Who is at fault for illegal immigration?

One of the issue in the illegal immigration debate is the kind of work undocumented aliens do.

As Mark Evans noted in his post American employers deserve as much blame as illegal immigrants  a major part of the problem is there are jobs attracting illegal migration.

Migrant work in agriculture has a long history in America. I can remember back in the 1950’s my uncle’s cotton farm in Texas. There are a number of Mexicans living on the farm and working. Whether they were migrants or legal I have no idea because I was just a kid at the time. But the nature of agricultural work being what it is, when the crop needed to be harvested, everyone (including myself) picked cotton, working along side the Mexicans in the field. I distinctly remember the day when Uncle Emil bought a cotton picking machine. Better than sliced bread being able to drive that sucker down the rows sitting up high and not down in the dust and the bugs and the snakes dragging a sack that got heavier and heavier.

Jump forward to the 1960s. I worked out in Avra Valley in the summers on a friend’s cotton farm, driving a tractor and working with a crew of mostly Indians. Hot nasty work that was. First goal in life was to get a college degree and then  an indoor job.,

A group of us worked in the fields in the Central Valley of California one summer. We couldn’t get hired unless we had a “crew chief”, so one of us became the “boss” and made the deals with the farmers for our “crew” to get hired. We learned real fast that “crew chiefs” for migrant workers were some of the lowest scum on the planet, taking a huge percentage of the workers’ wages because the workers couldn’t get work without being in a “crew”. Workers were charged for housing, transportation and food as well as a percentage of their wages by the “crew chiefs”. This was legalized slavery in my book.

The “crew chief ” system is alive and well in America today. Farmers don’t hire individual workers, they deal with “labor contractors”. The  “labor contractor”  business is one of the nastiest and most unregulated activity in the country.

A third experience I’ve had was as attorney for a big farming operation in Pinal County. Every year around 250 migrants would show up from Mexico on October 1st to work the season, and then go home 6 month later. This particular group of workers belong to a Teamsters Union local, and the farm had a labor union contract…one of the few farms in those days to do this. No “crew chiefs” on that farm, and the workers got decent wages and housing.

When Reagan’s so called “amnesty” program went into effect, I worked with the Teamsters and we got everyone one of the 250 workers legalized. They met all the criteria for legalization…and there were tough requirements so it wasn’t a free ride like folks now claim.  But this particular bunch of workers had been coming and going for over a decade to this farm, and as far as I was concerned, America was made a better place by offering these workers a chance to join our country.

I thought then and even more so now that unions are really good for farm workers. I am a great fan of Cesar Chavez. He was on the right track. Take away the abuse of “crew leaders” and get the workers fair wages and decent working conditions. Just having porta potties at the edges of the fields makes a huge difference.

The argument is migrants are doing work Americans won’t. I’m not 100& sure that it true. What I am sure of is the average American will not work for the lousy wages, under horrible working conditions, and under the yoke of “crew chiefs”.

Create fair labor standards in this country and maybe we wouldn’t need so many foreign workers.

A key reform that touches on the immigration issue, but reaches way beyond it, is to provide labor rights protection to farm workers and all sort of other work environments where undocumented workers are now exploited.

One of the first things I would do to change the illegal immigration problem is to not only crack down on businesses that hire undocumented workers, I’d also crack down on their wage and employment tactics. No more “labor contractors”. And if the workers wanted to unionize, protect their rights to do so. An obstacle to that approach is Republicans are genereally as anti-union as they are anti-immigrant.

My guess is a lot of immigration raids in certain sectors are actually triggered by the employer dropping the dime on their illegal works because the workers started complaining about 12 hour shifts, unsafe working conditions, and the failure to pay for overtime. With an endless supply of undocumented workers to fill the jobs of the deported troublemakers, the wage slavery continues.

Many of the industries employing undocumented aliens have exemptions from minimum wage laws. Those exemptions must be eliminated. Then maybe a lot more citizens will take these jobs.

The “crew chief” business needs to be busted up. The agricultural sector has fought unionization because they don’t want the higher costs that union contracts would create.

But is it just the higher costs for labor that is the problem, or the pass through of the higher costs to the ultimate consumer…you and I.

Because we want everything as cheap as possible, our demand for cheapness flows backwards through the system to fuel the need for undocumented workers who can be exploited. That flow back occurs not only in agriculture, but in construction, the hospitality industry, and into our yards and homes.

The reason there are jobs for undocumented workers is because we the American people don’t want to pay workers a fair wage and then pay higher costs for our goods and services. We’re cheap.

So if you want to eliminate illegal entry by undocumented workers, maybe you and I have to accept paying a little more for our lettuce and cucmbubers and grapes and other farm products. And maybe we need to be willing to pay withholding for our maids and gardeners and construction workers.

As Pogo once said “we have met the enemy and he is us”.


About Hugh Holub

Attorney and writer.
This entry was posted in border issues, immigration law reform. Bookmark the permalink.

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