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Supreme Court’s E-Verify Decision Devastating for Employers, Immigrant Workers

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kari-lydersenImmigrants rights advocates and employers, including farmers, are lashing out at the Supreme Court’s May 26 decision upholding Arizona’s right to demand employers use the controversial e-Verify system, which is meant to confirm whether someone is in the country legally.

The decision also allowed Arizona to continue the so-called “business death penalty,” which entails denying a business license to employers found guilty more than once of violating a 2007 law against hiring undocumented workers.

The e-Verify system has been widely criticized for errors, including flagging legal and native-born residents as undocumented. That’s among the reasons Illinois sought to ban its use by private employers. A federal court shot down those efforts, but the Illinois legislature did pass a state law trying to safeguard against the misuse of the system.

All employers with federal contracts are required to use E-Verify, and Texas Republican Congressman Lamar Smith is among those pushing to make it mandatory nationally.

Immigrants rights groups are allied with employers – even those that they allege exploit undocumented immigrants – in stridently opposing mandatory e-Verify use. The Supreme Court decision was the result of a lawsuit filed by the Chamber of Commerce opposing Arizona’s law. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other employer groups also sued unsuccessfully over the mandate that E-Verify be used by federal contractors. Florida has proposed a bill similar to Arizona’s regarding E-Verify. The Hispanic Chamber of Commerce opposes it.

Agricultural employers and immigrants rights groups point out that the nation’s guest worker program and overall immigration system are so badly broken that agricultural growers will simply not be able to find the needed employees especially during harvest times if they really are barred from hiring undocumented workers.

Lynn Tramonte, deputy director of the group America’s Voice Education Fund, said in a press release:

Yesterday’s Supreme Court ruling is a dagger in the heart of Arizona agriculture.  If this type of law spreads nationwide, we will essentially deport the entire agriculture industry—including jobs held by Americans—and be forced to import more of our nation’s food supply. Passing a mandatory E-Verify law without comprehensive immigration reform will kill American jobs and farms, burden small businesses, reduce tax revenue, and drive undocumented workers further underground.

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack made similar points in an op-ed:

As Secretary of Agriculture I have met farmers and ranchers all over the country who worry that our immigration system is broken. They are unable to find the necessary number of farmworkers and sometimes struggle to verify their work authorization papers – all while wondering if they’ll have enough help for their next harvest.

And while some American citizens step up and take these jobs, the truth is that even when farmers make their best efforts to recruit a domestic work force, few citizens express interest, and even fewer show up to spend long hours laboring in the hot sun.

In a twist on the misguided idea that immigrants “steal” American jobs, Vilsack described immigrant farm workers essentially protecting U.S. jobs through their crucial role on U.S. farms:

If American agriculture lost access to adequate farm labor, it could cost the industry as much as $9 billion each year. Already, some American producers are opening up operations in Mexico. So we must take action to prevent the further outsourcing of farm-related jobs.

Meanwhile, the Bay Citizen nonprofit news outlet described how lucrative wineries in Napa Valley, Calif., have found it in their own self-interest to treat undocumented workers fairly, rather than paying them as little as possible or sometimes not at all as is often the case in agriculture and other industries that hire large numbers of undocumented workers.

Emmy-winning producer Scott James reported:

Without migrant labor, most of it from Mexico, the wine producers in Napa would be hard pressed to fill a carafe, much less the valley’s nine million annual cases. Experts estimate that 8,000 to 12,000 illegal migrants reside (often seasonally) in Napa, although the number is impossible to confirm.

Ten years ago, they could be found living in the woods in makeshift camps, sleeping on fetid mattresses and drinking from dirty streams. Today they receive subsidized housing, or can reside in three tidy dormitory complexes near St. Helena and Yountville where up to 180 workers pay $12 a day for room and board.

This Blog Originally appeared in These Working Times on May 30, 2011. Reprinted with Permission.

About the Author: Kari Lydersen is an In These Times contributing editor, is a Chicago-based journalist whose works has appeared in The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Chicago Reader and The Progressive, among other publications. Her most recent book is Revolt on Goose Island. In 2011, she was awarded a Studs Terkel Community Media Award for her work. She can be reached at kari.lydersen@gmail.com.


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After the Crisis, Rise of Worker Discrimination Is Breathtaking

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It’s bad enough that the global financial crisis has put millions of people out of work and trashed the future of the ranks of workers everywhere. But, let’s take a moment to consider an undercurrent of the economic crisis, fanned by fear, stupidity and the relentless drive to cut government (oh, that comes under stupidity so please excuse the redundancy): the rise in all forms of discrimination.

I just read a very sobering just-released report from the International Labour Organization, “Equality at work: The Continuing Challenge.” Yeah, it may not be as compelling as some declaration by Donald Trump or Michelle Bachmann (since they say something new every time) but it’s worth reading…The report points out that a lot of progress is being made around the world combating discrimination of all forms.

