Stark Choices On Immigration

by Nathan Newman
published April 11, 2006

Forget the stalled debate in Congress. State legislatures are already barreling ahead on immigration legislation. And the choices could not be more stark.

While some states are embracing criminalizing undocumented immigrants, other states are embracing progressive policies that will boost wages for all American workers and solve the root causes of low-wage immigration.

The real fear by most Americans is that immigrants are driving down wages for existing American workers. However, rather than further punish exploited immigrant workers in the underground economy, many state leaders recognize that a better solution is to end the exploitive conditions that make hiring lower-paid immigrants so attractive for employers in the first place.

Just this February, New York’s highest court ruled that undocumented workers injured at work retain the right to sue employers for compensation—and that this provision of New York state law was a critical policy for enforcing labor rights and deterring low-wage immigration. Leaving undocumented immigrants without legal rights “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.” These laws recognize that 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 other workers.

Beyond changing domestic labor conditions, as the AFL-CIO said in a March policy statement, “any viable solution to this crisis must address the reasons why people are coming to the U.S,” including fixing trade and development policies that now undermine labor protections and wage levels in immigrants’ home countries. And as Jeff Faux of the Economic Policy Institute has explained: “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.

And last month 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 pivotal role in changing sweatshops both at home and abroad and creating real long-term solutions to the conditions driving immigration.

Meanwhile, the xenophobic right has responded in other places. Typical of the anti-immigrant alternative policies is the law passed in Georgia 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 law, like similar 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.

The law 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 law 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 law are for the immigrants themselves—including denying most adults medical care, claiming it will save public funds. Many physicians feel the opposite, since it 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 U.S. If new immigrants are willing to risk death to come to the U.S., 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.

However, we shouldn’t be surprised that Georgia’s leaders would coddle low-wage employers while scapegoating immigrants. This is the same right-wing 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 progressive leaders can present a better alternative—raising wages and enforcing those labor rights for all workers, native and immigrant, and eliminating the sweatshops that attract low-wage immigration in the first place.

Nathan Newman is policy director for the Progressive Legislative Action Network .