Stop making migration a crime

By David Bacon

 

We need an immigration policy based on human, civil and labour rights, which looks at the reasons why people migrate and how we can end their criminalisation.

We should start by looking at the roots of migration – the reasons why people come to the US in the first place.

Movement is a human right, but we live in a world in which a lot of migration isn’t voluntary, but is forced by poverty and so-called economic reforms.

Immigration reform activists hold a sign in front of Freedom Tower in downtown Miami in January 2013 (AP Photo/Alan Diaz)

US trade policy, and economic ‘reforms’ imposed on countries like Mexico, El Salvador or the Philippines make poverty worse.

When people get poorer and wages go down, it creates opportunities for US corporate investment.  This is what drives our trade policy.  But the human cost is very high.

The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) let US corporations dump corn in Mexico, to take over the market with US imports.

Today Smithfield Foods sells almost a third of all the pork consumed by Mexicans.

Because of this dumping and the market takeover, prices dropped so low that millions of Mexican farmers couldn’t survive.  They had to leave home.

During the years NAFTA has been in effect, the number of people in the US born in Mexico went from 4.5 million to 12.67 million.

Today about 11 per cent of all Mexicans live in the US.  About 5.7 million were able to get some kind of visa, but 7 million couldn’t and came anyway.  They had very little choice, if they wanted their families to survive.

US immigration laws turn migrants into criminals, and make it a crime to work without papers.

We need an immigration policy that stops putting pressure on people to leave, and that doesn’t treat them as criminals if they do.

The labour-supported TRADE Act would convene hearings about the way trade agreements have displaced people in the US and other countries.

Then we should renegotiate those agreements to eliminate the causes of displacement.  New trade agreements, like the Trans-Pacific Partnership, will displace even more people and lower living standards.

We should prohibit it and new ones like it.

The US uses military intervention and aid programs to support trade agreements and market economic reforms.  This also must stop, and instead we should ratify the UN Convention on the Rights of Migrant Workers and Their Families.

The failure of US administrations to present this agreement for ratification highlights another unpleasant truth about our immigration policy.

Millions of migrants are criminalised because they lack immigration status, especially when they go to work.

Since 1986 US law has said that employers will be punished if they hire undocumented workers.

The promoters of these laws said that if work became illegal, undocumented migration would end.  But sanctions clearly failed, since migration mushroomed despite them.

Criminalising employment is no deterrent to those who seek work so their families at home can survive.

These sanctions proved to be anti-labour, because the true objects of punishment have always been workers, not employers.  We have must push to repeal this law.

 

E-verify and terrorise the workers

In any new legalisation, millions of people will not qualify because of stringent requirements, high fees and decades-long waiting periods.

And the day after a new reform passes millions more people will cross the border, especially if a new immigration reform ignores the need to renegotiate trade agreements and eliminate displacement.

These future migrants will come from the same towns, and are already linked to neighborhoods here in the US by the ties created by earlier migration.

They will work in our workplaces, participate in our organising drives, and belong to our unions.  The sanctions law will make it a crime for these future migrants to work.

In one method for enforcing sanctions, an employer screens people it is going to hire, using an error-filled government database, E-verify.  Congress and the administration are calling for making its use mandatory.

If people working without papers lose their jobs, it will be much harder to find others.  That will make them fear joining a union or challenging illegal conditions.

Employers also use E-Verify to reverify the immigration status of current employees, a violation of the law.  They seek to discharge workers who have accumulated benefits and raises over years of service, and replace them with new hires at lower wages.

This just happened to members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union.  Employers also use this to terrorise workers when they organise, as they are doing to workers supporting the United Food and Commercial Workers.

In another tactic, immigration agents compare an employer’s personnel records to the E-Verify database, looking for workers without legal status.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) then makes a list and tells the employer to fire them.  This happened at Pacific Steel Castings in California, last year.  Two hundred and fourteen workers were fired.

Over last four years, hundreds of thousands of workers have lost their jobs in these enforcement actions, including thousands of janitors in California, Washington and Minnesota, meatpacking workers around the country, farm workers, construction workers and others.

Employers were all given reduced fines, and many had immunity from punishment, for cooperating in firing their own workers.

 

The long-term perspective

Making it a crime to work is used to force people into guest worker programs, where workers are deported if they lose their jobs.

When sanctions are used to make workers vulnerable to pressure, to break unions or to force people into guest worker programs, their real effect is forcing people into low wage jobs with no rights.

This is a subsidy for employers, and brings down wages for everyone.  For unions and workers, we must repeal the sanctions law and dismantle the E-Verify database.

Instead we need stricter enforcement of labour standards and worker’s rights.

Threats by employers who use immigration status to keep workers from organising unions or protesting illegal conditions should be a crime.

We should prohibit immigration enforcement during labour disputes or against workers who complain about illegal conditions.

Today undocumented people get ripped off by Social Security.  Working under bad numbers, they pay in but can never collect benefits.

The numbers have become a tool for enforcing immigration instead.  Social Security numbers should be made available for everyone, regardless of immigration status.  Everyone should pay into the system and everyone has a right to the benefits those payments create.

In the end, we need an immigration policy that brings people together, instead of pitting workers against each other.

During economic crisis especially we need to reduce job competition by setting up jobs programs for unemployed workers at the same time workers without papers get legal status.

An immigration policy that benefits migrants, their home communities, and working people here in the US has to have a long term perspective.  We need to ask, where are we going?  What will actually solve our problems?

We need a system that produces security, not insecurity; that moves toward equality and greater rights; and that reduces job competition.

It’s not likely that many corporations will support such a program, so the politicians who represent us must choose whose side they’re on.

 

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