By David Bacon

Editor’s Note: This is the second installment of a three-part series on migrant rights by journalist and immigration activist David Bacon. This article is taken from the report “Displaced, Unequal and Criminalized – Fighting for the Rights of Migrants in the United States” that examines the origins of the current migratory labor phenomenon, the mechanisms that maintain it, and proposals for a more equitable system. The Americas Program is proud to publish this series in collaboration with the author.

Over the last 25 years, guest worker programs have increasingly become a vehicle for channeling the migration that has stemmed from free market reforms. Increasing numbers of guest workers are recruited each year for labor in the U.S. from Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean under the H1-B, H2-A and H2-B programs. Recruiters promise high wages and charge thousands of dollars for visas, fees and transportation. By the time they leave home, the debts of guest workers are crushing.

In 2007 the Southern Poverty Law Center issued a report, Close to Slavery, documenting the treatment of guest workers. No one gets overtime, regardless of the law. Companies charge for tools, food and housing. Guest workers are routinely cheated. Recent protests have exposed the exploitation of guest workers recruited from India to work in the Mississippi shipyard of Signal International. They paid $15-20,000 for each visa, lived in barracks in the yard, and had to get up at 3.30 to use the bathroom because there weren’t enough for everyone. The company cut the wages, held six workers prisoner for deportation, and fired their leader, Joseph Jacobs. In 2006 Santiago Rafael Cruz, an organizer for the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, was murdered when the union tried to set up an office in Mexico to end the corruption and abuse by guest worker contractors.

If workers protest this treatment, they’re put on a blacklist and won’t be hired the following year. Protesting wouldn’t do much good anyway. Prior to the current administration, the U.S. Department of Labor almost never decertified a guest worker contractor, no matter how many complaints were filed against it. The paper industry depends on this system. Twenty years ago, it stopped hiring unemployed workers domestically, and began recruiting guest workers. As a result, labor costs in the forests have remained flat, while paper profits have gone up.

U.S. guest worker programs in general are just one part of a much larger, global system, which produces labor and then puts it to use. In Latin America, economic reforms promoted by the U.S. government through trade agreements and international financial institutions displace workers, from miners to coffee pickers. They then join a huge flood of labor moving north. When they arrive in the U.S., they become an indispensable part of the workforce, whether they are undocumented or laboring under work visas. Displacement creates a mobile workforce, an army of available workers that has become an indispensable part of the U.S. economy, and that of wealthy countries like it. The same system that produces migration needs and uses that labor.

The creation of a vulnerable workforce through the displacement of communities is not new. Africa became “a warren for the hunting of black skins” during the bloody displacement of communities by the slave traders. Uprooted African farmers were transported to the Americas in chains, where they became an enslaved plantation workforce from Colombia and Brazil to the U.S. South. Their labor created the wealth that made economic growth possible in the U.S. and much of Latin America and the Caribbean. But displacement and enslavement produced more than wealth. As slave-owners sought to differentiate slaves from free people, they created the first racial categories. Society was divided into those with greater and fewer rights, using skin color and origin. When anti-immigrant ideologues call modern migrants “illegals,” they use a category inherited and developed from slavery.

Today displacement and inequality are as deeply ingrained in the free market economy as they were during the slave trade. Mexican President Felipe Calderon said during a 2008 visit to California, “You have two economies. One economy is intensive in capital, which is the American economy. One economy is intensive in labor, which is the Mexican economy. We are two complementary economies, and that phenomenon is impossible to stop.” When Calderon says intensive in labor, he means that millions of Mexican citizens are being displaced, and that the country’s economy can’t produce employment for them. To Calderon and employers on both sides of the U.S./Mexico border, migration is therefore a labor supply system.

U.S. immigration policy determines the rules under which that labor is put to use. Employers see migrants as a source of labor, and seek to organize the flow of migration, to direct it where it’s needed. “The economic interests of the overwhelming majority of [U.S.] employers favor borders as porous for labor as possible,” according to Faux. But employers want labor in a vulnerable, second-class status, at a price they want to pay.