A migrant farm worker from Mexico holds his time card to be scanned while working at Grant Family Farms on September 3, 2010, in Wellington, Colo.   (Photo John Moore/Getty Images)
A migrant farm worker from Mexico holds his time card to be scanned while working at Grant Family Farms on September 3, 2010, in Wellington, Colo. (Photo John Moore/Getty Images)

But, the economic crisis has set this effort back. Let’s start with migrant workers:

Migrant workers have been particularly affected by the crisis, with more situations of discrimination in access to employment and migration opportunities, increased xenophobia and violence, and worsened conditions of work, among other factors. These have added to the existing situations of inequality and discrimination against migrant workers.

There was a time when bad times in one country meant that migrant workers returned home. But, they can’t now–because the crisis has swept the globe and there isn’t a lot to go home to.

Which is why it is a national disgrace that fair and serious immigration reform has gone nowhere. What we’ve done is left millions of people here without protections, vulnerable to employers who are ready to exploit workers–and vulnerable to racist politicians who want to exploit people for political gain.

Women are bearing the brunt of the crisis:

A United Nations report indicates that the current crisis is following a similar pattern, partly as a result of attitudes that give preference to male employment by promoting the image of the male breadwinner. When jobs are scarce, women encounter tougher competition in access to jobs, increasing the influence of existing and persistent barriers to their employment.

This took my breathe away. I challenge you not to want to weep:

Recent data show that 829 million people living in poverty in the world are women, compared to 522 million men.With women’s wages equal to only 70 to 90 per cent of men’s for work of equal value, non-discrimination in remuneration should be a core component of measures aimed at both gender equality and reducing poverty.[emphasis added]

Repeat this: 1.3 billion people living in poverty. While the Fortune 500 registered huge profits and the U.S. has 413 billionaires worth $1.5 trillion.

And it isn’t just the lack of money in your pocket:

Living in poverty is not only about low incomes. It also means a vicious cycle of diminished health, reduced working capacity, bad working and living conditions, low productivity and reduced life expectancy. Combined with illiteracy, hunger, child labour and early parenthood, the pervasive effect of poverty can be transferred from parents to their children.

As for the foolish obsession over the deficit and debt “crisis”, let’s be blunt: those people who are advocating deep cuts in government spending are racist, sexist and discriminatory. Why:

In the aftermath of the financial crisis, global attention has increasingly been paid to reducing large budget deficits and public debts in many countries. Yet many have urged caution in formulating fiscal consolidation policies – defined by tax increases and cuts in government spending – since the measures involved could jeopardize recovery efforts, propel countries into deeper recession and exacerbate inequalities in the workforce. A joint ILO–IMF paper in 2010 warned that a premature consolidation push could damage macroeconomic growth and subsequently lead to even larger deficits and debts….

Certain groups may be particularly susceptible to the bulk of the effects of fiscal consolidation measures, as austerity policies in many countries could take the form of cuts in the welfare programmes that assist lower-income workers in access to employmentas well as direct job cuts. [emphasis added]

Look, I don’t expect Paul Ryan et al. to understand discrimination. But, it would be nice if Democrats did–and stopped promoting the phony debt and deficit “crisis” mantra.

The report digs into a whole raft of discrimination–against people with HIV, older people–and it’s a chilling story.

The bottom line: what the financial and political elites did was not just crash an entire global economic system. They made the world a meaner, nastier, uglier place to live in. My new bumper sticker: Raj Needs Cellmates.

This post originally appeared at Working Life, Jonathan Tasini’s blog.

About the Author: Jonathan Tasini is the executive director of Labor Research Association. Tasini ran for the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate in New York. For the past 25 years, Jonathan has been a union leader and organizer, a social activist, and a commentator and writer on work, labor and the economy. From 1990 to April 2003, he served as president of the National Writers Union (United Auto Workers Local 1981).He was the lead plaintiff in Tasini vs. The New York Times, the landmark electronic rights case that took on the corporate media’s assault on the rights of thousands of freelance authors.

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Migrant Refugees Swept into Revolutions in Libya and Bahrain

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Michelle ChenOver the past several weeks, the images emerging from the Middle East and North Africa have shocked and awed Western audiences, who had never seen, or bothered to notice, the massive potential of people power to challenge the rule of ossified dictators.

But the protest movements across the region have also shed light on less glorious struggles that pervade stratified Arab societies. If the young protesters represent the rise of civil society forces, the imported migrant laborers caught in the crossfire reflect the often-hidden economic and ethnic dimensions to the region’s power struggles.

