On August 7, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents carried out coordinated raids at seven agricultural processing plants in Mississippi, detaining 680 immigrant workers. Officials told The Washington Post that the operation was “the largest single-state workplace enforcement action in U.S. history.”
The massive operation generated terror in immigrant communities already traumatized by a massacre targeting people of Mexican origin in El Paso, Texas, days earlier, and much of the U.S.-born population was outraged by images of detained workers’ sobbing children.
As has happened after workplace raids in the past, news accounts noted that the employers remained free while their workers were led off to migrant jails in handcuffs. Politicians and social media users quickly responded by calling for the arrest of the company owners who hired the undocumented workers; many people remarked on President Trump’s record of using unauthorized labor in his own businesses.
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No doubt the people who want bosses imprisoned have good intentions, but they’re missing the point. More arrests won’t help either immigrant or U.S.-born workers. What working people really need is an end to the raids, a repeal of the laws and policies that make the raids possible, and a rejection of the assumptions on which these laws and policies are based.
The “Employer Sanctions” Myth
Workplace raids have a long history in the United States, but the current practice gets its justification from the so-called “employer sanctions” in the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, a requirement for companies to verify the immigration status of new hires and pay fines if they fail to do so. The rationale for the measure was a claim that it would discourage undocumented immigrants from seeking work here. Proponents said this would benefit U.S.-born workers by limiting competition from low-wage foreigners.
The idea that employer sanctions would reduce unauthorized immigration got a real-life test over the next two decades: the undocumented population tripled, from 4 million to more than 12 million. (The undocumented population has since declined to about 10.5 million.)
This should have been enough to convince policy makers that restrictions on legal employment in the United States wouldn’t be enough to offset the push factors — such as the North American Free Trade Agreement — that might lead workers to move here from nearby countries. The AFL-CIO got the message: The labor federation originally supported employer sanctions, but in 2000, it called for their elimination.
In contrast, the U.S. political class responded to the sanctions’ failure by doubling down. In the late 1990s, politicians and the media began hyping E-Verify, a program that seeks to enforce the sanctions by having employers check new hires’ documents against an online government database. But E-Verify, too, has been a resounding failure. It is fairly easy to circumvent, and its main achievement seems to be in pushing more undocumented immigrants into the underground economy, where they face lower wages and less labor protections.
“We Will Be Hunted”
If employer sanctions don’t stop undocumented immigrants from settling in the U.S., what do they accomplish?
Back in 1986, immigrant workers correctly predicted the effect the measure would have. “[W]e will be hunted,” a Mexican man told The New York Times as he waited to cross the border into California. “The employers who are willing to hire us will take advantage of us. They will threaten to turn us in. They will want to pay us less because they will say they are taking a risk to give us jobs.”
Employers used threats of deportation to keep undocumented workers in line before 1986, but the new law gave bosses even greater leverage. Academic studies indicate that undocumented workers make significantly less than documented workers with similar qualifications — between 6 percent and 20 percent — and there’s evidence that the current “wage penalty” for being undocumented is largely a consequence of employer sanctions.
By depressing wages for undocumented workers, the sanctions also depress wages for U.S.-born workers seeking jobs in the same fields — a result exactly opposite to the one the law was supposed to produce. Moreover, workplace raids play an important role in this process of keeping wages down and profits up.
In 2000, an immigration official admitted that the authorities rarely detained undocumented workers “unless the employer turns a worker in, and employers usually do that only to break a union or prevent a strike or that kind of stuff.” Immigration officials are more circumspect now, but there are indications that “that kind of stuff” may still be triggering workplace actions.
One of the plants raided on August 7 was a Morton, Mississippi, facility owned by Illinois-based poultry giant Koch Foods Inc. In 2018, Koch Foods had to pay $3.75 million to settle an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission suit over racial and sexual harassment of Latina workers there.
Unlike many food processing plants, the one in Morton has a union, the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), which also represents workers at another Koch plant swept up in the raids. (The company has no connection to Charles and David Koch’s Koch Industries.)
“Ending the Climate of Fear”
This isn’t the first time ICE has focused on plants where the workers have joined unions and fought for better conditions. In June 2018, agents raided a Fresh Mark facility in Salem, Ohio, where the workers are represented by the Retail Wholesale and Department Store Union; the action came a week after the Occupational Safety and Health Administration fined Fresh Mark $211,194 for allowing hazardous work conditions. The current raids follow a pattern from the George W. Bush administration, when plants with union representation or with unionization drives seemed to be favorite targets for workplace operations.
While it’s true that individual companies may have their businesses disrupted by raids, ICE’s operations benefit employers as a whole. Dramatic workplace roundups help create the situation that UFCW spokesperson Abraham White described after the Mississippi sweeps: “Workers across this country are too scared to stand up for their rights and to report wage theft, dangerous work conditions, and other workplace issues.” White called for “ending this dangerous climate of fear.”
Demands to arrest bosses for hiring immigrants without the proper papers will do nothing to combat the fear — especially in the context of union-busting workplace raids. The way working people can overcome fear and win better wages and conditions is, as it’s always been, by organizing and by firmly resisting the political class’s efforts to create divisions through appeals to racism and xenophobia.