President George Bush said the purpose of U.S. immigration policy should be to “connect willing employers and willing employees.” He was simply restating what has been true throughout U.S. history. Providing labor is the reason Chinese migrants were brought from the Pearl River delta to build the transcontinental railroad in the 1850s. Providing labor was the motivation for the slave trade. In the 1920s and 30s Filipinos were kept moving from labor camp to labor camp, while anti-miscegenation laws kept them from settling down and forming families. They, too, provided labor, as did those Mexican farmers brought to the U.S. during the bracero contract labor program, from 1942 to 1964.

U.S., industrial agriculture has always depended on a migrant workforce, formed from waves of Chinese, Japanese, Filipinos, Mexicans, and more recently, Central Americans. Today a growing percentage of farm workers are indigenous people speaking languages other than Spanish, an indication that economic dislocation has reached far into the most remote parts of Mexico’s countryside.

Within this system of displacement and migration, U.S. immigration policy determines the status of migrant labor. It doesn’t stop people from coming into the country, nor is it intended to. Its main function is to determine the status of people once they’re here. And an immigration policy based on providing a labor supply produces two effects. Displacement becomes an unspoken tool for producing workers, while inequality becomes official policy. The unquestioned assumption is that migrants will not have the same rights as people living in the community around them. All the immigration bills debated by Congress over the last few years are based on this assumption.

Today, calling someone an “illegal” doesn’t refer to an illegal act. Illegality is a social category. Illegality creates an inexpensive system. So-called illegal workers produce wealth, but receive a smaller share in return – a source of profit for those who employ them. Inequality is profitable. In 1994 the labor of undocumented workers pumped $45,000 per person into the California economy according to the North American Integration and Development Center at UCLA. Assuming almost all were working at close to the minimum wage, each received only a small part of the value he or she produced, about $8840 each. The average manufacturing wage at the time produced an annual income more than twice that. That additional value was expropriated by employers.

Companies depend, not just on the workers in the factories and fields, but also on the communities from which they come. If those communities stop sending workers, the labor supply dries up. Work stops. Yet no company pays for a single school or clinic, or even any taxes, in those communities. Workers pay for it all, through the money they send home.

About 11 percent of Mexico’s population lives in the U.S., according to the Pew Hispanic Center. Their remittances, which were less than $4 billion in 1994 when NAFTA took effect, rose to $10 billion in 2002, and then $20 billion three years later, according to the Bank of Mexico. In 2006 that figure reached $25 billion. At the same time, the public funds which used to pay for schools and public works leaves Mexico in debt payments to foreign banks. Remittances, as large as they are, cannot make up for this outflow. According to a report to the Mexican Chamber of Deputies, remittances accounted for an average of 1.19% of the gross domestic product between1996 and 2000, and 2.14% between 2001 and 2006. Debt payments accounted for 3% annually. By partially meeting unmet, and unfunded, social needs, remittances are indirectly subsidizing banks.

At the same time, companies dependent on this immigrant stream gain greater flexibility in adjusting for the highs and lows of market demand. The global production system has grown very flexible in accommodating economic booms and busts. Its employment system is based on the use of contractors, which is replacing the system in which workers were directly employed by the businesses using their labor. This has been the employment model in the garment and janitorial industries and in agriculture for decades. Displaced migrant workers are the backbone of this system. Its guiding principle is that immigration policy and enforcement should direct immigrants to industries when their labor is needed, and remove them when it’s not.

Guest worker and employment-based visa programs were created to accommodate labor needs. When demand is high, employers recruit workers. When demand falls, those workers not only have to leave their jobs, but the country entirely.

Today employers call for relaxing the requirements on guest worker visas, especially since those protections have recently been strengthened by the current Secretary of Labor, Hilda Solis. Simply putting more labor protections on the programs does not change their basic structure that makes those workers vulnerable. “They don’t have labor rights or benefits,” charges Rufino Domínguez, the former coordinator of the Binational Front of Indigenous Organizations, who now heads the Oaxacan Institute for Attention to Migrants. “It’s like slavery. If workers don’t get paid or they’re cheated, they can’t do anything.”