On the besieged borders of Libya and in the ghettoized neighborhoods of Bahrain, migrants have found themselves in the peculiar position of being refugees from countries that were always alien to them. As the fighting escalated in Libya last week, the aid organization BRAC reported on migrants desperate to flee the country:

Nearly 70,000 Bangladeshi nationals were residing in Libya as migrant workers when violence erupted last month. As the conflict intensified, thousands fled to neighboring countries, where they face congested borders and overcrowded refugee camps and airports. Thus far, only 20,000 migrants have been able to return to Bangladesh – most of them heavily in debt and with no ready means of earning a living.

After leaving his workplace in the western Libyan town of Zawiyah, 28 year-old Bangladeshi migrant steelworker Mohammed Nienn joined mounting crowds at the Tunisian border at a displaced persons camp known as Choucha. Having languished for over a week in hopes of catching a flight out, he told the UN news service:

”My family tells me to get home as quickly as possible… But it’s not as simple as that. There are so many Bangladeshis here. The wait to go to the airport is quite long.”

Mohamed, a Somali from Mogadishu, spoke to the constant state of dispossession that follows refugees who go from one warzone to the next:

Every day I watch people board buses to the airport….But I’m not envious; their situation is just very different to mine. Even if I was offered the chance to go back to Somalia, I wouldn’t want to anyway. I’m just waiting to find out where I will end up.

Thousands of Bangladeshi migrant workers who recently crossed into Tunisia from Libya walk to a United Nations displacement camp March 04, 2011 in Ras Jdir, Tunisia. Tens of thousands of guest workers from Egypt, Tunisia, Bangladesh and other countries are fleeing to the border of Tunisia to escape the violence.   (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
Thousands of Bangladeshi migrant workers who recently crossed into Tunisia from Libya walk to a United Nations displacement camp March 04, 2011 in Ras Jdir, Tunisia. Tens of thousands of guest workers from Egypt, Tunisia, Bangladesh and other countries are fleeing to the border of Tunisia to escape the violence. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

International authorities counted some 17,000 refugees at Choucha, “10,000 from Bangladesh and the remaining 7,000 mostly from sub-Saharan African countries.” Repatriation efforts have varied widely, with some countries coordinating efforts to bring nationals home, while others have no home to return to—as in the case of Somalis and Palestinians who settled in Libya when it was relatively safe.

The plight of migrants is just one facet of the humanitarian crisis, but they embody the challenges to advancing a revolution in the face of social polarization and cultural dissonance. Even within Choucha, Bangladeshi and African refugees began to self-segregate as different groups struggled to make the most of tight supplies and food rations.

In Bahrain, where protests have been viciously crushed by government and Saudi forces, the country’s oil wealth is filtered along sectarian and class lines.. At the base of the stratified social structure are Bangladeshi immigrants, working in low-wage sectors like construction. According to Mother Jones, the tiny country is tightly parceled: “Sunni Muslims, westerners, Shiite Muslims, and South Asian migrant workers (who are not citizens but constitute almost half of Bahrain’s population) generally live in separate neighborhoods.”

Migrant workers are among the most vulnerable in the current political turbulence. Indeed,  long before the protests the human rights situation for migrants in Bahrain was already dire, in some ways anticipating the terror  the monarch has now unleashed on its own citizenry.

For all the promise of democratic change washing over many Arab countries, many underlying social rifts have ruptured–a telling reminder that even a rebellion from the “right side of history” can betray regressive views that often stew under the grip of dictatorship.

Black Africans in Libya (as opposed to ethnic Arabs), who have long suffered unequal treatment as migrants, have reportedly been brutally targeted on the suspicion that they are foreign mercenaries hired by Gaddafi to suppress protests.

Black Agenda Report commentator Glen Ford rounded up reports on racial violence in Libya, and drew a sobering reflection on the emergent “Arab re-awakening”:

In the turmoil, what is also re-awakened – or never really dormant – is a “problematic” form of anti-black racism that appears, at least in some parts of the North African Maghreb, endemic and woven into the fabric of Arab nationalism.

The (re)emergence of Arab nationalism nevertheless represents a catastrophe for U.S. imperialism, which abhors all nationalisms except its own as it seeks to bend every national aspiration to the will of capital and its war machinery. However, the racism that is clearly manifest in Libya’s current dynamic is also a huge impediment to pan-African solidarity, inviting new waves of imperial mischief on the continent. On that score, we should have no illusions.

In reality, the migrants who take the dirtiest jobs in these oil-rich nations have a lot in common with the revolutionaries risking everything for emancipation. As Mohamed the Somali refugee said, they’re all waiting to find out where they will end up. A parallel form of dislocation stirred native-born Bahrainis and Libyans to rise up and reclaim their country from tyranny.

The rebellions don’t merely call for regime change or constitutional reform; people seek the sovereignty and dignity that have long been denied to them. Though frequently ignored in nationalist political clashes, migrants share in this struggle too, whether or not they see themselves as part of the civil conflict. They’re pitted against the dictatorship of global capital that subsumed their repressive host countries. Both migrants and citizens alike have endured wholesale disenfranchisement—the disempowerment that was first expressed by the defining act of protest that touched off the “Arab spring”: the self-annihilation of a desperate young worker in Tunis.

