Will immigration reform protect workers?

By Josh Eidelson
July 17, 2013

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.

 

10 comments

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Immigration is destroying the American middle class.

What is happening in America? More and more mass unemployment. Not enough jobs. More and more layoffs. Yet the wealthy want to drive wage rates down even further.

Immigration is driving up rents and driving down wage rates for American families. American rents are skyrocketing due solely to immigration.

There is a huge supply of American citizen labor in the USA that cannot find work.

Yet immigration into America from the fast-breeding impoverished slums of Mexico, India, China, Philippines, Pakistan, Indonesia and Africa is accelerating sharply. Immigration into America has never been higher, people arriving by discount airline flights, buses, on foot, by boat.

Why does America even have a military? We are allowing every impoverished, over-populated, fast-breeding nation in the world to invade us by the millions?

This is a larger invasion than when Hitler invaded Poland, France and Russia combined, and just as damaging. Germany invaded Poland in 1939 with 1.5 million troopers. It invaded France in 1940 with less than 2 million troopers. It invaded Russia in 1941 with 4 million troopers.

The American middle class is being destroyed by immigration in much larger numbers.

Immigration on such a vast scale is a supremely violent act against the American middle class.

America needs a nationalist leader who will fight fire with fire.

Posted by AdamSmith | Report as abusive

” For too many employers, immigration law is a tool to punish workers who try to organize.”

How does one use ANY law to punish those who are operating within that law? And if you are not operating within the law, who cares WHAT is used against you?

Posted by JRTerrance | Report as abusive

The Senate’s BIPARTISAN bill is a good compromise — let’s make it law and move on.

Posted by Leftcoastrocky | Report as abusive

So this “union organizer” writes in support of “rights” for illegal aliens? Why am I not surprised?

Must not be too bad, they still come. They still don’t learn or speak English and they still send U.S. dollars back to their country of origin.

As an American citizen of these United States, please ‘splain to me WHAT’S IN THIS THAT BENEFITS US? I believe our country will be far ahead if we deport all 11-20+ million of them.

Why? Because none of the proponents of “Immigration Reform” has put forth credible figures for precisely how legalizing 3-1/2 million of these parasitical squatters back in 1986 (and their descendants) “improved” America.

I can provide many, many ways their presence has had adverse financial effects on taxpayers. Maybe this thundering silence is because what REALLY happened is NOT favorable to passing “Immigration Reform”?

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

The unmitigated gall these law breaking, illegal, yes, I said, “Illegal”, aliens have ! If they don’t like the working conditions they are being, “Forced”, to endure here, in the United States, why don’t they go back to wherever they came from ? Better yet, why don’t they refocus their sense of entitlement and, their political demands, on the government of country, from which they came !

Posted by dualwebers | Report as abusive

To some, “Immigration Reform” means “amnesty and open borders.” To others, it means “closed borders and abuse of civil rights.” Meanwhile, laws are written and court battles fought that will define what reform really means, while the American people are left scratching our heads and hoping we won’t have to drop trou and bend over, like we did after NAFTA and so much other political landscaping we’ve had to endure over the years. This is not democracy.

Posted by glossolalique | Report as abusive

WOW comparing Hitler’s stormtroopers to immigrants, and you can’t tell the difference? Maybe that is where you should start fixing problems.

I guess any type of hysteria is justified when more “coloreds” are going to be allowed in. I am actually also against mass immigration, but not for reasons of racism.

Posted by Benny27 | Report as abusive

“Will immigration reform protect workers?”

Immigration reform? What immigration reform? All I’ve seen is corporate welfare in the form of cheap labor. All I’ve seen is American jobs being handed to illegal aliens. All I’ve seen is illegal aliens being rewarded for breaking the law. Immigration reform is enforcing the immigration laws, especially deporting the millions of illegal aliens that are in the country leeching off the system. This is the kind of immigration reform that will protect workers, American workers.

Posted by Des3Maisons | Report as abusive

Wow. I have come to the conclusion that people don’t read articles before they post their comments. They just see that an article is on a topic they have an opinion on and spout off.

This article is about LEGAL, DOCUMENTED immigrants. All you people blabbering about illegal immigrants have totally missed the author’s point.

However, I must say that it is bizarre that legitimate work visa holders are afraid of threats of deportation. If they really do possess an H2-B visa, then they cannot be deported unless they commit a felony. If those H2-B’s are fake then that’s another story altogether.

Posted by circulo110 | Report as abusive

BOTH types of immigration drive down wage rates for the local citizens. It’s all about supply and demand.

LEGAL IMMIGRATION – This year the USA allowed 1,060,000 legal immigrants, an all-time high in American history. These LEGAL immigrants flooded the American labor markets, driving down wage-rates and displacing hundreds of thousands American workers.

ILLEGAL IMMIGRATION – This year the amount of illegal immigration into the USA is estimated to be 3 million foreigners, on top of the estimated 30 million that were already here before the year started.

Importantly, both types of immigration do great harm to the American middle class worker, destroying careers and family. Immigrants, both legal and illegal, now occupy a large portion of the scarce housing supply in America, resulting in sharply higher housing costs and rents for American citizens.

Both the ILLEGALS and the LEGALS are highly destructive to the American middle class worker.

The immigrants benefit the wealthy class only, but are destroying the American middle class with unprecedented speed.

Immigration on such a vast scale is a supreme act of violence against the American middle class.

This act of violence against the American middle class is encouraged and abetted by the public relations firms employed by the wealthy. This article is an example of the propaganda pouring forth daily, hourly, advocating mass immigration.

Posted by AdamSmith | Report as abusive

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