Ending the Amnesty for Abusive Employers

This article was originally published by Eric Haas of the Rockridge Institute on November 25, 2007.

We were recently asked how progressives can reframe the immigration debate, moving it away from the conservative mantra of “illegal immigrants” to larger, more substantive issues.

We agree — the issue must be re-framed. Talking about “illegal immigrants” distracts us and even makes us afraid to face the real issue here: we have an economic system that creates economic insecurity and promotes the exploitation of most American workers for the benefit of a few elites. When we re-frame the issue as one of economic exploitation, we can begin to address the underlying problems that face all workers in America — the need for jobs that are safe, secure, and pay a living wage, combined with health care for everyone.

When the issue becomes an economic one, we can start talking about progressive values, which make it immoral to exploit workers. We can also start talking about why economic exploitation is prevalent in America: conservative policies have weakened unions and drastically restricted workers’ rights, redistributed money through tax cuts from the middle class to the wealthiest 1%, and promoted trade policies like NAFTA that have reduced the wages and job security of workers on both sides of the border. In effect, people fleeing the economic hardship of their home country and coming to the U.S. in search of work are “economic refugees.” Americans, too, can be “economic refugees” inside the U.S., leaving their hometowns due to factory closings, for example, in search of a job wherever they can find it.

DBunn, writing on DailyKos, succinctly presents the economic frame and the progressive solution: (1) make good working conditions a requirement and there will be no advantage in hiring foreign workers without papers and (2) make it easy to report those who cheat and fine those who knowingly exploit workers.

[1] If every American job paid a decent wage and offered safe and humane conditions, and if we had a real national health care system that is not connected to employment, then there would be no “jobs Americans won’t do”, no market of jobs that only an “illegal” immigrant would take. And there would be no incentive for employers to seek out “illegal” immigrants, who don’t have rights or leverage, in preference to American workers, who do. If we eliminate the unfair advantage that employers seek when they hire easily exploitable “illegal” immigrants, we also eliminate 90% of the “illegal” immigrant problem. . .

[2] The big penalties should not be for employers who hire “illegal” immigrants, but for employers who try to cheat on the rules governing living wage and decent working conditions regardless of the legal status of their workers.

If our government did this, every worker in America would benefit. That’s the progressive frame.

So, what are the practical steps needed to implement this re-framing? We see three related elements.

Talk about the real lives of immigrant workers

In the U.S., we have millions of people from other countries who baby-sit our children, cut our grass, wash our dishes in restaurants, pick the fruit and vegetables we eat for dinner, and change the sheets in our hotel rooms — among many other jobs — who don’t have the work papers necessary to do these things in accordance with our laws. The vast majority are law-abiding, honest, and hard-working people, who have fled their home countries in order to feed themselves and their families by doing the hot, back-breaking, and sometimes dangerous work at such low wages that nearly every American won’t do it. They are economic refugees.

Ignoring all that they contribute, many people give these foreign workers the Scarlet “I” and label them “illegal” immigrants. What a terrible stigma. Because people often label them as “illegals,” we bar them from full participation in society, such as prohibiting them from getting a drivers license or limiting their emergency medical treatment. These exclusions are on top of the constant threat of being cheated of wages, arrested, jailed, separated from family members, and deported.

Tragically, it is hard to imagine a more helpful act of “breaking the law” that what economic refugees do for America. They do the work that nearly every “legal” American won’t do at wages and under conditions that are often oppressive and unlivable. In effect, they are subsidizing with their lives the cheap living of the rest of us enjoy.

But we must change more than how we understand and describe the lives of these economic refugees. We must reframe the issue itself to one of economic exploitation of all workers in America.

Move the discussion to the economic exploitation of all workers in America

The sympathy for the consciously exploiting employer brings us to the necessity for reframing this issue. The issue is bigger than individual workers, and we must move beyond that, even beyond the phrase “economic refugees.” We must start talking about the “cheap labor trap” and why treating people, both immigrants and U.S. born, as more important than cheap prices will make us all safer and more secure.

Remember, framing the issue as one of “illegal immigrants” is a red herring that distracts us from the economic exploitation or cheap labor trap frame and the real solutions needed to solve these problems. As David Sirota writes, it’s a political misdirection con game employed by many Republicans and Democrats that is “deplorable” and “stunning for its depravity.”

Progressive values start with empathy for the lives of others and a responsibility to act on that empathy, which helps build strong communities. Through strong communities, we are all safer, more secure, healthier, and more prosperous — we all thrive together. Economically, that means two requirements: (1) standards for safe working conditions and living wages combined with health care for all; and (2) effective mechanisms for reporting employers who violate these standards and fining those who do so knowingly.

Exploiting working people — whether they’re U.S. citizens or not — is wrong. It violates Judeo-Christian commandments, among other moral and religious codes, to help improve the lives of the most vulnerable among us, treating them with dignity and love. It hurts us economically, too. The immediate savings we get on a cheaper Wal-Mart shirt or Smithfield slice of bacon, we pay for later in higher taxes for the social services that these exhausted workers need, having been wrung out by their employer. For example, a study released in 2005 showed that “Wal-Mart does increase Medicaid expenditures by roughly $898 per worker.” This practice is the norm among many large corporations that employ workers at low wages. A newspaper investigation in Alabama in 2005, discovered these statistics:

Many workers at some of the largest companies operating in Alabama get insurance for themselves and their children through state programs and not from their employers. . .