Some migrants are raising their voices as stakeholders in political conflicts as well. A group of Filipino migrant workers with the advocacy group Migrante-Middle Eas has denounced the air-strikes on Libya as “done in bad faith just to pursue their own self-serving geopolitical and economic agenda in Libya and the entire Middle East and North African region.”

Refugees from America’s former colony should know: this latest tide of displacement is just more proof that in an age of fluid borders and global capital, real revolution is anchored in the dignity of all workers, wherever they’ve come from, and wherever they’re going.

About the Author: Michelle Chen‘s work has appeared in AirAmerica, Extra!, Colorlines and Alternet, along with her self-published zine, cain. She is a regular contributor to In These Times’ workers’ rights blog, Working In These Times, and is a member of the In These Times Board of Editors. She also blogs at Colorlines.com. She can be reached at michellechen @ inthesetimes.com.

This blog originally appeared In These Times on March 21, 2011. Reprinted with Permission.


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Utah Governor Gary Herbert Signs Immigration Bills, Distances State From Arizona Approach

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zz_andrea_nill-e1291085868161On March 15th, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert (R) signed off on a bundle of four immigration bills which includes proposals that were specifically introduced as proactive alternatives to Arizona’s harsh immigration law. One of the measures would allow undocumented immigrants who meet certain requirements to carry a state-issued guest worker permit. A separate bill would create a migrant worker partnership with Mexico. Another piece of approved legislation will allow Utahns to sponsor migrants wanting to work or study in the state.

GOP delegate coordinators have dedicated a significant amount of time and resources to pushing back against the proposal with robo-calls and a petition. “As GOP delegates, we support the governor and everything he’s done up until now,” said Brandon Beckham, a Utah County GOP delegate who opposes guest worker and sponsorship proposals. “If he signs this bill, I don’t think he’s going to muster enough delegate support to make it past convention.” On the other side of the spectrum, some labor advocates worry that the guest worker permits will “give employers cheap labor without providing additional protections for workers or a path to citizenship.” “It gives illegal immigrants false hope because it makes them think they could become legal,” Ana Avendano of the AFL-CIO said. “But they’re still illegal, and could be deported.”

Gary Herbert
Gary Herbert

Meanwhile, several Latinos in Utah have been organizing against the other bill that Herbert signed into law today — HB-497. The legislation is a “watered down” version of Arizona SB-1070 that gives Utah police officers the authority to investigate a person’s immigration status if they’re suspected of felony or misdemeanor crimes.

Litigation has been threatened by both sides — immigration restrictionists who argue that the guestworker and sponsorship bills violate federal law and immigration advocates who say that the enforcement-only bill is unconstitutional. While it’s pretty monumental that such a conservative state has enacted a set of proposals that aren’t just aimed at making life completely miserable for undocumented immigrants, both sides of the debate are going to have a tough time arguing that the bill they oppose is preempted by federal law while maintaining that the one that they support is not.

Yet, maybe that’s the whole point. Utah Senate President Michael Waddoups (R) told the Salt Lake Tribune that the signing of the bills is “putting the federal government on notice.” “They’ve been on the sidelines way too long,” Herbert said. “They need to get in the game.” In fact, state officials are reportedly talking with the White House and congressional officials about using the “Utah Solution” as a model for comprehensive immigration reform at the federal level. The laws won’t go into effect for another two years. The U.S. Congress could spend that time to enact a legalization and a worker program that would render all of these state and local initiatives null.

About the Author: Andrea Nill is an immigration researcher/blogger for ThinkProgress.org and the Progress Report at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.

This blog originally appeared on Wonk Room on March 15, 2011. Reprinted with permission.


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Temporary Workers on the Auction Block? And the Complicated Economics of Immigration

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kari-lydersenImmigration reform experts propose tying system to labor market, and creating govt.-run auction for temp workers…While also touting economic benefit of immigrants.

DALLAS, TEXAS—Do immigrant workers—specifically, undocumented workers—contribute value to the economy through their labor, taxes and Social Security contributions? Or are they a net drain on government services and a big depresser of wages?

As states consider anti-immigrant bills modeled on Arizona’s SB 1070, this question has been debated hotly by activists on both sides of the immigration reform debate and by economists and other academics. The need for federal immigration reform remains impossible to ignore.

At the Institute for Journalism and Justice’s “Immigration in the Heartland” conference in Dallas Thursday and Friday, experts tried to get beyond rhetoric and politics in ascertaining the concrete economic and fiscal impacts of immigrant workers on the U.S. economy. Among other things, they argued for a reformed immigration system that is strictly tailored to the current labor market, and a temporary worker system based on a government-run auction. They also stressed the importance of understanding the separate fiscal and economic impacts of immigration. The fiscal impact is the direct cost of services, while the economic impact includes the wide-ranging ripple effects of their roles as consumers and entrepreneurs.

