Oakland, California – A year ago, in the middle of the nation’s most bitterly fought union organizing drive, management at the Smithfield Foods pork slaughterhouse in Tar Heel, North Carolina, sent a letter to 300 workers. The company,
For the last two decades, employers have threatened, and often implemented, similar terminations in workplace after workplace. At the Woodfin Suites in
Now the Bush administration says that vastly increased checks will become a fact of life in every
The scope of Chertoff’s order is staggering. About 12 million people living in the
Yet if the Chertoff regulation is implemented as announced, as many as eight or nine million people will lose their jobs at the end of this year.
Merry Christmas. You’re fired.
The impact will be catastrophic. Most undocumented families live close to the margin as it is, from paycheck to paycheck. They would suddenly have no means to buy food, pay rent, clothe their children or send them to school. The human suffering would be immense. Working- class communities already stretched to provide services to currently unemployed workers would have no means to meet this additional need. Undocumented immigrants are ineligible for welfare, food stamps, unemployment insurance, and almost all other public benefits.
Tens of thousands of workplaces would fall silent, as those industries most dependent on immigrant labor would virtually cease to function. Crop cultivation and harvesting would stop immediately. So would meatpacking and most food processing. Hotels and restaurants would turn away customers.
Construction would stall, as laborers and other lower-paid workers would disappear. Shutting down construction would put skilled, citizen workers on the streets as well. In convalescent homes, the absence of undocumented caregivers would cause a crisis for the sick, disabled and elderly of all races and nationalities.
Many of these industries contribute heavily to Bush and the Republican Party, including to candidates who have called for this kind of draconian immigration enforcement. Accepted wisdom in
At the August 10 press conference, both Chertoff and Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez provided an explanation. Employers worried about the loss of their workers, Gutierrez said, could avail themselves of existing guest worker programs, which allow corporations to recruit workers outside the
In recent years, companies have pushed relentlessly to relax caps on guest worker recruitment, and cut already-weak requirements for housing, wages and labor protections. As the cries of employers for workers become louder, it’s not hard to predict that Congress will eventually be asked to authorize new contract labor schemes. Providing legal status to people here without papers, however, is excluded from this agenda.
Chertoff’s enforcement regulations, and Gutierrez’s guest worker expansion, simply implement by executive order provisions of the immigration bill Congress wouldn’t pass two months ago. That bill also coupled big guest-worker programs with no-match checks and raids. These are the centerpieces of the administration’s immigration reform program, and were originally proposed by some of the country’s largest corporations and industry groups.
“We do not have the workers our economy needs to keep growing each year,” Gutierrez said at the recent press conference. “The demographics simply are not on our side. Ultimately, Congress will have to pass comprehensive immigration reform.” Chertoff rolled out the same message last year, after huge immigration raids at the Swift meatpacking plants. Congress had to understand, he said, that Bush wants “a program that would allow businesses that need foreign workers, because they can’t otherwise satisfy their labor needs, to be able to get those workers in a regulated program.”
Firing millions of workers to gain leverage in Congress is a brutal tactic, but the administration’s pressure campaign of raids and no- match checks has been growing for the last two years. Often its enforcement actions on the ground are carried out in cooperation with employers.
When the no-match firings began at
At the Woodfin Suites in Emeryville, after the company began to threaten no-match terminations, the city council went to court to prevent the firings. Then Congressman Brian Bilbray (R-San Diego), chair of the House Immigration Caucus, called Homeland Security on behalf of company president Samuel Hardage. Bilbray got the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement to jumpstart an investigation of the immigration status of the workers who sought to enforce the city’s living wage ordinance. All were eventually fired.
Firings for no-match discrepancies are a misuse of the Social Security database. SSA was created not to punish workers, but to benefit them by making disability payments when they get injured and providing pensions when they’re too old to work. But for twenty years, successive administrations have tried to use Social Security as a tool for immigration enforcement. Employers have used those efforts as pretexts to discharge employees when they organize unions, demand better wages and try to enforce labor standards, or simply to replace higher-paid workers with lower-piad ones.
In the past, the Social Security Administration has sometimes been uncomfortable with this betrayal of its mission. Community protest in the 1990s convinced SSA to include a paragraph in no-match letters warning employers not to interpret them as evidence of lack of legal immigration status. In 1999, in the middle of the huge Operation Vanguard immigration raids, SSA even denied the Immigration and Naturalization Service access to its database, after 3,000 people were driven from their jobs in
Because firing several million people at once would be economically disastrous to the administration’s corporate supporters, actual enforcement will be, as always, selective. At the August press conference, Chertoff acknowledged that ICE couldn’t track down every failure to fire workers listed in no-match letters, but would instead mount highly publicized raids to scare employers into line. The order is intended to encourage employers to act on their own, as
It’s time for a few reality checks about what this enforcement scheme will and won’t accomplish.
* Reality check 1: Workers who lose their jobs won’t leave the country. Immigrant communities are deeply imbedded in the social fabric of this country, not only in cities like
* Reality check 2: When Bush and many Congress members push for new free trade agreements and implementation of NAFTA and CAFTA, they are creating the very conditions of poverty which are driving people north. With 200 million people in the world living outside the countries where they were born, the flow of migration is not stoppable. Anti-immigrant measures like raids and no-match checks create human misery, but don’t stop the movement of people.
* Reality check 3: Firing millions of undocumented migrants won’t create jobs or raise wages for other workers. When Operation Vanguard railroaded thousands of immigrant workers out of
* Reality check 4: Employers complain about the no-match regulation, and many are sincerely concerned about its impact on business and workers. But some employers will benefit. Increased fear and vulnerability makes immigrant labor cheaper, by making it riskier to protest bad conditions, or ask for higher wages.
These realities are inspiring a rising wave of protest in unions and immigrant communities. The week after Chertoff’s announcement, the United Food and Commercial Workers, the union for the meatpacking industry, held a conference in
“We have to do everything we can to stop these aggressive enforcement actions,” said Mark Lauritzen, UFCW packinghouse division director. “Last December [in the Swift raids] workers became criminals just by going to work. The administration is using ICE as a political hammer to beat up on them.”
“Democrats should remember that undocumented people live in Latino and Asian families and communities that include millions of citizens as well,” warned MAPA President Nativo Lopez. “They will need our votes next year to elect a new administration. If they don’t defend us now, they give us no reason to come out to the polls a year from now.”
Both Lopez and Ernesto Medrano, organizer for Teamsters Local 952 in
David Bacon is a California photojournalist who documents labor, migration and globalization. His book Communities Without Borders was just published by Cornell University/ILR Press.