Labor Programs and Greater Enforcement – The Corporate Agenda on Immigration

The meatpacking industry started lobbying for guest workers in the late 1990s, when companies organized the Essential Worker Immigration Coalition – corporations like Wal-Mart, Marriott, Tyson Foods and the Associated Builders and Contractors. While Republicans are strong guest worker supporters, the proposals in Congress are bipartisan, supported by liberals like Senator Edward Kennedy and Congressman Luis Gutierrez.

New guest worker programs are the heart of the corporate program for immigration reform, and are combined with proposals for increased enforcement and a pro-employer program for legalization of the undocumented. Guest worker proposals, advanced now even at the negotiations of the World Trade Organization, have two characteristics. They allow employers to recruit labor in one country and put it to use in another, and they tie the ability of workers to stay in their new country to their employment status. If they aren’t working, they have no right to stay. These inevitably lead to a different social, political and economic status, in which workers don’t have the same rights as those around them, and can’t receive the same social benefits.

Some bills in the U.S. Congress in recent years would have allowed some of the largest corporations to recruit and bring into the country, through labor contractors, as many as 800,000 people a year. And in the middle of the final debate in 2006 in which his proposal failed, President George Bush tried to eliminate all family-based immigration, and allow people to come to the U.S. only when recruited by employers. Under his proposal almost all immigrants would have become guest workers. Significantly, however, the general three-part approach of the Obama administration’s immigration reform program is not significantly different from that of his predecessor.

A second element in the corporate program is legalization, but in a program tailored more to protect employers from legal charges for hiring undocumented workers than helping families adjust their status. Congress’ comprehensive bills all would have imposed waiting periods from 11 to 18 years on immigrants applying for legalization, during which time they would be as vulnerable as ever. But their employers would be protected from charges they’d violated employer sanctions, while they organized the recruitment of new workers through guest worker programs.

Because of the record of abuse of guest worker programs, and because working outside those programs offers an attractive alternative, the third necessary element of this kind of corporate reform in an increase in enforcement against undocumented labor in the workplace, and unauthorized border crossing. These proposals seek to end spontaneous migration, in which people decide for themselves when to come and where to go, by making it impossible to work without a work visa and contract. In its place they substitute a regimented system in which people can only migrate as contracted labor.

After the big immigrant rights marches of 2006 the Federal government launched a dramatic increase in raids in workplaces and communities. Spokespeople for the bureau of Customs and Immigration Enforcement (ICE), a division of the Federal Department of Homeland Security (DHS), explained they were intended to show the need for the administration’s immigration program. ICE also began to implement many of the enforcement measures contained in the reform bills Congress didn’t pass.

In 2007 then-Homeland Secretary Michael Chertoff proposed a rule requiring employers to fire any worker who couldn’t correct a mismatch between the Social Security number they’ provided their employer, and the SSA database. The regulation assumes those workers have no valid immigration visa. That regulation was challenged in federal court by unions and immigrant advocates. But the Obama administration has simply implemented the same scheme using different tactics.

Recently the Council on Foreign Relations proposed two goals for U.S. immigration policy. In a report from the CFR-sponsored Independent Task Force on U.S. Immigration Policy, CFR Senior Fellow Edward Alden stated, “We should reform the legal immigration system,” it advocated, “so that it operates more efficiently, responds more accurately to labor market needs, and enhances U.S. competitiveness.” This essentially calls for continuing use of migration to supply labor at competitive, or low, wages. “We should restore the integrity of immigration laws,” Aiden went on to say, “through an enforcement regime that strongly discourages employers and employees from operating outside that legal system.” This couples an enforcement regime like the one at present, with its raids and firings, to that labor supply scheme.