Washington Post Writers Group pundit Ed Schumaker-Matos, a Cuban immigrant, cited World Bank, Social Security Administration and other figures while positing that immigrant workers mirror native-born workers in the fact that highly skilled and educated people contribute a net gain to the economy, while low-skilled immigrant workers cost more than they contribute on the fiscal level considering their use of social services, education and healthcare.

But he said the cost of low-skilled workers in using social services and in competing with native-born low-skilled workers must be considered in light of the fact that immigrants of all skill levels do much to grow the economy as a whole.

A migrant worker's teeth are inspected at a tobacco leaf farm on August 11, 2010, in Windsor, Conn. The University of Connecticut Migrant Farm Worker Clinics visit area farms to offer health screenings to migrant farm workers and their families. There are an estimated 3.5 million migrant and seasonal farm workers in the United States, and many of these workers lack access to health professionals due to language barriers and fears of deportation.   (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
A migrant worker's teeth are inspected at a tobacco leaf farm on August 11, 2010, in Windsor, Conn. The University of Connecticut Migrant Farm Worker Clinics visit area farms to offer health screenings to migrant farm workers and their families. There are an estimated 3.5 million migrant and seasonal farm workers in the United States, and many of these workers lack access to health professionals due to language barriers and fears of deportation. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

And he said that as opposed to decades past where many native-born U.S. citizens were high school dropouts, today only a small fraction of the U.S. population qualifies as “unskilled” and hence in competition with unskilled immigrants for jobs. He noted that studies show immigrants are much more likely than native-born U.S. citizens to start businesses, and that their role as customers and the income they inject into the economy expands the economy and U.S. productivity as a whole.

And he noted that while low-skilled immigrant workers may be a financial drain on local or to a lesser extent state social services, as anti-immigrant critics often charge, their children are likely to obtain levels of education and skill that help compensate for their parents’ effect on the economy by contributing more in taxes than they cost the system.

He said:

Is it an investment in the future or a burden? You don’t say to the local white kids that they’re a burden – they are in fact – they cost more than they put in. But you think of it as an investment in the future.

He pointed out a similar double standard regarding the “stealing jobs” argument.

Just like with natural population growth, the more people you have the more the economy grows. But people don’t stop having children because they’re afraid they’ll steal jobs from their parents.

A recent report by the Dallas Federal Reserve, “From Brawn to Brains: How Immigration Works for America,” noted that only 11 percent of second generation immigrants lack a high school diploma, compared to 30 percent of first generation immigrants. The report says:

One silver lining is that these costs dissipate in the very long run as their descendants assimilate and “pay back” the costs imposed by their predecessors. Economic or educational assimilation is, therefore, a very important piece of the immigration calculation.

Shumaker-Matos added that a less-publicized part of the immigration debate involves (usually legal) high-skilled immigrants, especially in the sciences, who compete with highly educated citizens for those high-end jobs. He said that while high-skilled immigrants may drive down wages slightly in these jobs, the innovation and overall economic and technological growth they contribute expands overall economic efficiency and productivity.

Pia Orrenius—a senior economist with the Dallas Federal Reserve, co-author of the aforementioned report and former advisor on labor, health and immigration to the Bush administration—said that high-skilled immigrants are a boon to the U.S. economy while low-skilled immigrants are a drain, at least in the immediate sense.

In her recent book, Orrenius proposes an “employment-driven” immigration system that awards temporary work visas without a wait based on the immediate needs of the labor market; rather than the current legal immigration system that according to government figures awards 85 percent of green cards to family members and only 7 percent based on employment.

Orrenius said that the U.S. lags behind other developed countries including South Korea, her native Switzerland, Spain and Italy, which base their legal immigration system primarily on the needs of the labor market rather than family relationships and humanitarian concerns.

The Dallas Federal Reserve report said that:

Estimates from 1996—the most recent comprehensive estimates available—indicate that immigrants with less than a high school diploma cost $89,000 more than they contribute in taxes over their lifetimes, while immigrants with more than a high school education contribute $105,000 more in taxes than they use in public services.

In other words, low-skilled immigrants are a net fiscal drain, but overall, immigration need not be. High-skilled immigrants can offset the fiscal cost of low-skilled immigrants.

Orrenius, whose book was published by the pro-business, free market American Enterprise Institute, would like to see a system wherein the government would auction off permits for high-skilled, low-skilled and seasonal temporary workers, and employers willing to pay the most for the permits would legally hire workers. The permits would only be good for a year, with the number of visas constantly adjusted based on the labor market and economy.

