Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Immigration and illegal employers

The ongoing problem of illegal immigration inextricably implicates the employers who hire workers unauthorized for U.S. employment. My initial negative attitude toward employers I smeared as "illegal employers" has mellowed as I've volunteered in immigration circles.

The common assumption: Were people not so willing to hire unauthorized immigrants, they would not come. That judgment sneaks through, for instance, in a recent editorial in the New York Times:
The border is not impenetrable; few land boundaries are. But no number of boots on the ground, and no amount of fence-building, will choke off the flow of illegal immigrants entirely as long as employers demand their services in the United States. Of the 11 million undocumented immigrants in this country, an estimated 7 million hold jobs, despite the spike in unemployment of the past few years. ~the New York Times, 5/14/2011

It is a simple premise: stop "illegal employers" and you stop "illegal immigration." But, while I'm not defending the unscrupulous capitalist, I've talked to enough people to see that simple solutions and snap judgments don't stand up to the complexity of the U.S. immigration problem.

First, it is not the employer's responsibility to be an immigration agent. If the employer makes a reasonable and honest effort to ascertain a laborer's authorization to work, they have done what they need to do. It's not their job to sniff out counterfeit documents or to take on the role of a mini-CBP agent. We cannot blame them if the system has not sent them authorized prospective employees.

Second, the seven million employed immigrants currently working in the U.S. without worker documentation are performing jobs that the U.S. middle class and the U.S. poor are unwilling and unable to do. They take the jobs that are dirty, difficult and dangerous. They are farmworkers, construction workers, maintenance workers. They work as housekeepers and as yard workers. They slaughter our animals and process our meat. They are nannies for wealthy children. They flip hamburgers in the fast food industry. They assume positions that neither we nor our children want--as careers.

A woman I know well enough to attest to her good heart told me that the small family-owned restaurant-- into which she and her husband pour their lives--could not function without workers who are not authorized. "There aren't employees for us, otherwise," she admitted frankly. "We really have to rely on them."

I realized that I was looking into the face of an "illegal employer." But she did not fit my image.

She was uneasy. She was concerned. She felt stuck in a bad situation. And she and her husband, who rely so completely on their kitchen workers, did what they could to help their workers function in the dysfunctional dilemma of living "illegally" in a foreign land.

She described the painful choices she saw workers face. Sometimes, for instance, workers must attend to family back home, knowing they may not be able to return again to the U.S. under its tightened security. Then, it is back to "square one" not only for them, but also for the restaurant. The owners must live with the employee's choices much as the employees must cope with their adopted country's broken immigration system.

The group I judgmentally termed "illegal employers" have many more options, but they are equally stuck in an antiquated immigration system that the nation will not fix.

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