Thursday, April 29, 2010

Why Arizona's immigration bill won't make much difference

Arizona's Senate Bill 1070, signed by Governor Jan Brewer last Friday, has the nation's knickers in a knot. I agree with President Obama, who called the law
a "misguided" piece of legislation that "threaten[s] to undermine basic notions of fairness that we cherish as Americans, as well as the trust between police and their communities that is so crucial to keeping us safe. "
In spite of the law's claim to reject racial profiling, its first effect will surely be to increase harassment of Hispanics. For many of the law's supporters, however, this is not a drawback. Indeed, it is the main benefit of the legislation - not to send all undocumented immigrants back to their countries of origin, but to scare the ones who stay.

Think about it. If you ran a business that required a large number of unskilled workers - people who would pick vegetables, for instance, or slaughter pigs - fear could be your ally. Hire a man who is desperate for money and tell him that one misstep will put him on the bus to Nogales. He's not going to complain too loudly if his wages drop below the federally mandated minimum, or if he doesn't get health insurance or sick leave, or if he is required to work 12 or more hours a day with no overtime pay, or even if he is injured while working in dangerous conditions. He's certainly not going to join a union and demand fair labor practices. In fact, he may make his pre-adolescent children join him in the fields. He'll let you get away with a lot, because your small paycheck beats no paycheck at all. And then, when you don't need him anymore, you can lay him off. He can't do anything about it.

Yes, if you treat him that way, you are breaking Arizona's law, which -  like federal law and the laws of all other states - makes it illegal to employ and then mistreat undocumented immigrants. The problem is that these laws are rarely enforced. According to journalist and political activist Deborah White,
In 1999, under President Bill Clinton, the US government collected $3.69 million in fines from 890 companies for employing undocumented workers. In 2004, under President George Bush, the federal government collected $188,500 from 64 companies for such illegal employment practices. And in 2004, the Bush Administration levied NO fines for US companies employing undocumented workers.
Has there been a change under President Obama? Law professor Kris W. Kobach, defending Arizona's law in today's New York Times, says that "the Obama administration has scaled back work-site enforcement and otherwise shown it does not consider immigration laws to be a high priority." By contrast, Greg Moran, writing Sunday in San Diego's Union-Tribune, refers to "a stepped-up effort by the Obama administration to attack illegal immigration by cracking down on the employers who hire them." Whatever the truth about the present administration, the situation continues to be grave. According to the United Farm Workers of America's website,
Federal reports indicate between 50 percent and two-thirds of U.S. farm workers are undocumented. The UFW’s experience in areas where it is active, including the Central Valley, is that it is 90 percent or more.
Q. Why aren't we conducting massive raids on businesses so grossly violating federal and state law? Wouldn't that be more effective than targeting the immigrants themselves?

A. Yes, of course. Mexicans don't move to Arizona because they like the sunsets. But if every American business that employs undocumented workers were heavily fined, repeat violators were shut down, and undocumented employees were returned to their native lands, the food industry would collapse.

The collapse would not be permanent, of course. We have to eat. Businesses that formerly hired illegal immigrants would scramble to hire American citizens and legal immigrants. In order to do so, they would have to give their employees legally mandated protections. This would in turn dramatically increase the price of food. Voters - even the ones that backed get-tough laws against illegal immigrants - would be outraged.

Interestingly, if we changed our laws in the other direction and gave every undocumented worker in America a green card, prices would also skyrocket. Legal workers get legal protections, and this greatly increases the cost of human resources. Voters - even the ones that backed amnesty and permanent residency for illegal immigrants - might be less enthusiastic about paying double for food.

And that is why I think Arizona's legislation - and indeed, reforms currently under discussion by the administration - won't make much difference. Politicians depend on voters, and voters do not like rising prices. Politicians also depend on major financial contributors, and agribusiness spends big on PAC contributions and lobbying. One of the easiest ways to keep food prices low and agribusiness happy is to keep the workforce scared.

So I expect to see a flurry of state laws aimed at pacifying nativists and frightening foreigners. Some undocumented workers will be rounded up and shipped home. Most will not. Business will continue as usual. In the words of Amos the shepherd, we affluent Americans will continue to "sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals, ... [to] trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and push the afflicted out of the way."

1 comment:

Brad Boydston said...

Immigration enforcement in Maricopa County by our infamous sheriff has focused primarily on raiding business which employee significant numbers of undocumented aliens.

He has been doing that under his interpretation of federal statute. If the new Arizona law goes into effect he will operate under state statute.

I'm guessing he'll pull off another big raid tomorrow. He seems to enjoy the media attention. And there is a lot of that on Arizona this week. He is testing the waters for a possible gubernatorial run.