She said that under her proposal, workers would be allowed to quit their jobs if they suffered exploitation or abuse of the type common under the U.S.’s current guest worker program. In that case workers would have to find a new employer who had also bought permits, Orrenius said, which she suggested would likely not be a problem in urban areas but could present problems in rural areas with fewer employers. She said immigrants could theoretically petition for green cards – with the numbers awarded also determined by the current labor market – after five or 10 years in the temporary worker program.

Though in theory this might protect immigrants from exploitation by employers, in reality such a system would likely be ripe for abuse, as many immigrants likely would be afraid of leaving their jobs for fear of endangering their visa. And employers unwilling or unable to pay for the permits would likely continue to employ undocumented workers.

Orrenius’ proposed system would allow reunification of spouses and minor children with no wait, but it would greatly reduce the number of other relatives of citizens or permanent residents – a move sure to be blasted by immigrants rights groups. She said:

With an employment-based system, legal immigration would act more like unauthorized immigration. It is demand-based, so it benefits native workers – you don’t want a lot of immigrants coming in when the labor market is doing poorly.

About the Author: Kari Lydersen, an In These Times contributing editor, is a Chicago-based journalist whose works has appeared in The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Chicago Reader and The Progressive, among other publications. Her most recent book is Revolt on Goose Island. In 2011, she was awarded a Studs Terkel Community Media Award for her work. She can be reached at kari.lydersen@gmail.com.

This blog originally appeared in In These Times on March 11, 2011. Reprinted with Permission.


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‘Deeper Into the Shadows’: The Aftermath of ICE’s Audits and Enforcement Strategy

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R.M. ArrietaA new report issued by the Immigration Policy Center, “Deeper into the Shadows: The Unintended Consequence of Immigration Worksite Enforcement,” examines what happens to workers after an I-9 audit, wherein the federal governmet inspects employment eligibility forms employers keep on file for each worker.

The results aren’t pretty.

Aftermath of an audit

In Minneapolis, 1,200 workers were fired from ABM Industries, a major building-services contractor, after an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) audit. Staff members of Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 26, the janitors’ union in Minneapolis, surveyed 50 of the workers and found they had on average worked seven years at ABM and were equally composed of men and women.

Of the 50 fired ABM workers surveyed, 31 had found work but now are making 40 percent less than their ABM wages. Fewer than half said they would report their wages to the IRS.

(Most of the surveyed workers are Mexican nationals with an average age of 38. They had lived in the U.S. between six and 24 years, with half arriving before 1999. Thirty-four had children born in the United States. Only nine said they would return to their homeland.)

Last October and December, about 100 workers at two St. Paul, Minn., companies in cattle hide processing and tanning lost their jobs after ICE audits.

On Thursday, January 20, 2011, eight people were arrested after protesting inside of a Chipotle restaurant in Minneapolis. In December, Chipotle fired more than 100 Latino workers following ICE audits. See video below profiling one fired Chipotle worker.   (Photo courtesy Workday Minnesota)
On Thursday, January 20, 2011, eight people were arrested after protesting inside of a Chipotle restaurant in Minneapolis. In December, Chipotle fired more than 100 Latino workers following ICE audits. See video below profiling one fired Chipotle worker. (Photo courtesy Workday Minnesota)

Audits at Chipotle Mexican Grill chain, based in Denver, resulted in the firings of at least 100 people in 50 of the chain’s restaurants. (See SEIU video below profiling one worker.) Company spokesman Chris Arnold called it a “heartbreaking situation to lose so many excellent employees” but pointed out that the ICE audit left the company’s hands tied. He said the company asked ICE for an extra 90 days so that the workers could present valid papers, but officials denied their request.

Union officials say the enforcement is not forcing undocumented immigrants to leave the country so much as pushing them into an underground economy that is making them poorer.

When one woman lost her job at ABM, her daughter dropped out of high school to help support the family. She now works seven days a week, two shifts a day in a factory and makes $8.65 an hour without overtime or health benefits.

One worker dismissed from ABM found another seven-day-a-week janitorial job that pays him $25 a night in cash. His hourly rate depends on his speed. “Sometimes its like, $5 an hour,” he said.  He has two U.S.-born children and has no intention of leaving the country. He says:  “I don’t know what’s going to happen to the kids if they catch me. We don’t go outside. We don’t go to church now.”

The Immigration Policy Center report, released on February 9, found that money is slowly being withdrawn from the local economy and people are relying on the barter system.

For example, one man pays less rent in exchange for landscaping. Another shovels snow or tunes up cars in exchange for childcare. According to immigrants interviewed in the report, the use of “tandas” is increasing. A tanda is a revolving credit system based on trust. Participants agree to pool their money. Members of the pool receive that money which they have to repay.

Bad for companies—and the economy?

Companies are also taking a hit. One firm had to fire 150 out of its 200 workers.

