A 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.
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.
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 [email protected]