For two years dozens of other employers have fired workers in response to demands from ICE, the enforcement arm of the Department of Homeland Security. ICE chief John Morton made serial announcements of the number of companies being audited to find undocumented employees – citing figures from 1000 to 1654. Many thousands of workers have lost their jobs. In Minneapolis, Seattle and San Francisco over 1800 janitors, members of SEIU union locals, lost their jobs. In 2009 some 2000 young women laboring at the sewing machines of American Apparel were fired in Los Angeles. At one point Morton claimed ICE had audited over 2900 companies.

President Obama says this workplace enforcement targets employers “who are using illegal workers in order to drive down wages—and oftentimes mistreat those workers.” An ICE Worksite Enforcement Advisory claims “unscrupulous employers are likely to pay illegal workers substandard wages or force them to endure intolerable working conditions.” Curing intolerable conditions by firing workers who endure them doesn’t help the workers or change the conditions, however. Instead, the administration’s rhetoric has fed efforts to blame immigrants for “stealing jobs” and for undermining wages.

The DHS workplace enforcement wave is focusing, not on low-wage employers, but on high-wage, and often unionized ones. There is a long history of anti-union animus among immigration authorities. Agents have set up roadblocks before union elections in California fields, conducted raids during meatpacking organizing drives in North Carolina and Iowa, audited janitorial employers and airline food plants prior to union contract negotiations, and helped companies terminate close to a thousand apple packers when they tried to join the Teamsters Union in Washington state.

Unscrupulous employers use their vulnerability to deny undocumented workers the minimum wage or overtime, and to fire workers when they protest or organize. This affects workers in general. After deporting over 1000 employees of Swift meatpacking plants, former Homeland Security Secretary Chertoff called for linking “effective interior enforcement and a temporary-worker program.’’ The government is again giving a cheap labor subsidy to large employers. Deportations, firings and guest worker programs all make labor cheaper and union organizing harder.

Meanwhile, some states and local communities, seeing a green light from the Department of Homeland Security, have passed measures that go even further. The Arizona legislature has passed a law requiring employers to verify the immigration status of every worker through a federal database called E-Verify, and fire workers whose names get flagged. It then passed a law, SB 1070, requiring police to check the immigration status of all people they stop on the street. Mississippi passed a bill making it a felony for an undocumented worker to hold a job, with jail time of 1-10 years, fines of up to $10,000 and no bail for anyone arrested. States like Georgia and Alabama have passed bills even more repressive than Arizona’s. Congress itself has passed bills requiring similar use of the E-Verify database, which were supported by both political parties.

Workplace raids and firings are part of an overall program for increasing immigration enforcement. One of its most bitterly-fought elements is the growing connection between police departments and immigration authorities. Under President Bush, the federal government began implementing “287g” agreements, under which local police departments shared information and turned over to immigration agents people arrested for even minor traffic violations. Those agreements then were codified in a federal program called “Secure Communities.” At first, ICE tried to sign agreements with state and local law enforcement bodies, requiring them to turn over the fingerprints of anyone with whom they came into contact. The Obama administration claimed that it was only seeking criminals for deportation.

In practice, however, this increased cooperation led to the detention of hundreds of thousands of immigrants with no criminal record, who were held simply because they were undocumented. Deportations skyrocketed. Over a million people have been deported from the U.S. as a result of all this combined enforcement since Obama took office. When even some states tried to pull out of the program, the Department of Homeland Security announced that it didn’t need their agreement, and would continue expanding the program with or without them. A rising wave of protest has met this declaration, as the wave of deportations has grown. In response to criticism, the administration has called for the passage of “comprehensive immigration reform” as its alternative to criminalization and mass removals – essentially using blackmail and repression to advance the corporate immigration reform program.

David Bacon is a writer and photojournalist based in Oakland and Berkeley, California. He has been a reporter and documentary photographer for 18 years, shooting for many national publications. He has exhibited his work nationally, and in Mexico, the UK and Germany. Bacon covers issues of labor, immigration and international politics and is an associate editor at Pacific News Service and a regular contributor to the Americas Program.

The report “Displaced, Unequal and Criminalized – Fighting for the Rights of Migrants in the United States” was prepared for the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation.


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