According to ICE guidelines, agents who enforce worksite laws must look for evidence of worker mistreatment, trafficking, smuggling, harboring, visa fraud, identification document fraud and money laundering. But a lack of transparency makes it difficult to find out whether the guidelines are even being followed.

John Keller, executive director of the Immigrant Law Center in Minnesota asked, “What are the priorities of this kind of I-9 auditing? It’s a strategy that has a high political value in trying to prove they’re doing enforcement…and going after the bad apples, the worst employers. But the reality is that ABM did not have a serious record of being a bad actor. Why was that a priority?”

Is ICE violating its pledge to go after the worst cases of worker mistreatment?

SEIU Local 26 President Javier Morillo-Alicea says he and other union representatives have taken their complaints to ICE officials in Washington. But he says there’s a disturbing disconnect. “What [the Washington] D.C. ICE [office] tells us has no connection to what local ICE agents do,” Morillo-Alicea contends.  “We are forcing people to the bad actors who profit from the broken immigration system.”

Workers are worried about their livelihoods, their families, whether they will be detained, and the fact that some of their money will not be returned. “When we get paid, they withhold Social Security and Medicare. We pay unemployment and everything in a single paycheck,” Alondra says in the report. (To protect their identities, workers in the report are referred to with pseudonyms or only first names.) She wonders if fired workers will ever see that money.

As the report states,

Immigrant workers are an important part of our labor force. Those who are undocumented, in many cases, entered the workforce when demand was high and have lived in this country for many years, setting down roots and becoming productive members of their communities.

Ripping them from their jobs and families or driving them deeper underground will only hurt the U.S. economy.

Daniel Griswold of the Cato Institute, the libertarian think tank, put it simply while testifying before Congress recently. “We cannot deport our way out of unemployment,” he said.

Watch Video of Fired Chipolte Worker

About the Author: R.M. Arrieta was born and raised in Los Angeles. She has worked at three dailies and two television stations. She currently lives in San Francisco, where she is editor of the Bay Area’s independent community bilingual biweekly El Tecolote. She can be reached at rmarrieta@inthesetimes.com.


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Global Unions Demand Rights for Migrant Workers

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Image: James ParksMany countries around the world, including the United States, depend on immigrant labor to boost economic development, but do not protect the rights of their immigrant workers. Trade union representatives at the Global Forum on Migration and Development (GMFD) meeting in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, last week called on the world’s governments to respect and protect the rights of migrant workers.

In a statement, the global unions said governments must be vigilant in fighting against racism and xenophobia, which are on the rise in several countries. They also urged countries to ratify the International Labor Organization (ILO) conventions on migrant workers, eliminate abusive guest worker programs and assure the rights of domestic workers.

Says Ambet Yuson, general secretary of the Geneva-based Building and Wood Workers International:

Migrant workers contribute to the economic and social development; however, they are consistently marginalized, exploited, and abused. It is the fundamental responsibility of all governments to protect the rights of migrant workers.

While each country has its own particular experiences with migration, several common themes emerged at the conference. For example, nearly all the union representatives told of efforts to defend domestic workers from human rights abuses. In June 2010, the ILO took a giant step forward in the struggle to create workplace justice for the millions of housekeepers, nannies and other domestic workers around the world, by beginning the  process to establish a first-ever international standard (“convention”) to protect the rights of domestic workers. If the convention is passed at the ILO’s meeting in 2011, it would require governments that ratify it to ensure domestic workers are covered by the fundamental rights and principles of the ILO, which include the freedom to form unions, elimination of forced labor, abolition of child labor and the elimination of discrimination.

Migrant workers face horrific treatment ranging from rape to torture, Ana Avendaño, assistant to AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said in an interview with Frontera Norte Sur, a publication of the Center for Latin American and Border Studies at New Mexico State University.

The AFL-CIO and its affiliated unions are working to protect migrant workers by helping them join unions and fighting for their rights under the law, Avendaño said. The AFL-CIO is actively supporting an international campaign to ratify the new convention on domestic workers.

“Domestic work is a particular kind of work, not just because it takes place in the household, but also because of its fundamental importance in the very fabric of society,” according to a statement by RESPECT, a European network of domestic worker groups and supporters.

Without provision for child care, care for the elderly, cooking and cleaning, society simply couldn’t function.

In the United States, New York State recently enacted a law that gives basic labor rights to domestic workers. Nationally, the AFL-CIO is supporting independent domestic worker efforts to form unions, Avendaño added, as well as a new initiative called the Excluded Workers Congress that brings together domestic workers, day laborers, taxi drivers, farmworkers, unemployable ex-felons, and other people at the margins of the economy.

To read the Global Unions’ statement click here.

This article originally appeared on AFL-CIO Now Blog.