Retail giant Wal-Mart tops the list of companies in Alabama whose employees have children on Medicaid, the Advertiser reported, citing state records. Wal-Mart workers’ children account for 3,864 children on the Medicaid rolls at a cost between $5.8 million and $8.2 million.

Trailing Wal-Mart employees were workers for fast-food giant McDonald’s, with 1,615 children on Medicaid. There are a total of 1,380 Medicaid children whose parents work for Taco Bell, KFC and Pizza Hut, fast-food businesses owned by Yum! Brands.

In the economic exploitation frame, the problem is conservative policies and greedy employers. Blaming the desperate workers, the economic refugees, both foreign and American born, makes little sense.

Change the language of the issue

We must also change the language we use; however, there is no simple answer here. As Lakoff and Ferguson describe in their Rockridge paper, The Framing of Immigration (2006), there is no perfect phrase for describing workers who come here and work without the papers to do so. They prefer the term “economic refugee,” which I use in this paper, to terms like “undocumented workers” or “workers without papers.” Their paper should be read for a deeper discussion of these terms. The most important point is that simply changing to a different phrase will never be enough by itself. It must be followed with a discussion of the larger issue of economic exploitation, if the discussion is to move to real solutions.

So, start using the phrase “economic refugees” — it’s more accurate and honest about who immigrant workers are and what they do and it’s also applicable to American workers forced from their hometowns by lack of jobs. But don’t stop there.

At the same time, we must stop using the phrase “illegal immigrant” — it is misleading and damaging. Referring to low wage foreign workers without papers—who are really economic refugees — as “illegal” is especially harmful and should never be used. It wrongly evokes feeling of danger and immorality, like illegal drugs. We would never call people who jaywalk “illegal walkers” or people who speed “illegal drivers.” It doesn’t fit. It’s too harsh. The stigma of the “illegal” label doesn’t fit the “crime.” Recently in the New York Times, Lawrence Downes described the damage caused by the phrase “illegal immigrant”: “There is no way out of that trap. It’s the crime you can’t make amends for. Nothing short of deportation will free you from it . . . It pollutes the debate. It blocks solutions.”

The tragic irony is that workers who are foreign-born economic refugees actually make the lives of “legal” Americans easier, usually at the expense of their own lives and that of their families.

Further, the term “illegal immigrant” misses the exploitive lawbreakers — the people who pay lower wages to workers without papers, taking advantage of the workers’ need to feed their families. So, we should ask: who should be called illegal here? Wealthy couples who hire nannies, house-cleaners, or yard-workers without papers are breaking the law. Should we call all such couples “illegals”? Should restaurant owners who hire cooks, waiters, or dishwashers without papers be called “illegals”? Beyond labels, should those couples and business people be arrested and hauled into court for breaking the law?

And we should ask, why do they do it? Perhaps, it is because these people want the work done without paying a fair wage, a wage where an American with work papers would do it. Many times, these “illegal” employers don’t even pay a living wage.

Right now these employers are subject to an “amnesty.” There are minimal, if any, consequences for consciously exploiting desperate people for profit. Worse yet, newspapers don’t even bring up this possibility. A recent New York Times article, for example, discussed the arrest of workers without papers (labeling them “illegal immigrants”) at a Smithfield meat processing plant in North Carolina, as a difficult situation for the employer! The New York Times was sympathetic to the difficulties that Smithfield was now under in finding American workers to do smelly, dangerous, and grueling work at very low wages. There was no discussion of the employer as “illegal” and no punishment for Smithfield; instead, there was concern for the plight of Smithfield:

Since then [the raids], more than 1,100 Hispanic workers have left the 5,200-employee hog-butchering plant, the world’s largest, leaving it struggling to find, train and keep replacements.

Across the country, the federal effort to flush out illegal immigrants is having major effects on workers and employers alike. Some companies have reluctantly raised wages to attract new workers following raids at their plants.

These desperate workers will be arrested and eventually they will be jailed and deported, while the employer is given sympathy. Isn’t this wrong? Isn’t it hypocritical and dishonest? It is, and we should start saying that.

As the question suggests and these examples show, the frame of “illegal immigrants” is well-entrenched in public discussion and the minds of Americans. There is a lot we need to do to change the frame, and we can begin by enlarging discussions to the issue of the exploitation of workers in a false cheap labor trap, including the specific use of the term “economic refugees,” applying it to both foreign and American-born workers. We can demand economic policies that place workers’ lives ahead of excessive corporate profits. We can demand fair, safe working conditions and living wages, plus health care for all. We can demand that our government stop employers who knowingly violate these basic standards of human dignity. It will not be easy to change to a progressive frame. But the good news is that all of us will benefit, if we do.