Immigration Reform Alone Won’t End Workplace Wrongs

The national discussion on immigration reform is heating up now that the “Gang of Eight” plans to release its detailed version of the Senate bill. As with similar efforts in past years to pass comprehensive immigration reform through Congress, the draft legislation to start the process will undergo massive changes as legislators debate the issue, especially as it moves into the House of Representatives. Yet one point has received considerably less attention in the national debate, but will probably make the most difference to most immigrants and the economy– the enforcement of workplace rights.

I have been involved in the debate on immigration reform now for more than 25 years, since the passage of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA). I have seen the demographics of the country shift and have witnessed this debate in many stages and from many perspectives.

One thing we learned from the Immigration Reform Control Act (IRCA) of 1986 is that it fell dramatically short when it came to improving the working conditions of the estimated three million immigrants who gained legal status. We found that for many workers, legal status was a pathway into low-wage jobs. We know from best estimates that since 1986 the earnings of low-skilled workers have generally grown more slowly relative to the wages of other workers. By focusing the bulk of its efforts on an employer sanction law, IRCA failed to do anything about lack of workplace protections that already existed in low-wage industries. It created a status for people to work legally in these industries, but did not address labor protection laws.

On a daily basis, millions of low-wage workers, immigrant and native born, suffer egregious wage and hour violations. The UCLA Labor Center was been involved in a national survey of low-wage workers to document wage theft in America’s three largest cities, Los Angeles, New York and Chicago. According to this study, low-wage workers in these  cities lose $56 million per week from wage-theft violations. Los Angeles is the wage-theft capital of the country, with low-wage workers losing $26.2 million per week. The weekly minimum wage violations for these workers did not distinguish significantly between authorized (28.4 percent) and unauthorized (38.8 percent) workers.

Immigration status has been used as an excuse to keep workers in exploitative conditions. Yet one major misconception in the immigration debate is that granting citizenship will solve all related problems in the workplace. Eleven million people, many of them already working in the low-wage sector, could potentially join the ranks of the U.S. labor force in an official status. If we do not take the right steps, their exploitative working conditions will most likely not change. Instead, we will continue to subsidize the wage theft crisis.

I’d like to propose what I see as major principles, or values, that any immigration policy must include. The AFL-CIO, worker center networks, and major immigrant rights coalitions, have released statements that reflect some, or all, of these values.

1.  Establish full labor and workplace rights and protections for all workers regardless of immigration status.

2.  Create and implement an effective plan to enforce labor and workplace rights of all workers.

3.  Protect workers from employer retaliation by expanding the U visa to include workers who are victims of wage theft or other workplace violations.

4.  Expand the anti-discrimination provisions of the Immigration and Nationality Act to cover all workers and to ensure an effective remedy for workers who are discriminated against on the basis of national origin, citizenship and immigration-status.

5.  Restrict the use of the flawed E-Verify System. As such, mandating electronic employment verification lessens the power of all workers and threatens the jobs and privacy of many citizens and work-authorized immigrants.

6.  Establish a mechanisms for effective partnerships between government enforcement agencies and labor unions, worker centers and other workers’ right organizations.

History shows that citizenship alone will not lead to fair workplaces. Lola Smallwood Cuevas, director of the Black Worker Center, in a recent conversation, said it best:

We know from civil rights history that when African Americans became citizens and gained voting rights, this did not necessarily change their working conditions. Many people forget that toward the end of Dr. King’s life he was working hard for both freedom and jobs. The jobs part of this struggle still remains.

It is up to us to change the course of history and put fair workplaces at the center of any policy, including immigration reform.


This article originally appeared on the Huffington Post.