About the Author: James Parks had his first encounter with unions at Gannett’s newspaper in Cincinnati when his colleagues in the newsroom tried to organize a unit of The Newspaper Guild. He is a journalist by trade, and worked for newspapers in five different states before joining the AFL-CIO staff in 1990. His proudest career moment, though, was when he served, along with other union members and staff, as an official observer for South Africa’s first multiracial elections. Author photo by Joe Kekeris


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Freedom of Movement: Migrant Rights in the Global Economy

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What if lawmakers had the guts to create comprehensive labor legislation for immigrants, enshrining their rights in accordance with international law? What if our legal system recognized immigrants’ freedom of movement, shielded families from unnecessary separation, and allowed real recourse against exploitative employers?

We should know better, of course, than to expect anything approaching that from Capitol Hill, where the hobbling immigration debate is dictated by business interests and xenophobia.

So, it’s a good thing such a law has already been drafted for them. Years ago, in response to the growing intersection between human rights and labor migration, the United Nations developed the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families.

Recognizing that border-crossing is an economic right and necessity, the Convention’s provisions include freedom from discrimination in the workplace and public services, equal protection before the law, and protection from “arbitrary expulsion,” violence and intimidation by groups or individuals.

Yet in another stunning display of American exceptionalism, the United States has not joined the dozens of other countries that have ratified these common-sense principles. Washington prefers to relegate immigration issues to the domestic policy arena, which allows it to capitalize freely on a two-tier labor force.

Chandra Bhatnagar of the ACLU’s Human Rights Program noted last December (in a rather lonely celebration of International Migrants Day) that there are three distinctly vulnerable subsets of migrants in America: Guestworkers, who have employment-based visas, are at risk of being chained to exploitative employers without legal recourse. And undocumented workers, following a controversial Supreme Court ruling in 2002, have lost safeguards in the areas of accessible remedies when injured or killed on the job, overtime pay, workers’ compensation” and other protections. Domestic and agricultural workers have been shut out of the federal Fair Labor Standards Act and other labor laws, deprived of a minimum wage floor, workplace safety protections, and the right to unionize.

In a recent paper on the labor migration and international law, Villanova University law professor Beth Lyon writes that a major obstacle to ratification of the Convention examined the government’s reluctance to open its immigration policy to scrutiny under international law:

It appears that the Migrant Worker Convention has received virtually no domestic attention in the United States from either civil society, domestic or international government, likely because it is assumed that any attempt to define immigrants as rights holders is a political non-starter.

But Lyon argues that ratification of the Convention could “help to break through the current domestic political stalemate and build-up of undocumented immigrants” and

advance agendas important to both the right and the left, including increased national security through enhanced standing with the global south and an improved humanitarian situation for one of America’s most vulnerable groups.

Many immigrants’ rights advocates are bypassing the government to leverage international law on their own. The ACLU, for instance, recently invoked United Nations policies in advocating for hundreds of Indian guest workers imported to as cheap forced labor in the Hurricane Katrina recovery effort. The organization complemented its litigation in federal court with an appeal to the U.N. Spe­cial Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants and the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Contemporary forms of Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance.

U.S.-based activists have worked with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to investigate detention facilities in Texas and Arizona, as well as law enforcement policies toward undocumented immigrants.

Last month, the Commission’s Rapporteurship on the Rights of Migrant Workers and their Families reported, “many men, women and children detained in those facilities are held in unacceptable conditions.” The delegation also criticized reliance on local police in anti-immigrant crackdowns, warning that “the federal government might be unable to hold local law enforcement properly accountable for enforcing immigration laws with respect for basic human rights.”

The Florida-based Coalition of Imokalee Workers has framed the plight of exploited migrant farmworkers as a modern-day international slave trade. Targeting food-industry behemoths like Taco Bell and McDonald’s, the group has combined grassroots labor organizing with massive public education campaigns to pressure employers to improve wages and working conditions.

Advocates for domestic workers in New York City link the struggles of home-based laborers, the vast majority of them immigrant women of color, to global economic dynamics and the country’s legacy of racial oppression. To offset the lack of federal protections, Domestic Workers United is pushing for stronger state-level regulations, like livable wage standards, protection from trafficking, and integration into New York’s human rights laws.

Meanwhile, the leaders of the United States, Canada and Mexico discussed trade agreements and border enforcement at the summit in Guadalajara this week. As usual, officials focused on the movement of goods, not people.

Yet the engines of global capital are greased by the flow of labor across borders. A byproduct of economic “integration” has been economic apartheid in immigrant communities. While the political establishment works to advance the rights of corporations to trade freely, the rights of migrants to basic human dignity are brushed off the agenda.

Michelle Chen: Michelle Chen’s work has appeared in Extra!, Legal Affairs, City Limits and Alternet, along with her self-published zine, cain. She also blogs at Racewire.org

This article originally appeared at Working In These Times on July 10, 2009 and is reprinted here with permission from the source.


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