Will immigration reform protect workers?
As House Republicans mull maiming the Senate’s immigration bill, a thousand pundits are asking what their moves will mean for future elections. Meanwhile, far from the spotlight, some courageous immigrant workers are asking whether Congress will finally disarm employers who use immigration status to silence employees. If Congress punts on immigration reform, or merely passes an industry wish list, it will have doubled-down on complicity in a little-discussed trend that’s driving down working conditions for U.S.-born and immigrant workers alike: For too many employers, immigration law is a tool to punish workers who try to organize.
The workers watching Congress include Ana Rosa Diaz, who last year was among the Mexican H-2B visa guest workers at CJ’s Seafood in Louisiana, peeling crawfish sold by Walmart. Accounts from workers and an NGO assessment suggest the CJ’s workers had ample grievances, from the manager that threatened them with a shovel, to the worms and lizards in the moldy trailers where they slept, to the swamp fungus that left sticky blisters on their fingers as they raced through shifts that could last twenty hours.
To maintain that miserable status quo, workers allege, management regularly resorted to threats. The most dramatic came in May 2012, when they say CJ’s boss Mike LeBlanc showed up at the start of their 2 a.m. shift to tell them he knew they were plotting against him, and that he knew “bad men” back in Mexico, and to remind them that — through labor recruiters there — he knew where their families lived. Then LeBlanc ticked off some names, including Diaz’s daughter. Diaz told me the threat of violence was all too clear: “I’ve never been so afraid of anybody in my life.”
Long before that speech, CJ’s workers say their managers deployed an all-too-common threat, what they call the “black list”: not just being deported back to Mexico, but being prevented by recruiters there from ever working in the United States again. “That’s what makes us the bosses’ subjects,” Diaz told me in a 2012 interview. “We’ve realized most bosses use the same tactics…” said her co-worker Martha Uvalle. “‘I’ll send you back to Mexico. I’ll report you to immigration. You’ll never come back.’” (CJ’s Seafood did not respond to various reporters’ requests for comment last year, including mine. Efforts to reach the company for comment last week were unsuccessful.)
Guest workers aren’t the only immigrants whose bosses can wield their immigration status as a weapon. Too often, employers who’ve happily gotten rich off the labor of undocumented workers develop a sudden interest in those employees’ legal status once they start speaking up. A few days after three-year subcontracted food court employee Antonio Vanegas joined a strike in the government-owned Ronald Reagan Building, he was detained by Homeland Security and placed in a four-day immigration detention. The same day that workers at Milwaukee’s Palermo’s Pizza plant presented their boss with a union petition, management presented workers with letters stating they’d need to verify their legal status. Ten days later, Palermo’s fired 75 striking workers, arguing it was just following immigration law.
For every immigrant worker that risks retaliation, there are others that choose not to, chastened by a well-founded fear that their status will be used against them. (There’s a risk of retaliation anytime U.S. workers try to exercise workplace rights, but the threat for undocumented or guest workers is particularly acute.) That vulnerability holds back the efforts of unions and other labor groups to organize and transform low-wage industries — or even to ensure employers pay minimum wage to their workers, immigrant or otherwise. It helps explain why the center of gravity in organized labor — long the site of struggles between exclusion and equality — has swung decisively in recent decades to support immigration reform. Rather than pushing to deport immigrants, unions (including my former employer) are mostly trying to organize them. The less leverage employers have over immigrants’ legal status, the more leverage immigrant and U.S.-born workers will have to wrest dollars and dignity from their bosses together.
The Senate’s immigration bill takes a few key steps to make that easier, each of which activists expect will face strong opposition in the House. The bill features a path to citizenship that organizers expect will help disarm deportation-happy bosses by allowing millions of workers to obtain secure and equal legal status. It creates a new “W visa” program with more labor protections that advocates hope will become a template to someday replace existing guest worker programs like the H-2B. And the bill includes several anti-retaliation measures designed to stem abuse: from more chances for workers who exposed crimes to get special visas or stays of deportation, to language overturning a Supreme Court decision that prevented illegally fired undocumented workers from getting back pay.
Those pro-labor provisions already come with painful sacrifices. Even before the Senate pegged it to a militarized “border surge,” that path to citizenship was long and littered with obstacles. Those include a requirement of near-continuous employment that advocates warn could still leave immigrants especially vulnerable to retaliatory firings, and an exclusion based on criminal convictions that — combined with a mandate that employers use the controversial status-checking software e-Verify — could leave some workers more vulnerable than ever. And advocates note that the H-2B program could at least temporarily more than double in size during the bill, though it would be subject to some modest new protections.
Facing a hostile House, labor officials are framing those Senate compromises as a floor for labor language in immigration reform: “There can be no further erosion of rights, and we’re protecting that as it goes to the House,” says Ana Avendaño, the AFL-CIO’s Director of Immigration and Community Action. But the Senate provisions are more likely to be treated as a ceiling. “We’ll lose all of the worker protection stuff in the House,” said a different advocate working on immigration for a union, and then “hope that reason prevails in the conference” committee tasked with reconciling Senate and House legislation.
The CJ’s Seafood story has an unusual ending: After their boss’s implied threat to their families, Diaz and seven of her co-workers mounted an against-the-odds strike. “We felt,” Diaz told me, “that if we didn’t do something to stop this, sometime in the future, it would be our children going through it.” You won’t find much such courage in Congress.
PHOTO: Workers peeling crawfish in Louisiana. Courtesy National Guestworker Alliance.