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Eye on Immigration: Real State Solutions

In the last few weeks, the debate on immigration has heated up.

Even as some state legislators across the country have filed bills to crack down on undocumented immigrants, the Cardinal of Los Angeles called for respecting the human rights of immigrants and the Western Governors united in support of establishing a national guest worker program, variations on which are promoted both by President Bush and by Senators Kennedy and McCain. And the AFL-CIO Executive Council this last week issued a statement arguing that even guest worker programs would just create an undemocratic, two-tiered society -- and that the real solution to immigration was reform of labor laws to end the exploitation, both in the US and overseas, that encourages employer hiring of immigrants in the first place.

As the debate moves forward in the states, legislators and Governors across the country face a choice: embrace progressive policies that will boost wages for American workers and solve the root causes of immigration or choose failed conservative options that will drive the problem out-of-sight without solving it.

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Protecting Labor Rights for All Workers

There are real policy alternatives. A number of states have recognized that rather than further punish exploited immigrant workers in the underground economy, a better solution is to end the exploitive conditions that make hiring lower-paid immigrants so attractive for employers in the first place.

Just two weeks ago, New York's highest court ruled that giving undocumented workers injured at work the right to sue employers for compensation was a crucial policy for enforcing labor rights and deterring immigration. The lack of labor rights by undocumented immigrants "would lessen the unscrupulous employer's potential liability to its alien workers and make it more financially attractive to hire undocumented aliens," said Judge Victoria A. Graffeo writing for the majority, and "would actually increase employment levels of undocumented aliens, not decrease it."

This policy of strengthening undocumented workers' legal rights is in line with states like California, which passed SB 1818 in 2002 to affirm that all labor protections are available to any employee "regardless of immigration status." While many native workers fear immigrants are driving down wages in industries that they enter, the best way to prevent this wage depression from happening is not to punish the immigrants but to strengthen their rights. As the high court in New York emphasized, the stronger the rights of the immigrants, the less likely employers will undermine wage standards for all workers.

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Stopping Immigration at the Source: Anti-Sweatshop Legislation

Ultimately, as the AFL-CIO said in their statement last week, "any viable solution to this crisis must address the reasons why people are coming to the U.S," including trade and development policies that don't strengthen labor protections and wage levels in immigrants' home countries. And as Jeff Faux of the Economic Policy Institute has detailed, "Since NAFTA's inception in 1994 -- indeed, for the 20 years of neoliberal 'reform' -- the Mexican middle class has shrunk and the number of poor has expanded... So the northward migration continues."

While states cannot change trade policy, they do have the power through their own purchasing decisions to help end the global sweatshops that drive undocumented immigration. California, Illinois, Maine, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, along with sixty cities, counties and school districts, have changed their procurement policies to ban government purchases from contractors violating internationally-recognized labor rights.

This last week, the Governor of Maine, John Baldacci, launched a challenge to his fellow Governors to join a multi-state Governor's Coalition for Sweatfree Procurement and Workers Rights to strengthen monitoring of labor conditions of contractors used by states. With states and local governments purchasing $400 billion in goods and services, a nationwide coalition of states could play a pivitol role in changing sweatshops both at home and abroad and creating real long-term solutions to the conditions driving immigration.

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Failed Rightwing Solutions

Typical of the anti-immigrants attacks is a new proposal in Georgia supposedly to deter undocumented immigration that has all the earmarks of failed conservative policy-- it punishes individual immigrants while doing nothing to end the exploitation that makes employing undocumented immigrants so attractive to businesses.

The Georgia bill, like similiar bills in other states, sounds tough: businesses can be fined for hiring undocumented immigrants or denied public contracts if they do so, but as long as an immigrant has a fake document, the employer cannot be penalized. And contractors who use subcontractors using undocumented immigrants would be off the hook as well, despite the fact that huge corporations like Wal-Mart use precisely these tactics to avoid liability.

So the bill is toothless in punishing those who exploit immigrants. Nothing in the bill combats the business conditions that lead to exploiting low-paid undocumented workers. The bill has no toughened enforcement of the minimum wage, of safety conditions at work, or any other provision to end the underground economy of exploitation that feeds the demand for more low-paid immigrant labor. The only real penalties in the bill are for the immigrants themselves, including denying most adults medical care. And while the bill sponsors says it will save public funds, a lot of physicians think otherwise since it just means they'll be showing up in emergency rooms instead of getting cheaper preventive care.

Almost 500 people died in 2005 trying to cross the border to find work in the US. If new immigrants are willing to risk death to come to the US, there is little evidence that denying a few health benefits will make much change in immigration numbers. In fact, creating more fear among immigrants will just make them more attractive to hire for employers who know that immigrants will be that much less likely to report workplace violations to authorities.

But we shouldn't be surprised that Georgia's leaders would coddle low-wage employers while scapegoating immmigrants. This is the same rightwing leadership that last year prohibited the city of Atlanta from encouraging government contractors to pay a living wage. As one of the sponsors of the bill striking down the Atlanta living wage law said, "The marketplace is what will determine what wages will be paid...We can't artificially legislate wages, and keep propping them up."

If conservative political leaders think third world workplace conditions are required for their states to compete economically, they shouldn't be surprised when low-wage employers enthusiastically provide those conditions by exploiting immigrant labor. But instead of importing sweatshops to the United States, maybe we should be eliminating them overseas.

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Progressive Talking Points

It is time to stop protecting corporations that benefit from hiring undocumented immigrants. If immigrant workers can't defend their rights, it only encourages unethical corporations to hire them as part of big business's underground economy.

We have to address the problems that are driving immigration, including bad trade deals and third world sweatshops that drive immigration to the US. States can take action by changing their own purchasing practices to fight sweatshops, both at home and abroad.

Conservative solutions don't save public funds. They shift costs. When we deny routine health care to workers, we only end up treating them in emergency rooms for the same cost. We're better off solving the issue of immigration.

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