to organize and reduce job competition.  It’s not likely that many corporations will support such a program, so the politicians who represent us have to choose whose side they’re on.

David Bacon is a writer and photographer, and will speak at the DSA convention in October. His latest book is Illegal People – How Globalization Creates Migration and Criminalizes Immigrants (Beacon Press). Coming in 2013 from Beacon Press: The Right to Stay Home:  Ending Forced Migration and the Criminalization of Immigrants. His photographs and stories can be found at http://dbacon.igc.org.

Join DSA’s immigrant rights action team here: https://www.dsausa.org/get_involved.