December 15, 2006

Democrats Risk Gains by Supporting Employer Sanctions

Analysis

By David Bacon
New America Media

Having used Latino and labor votes to recapture control of the U.S. Congress, some influential Democratic Party power brokers now seem intent on attacking the very base that produced their victory.

According to the William Velasquez Institute, seven of 10 Latino voters chose Democratic candidates. A large percentage of Latino households have family members born outside the United States, and millions of Democratic votes came from families where both documented and undocumented members live together. Union families voted for Democrats by about the same margin, seven out of 10.

Democrats cannot win elections without Latinos and labor, yet conservative party leaders propose an immigration enforcement program that targets them both.

At issue is the enforcement of employer sanctions, a provision of the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act. Sanctions bar employers from hiring workers who don’t have proper immigration documents. They don’t really penalize employers, but they do make holding a job a federal crime for an undocumented worker. Sanctions enforcement has led to the firings of thousands of immigrant workers, including many this year.

Newly appointed House Intelligence Committee head Silvestre Reyes (D-Tex.), a former Border Patrol agent, wants this wave of firings to grow. Behind him is the party’s eminence gris, Rahm Emmanuel (D-Ill.). According to an interview earlier this year with The Hill Magazine, Emmanuel thinks it’s the key to winning support among voters who view immigrants as a threat. Even some Washington, D.C., immigrant rights lobbyists advocate increased sanctions enforcement as a way of gaining Republican support.

Rahm, Reyes and their Republican colleagues say sanctions have never been enforced on employers. “There has been almost zero enforcement,” Rahm told The Hill.

Rahm is wrong. When the Clinton administration mounted its highly publicized Operation Vanguard program in the meatpacking industry in 1998, over 3,000 workers were forced from their jobs, according to the Immigration and Naturalization Service. In Washington State’s apple packing sheds, over 600 people were fired in the middle of a union organizing drive the same year. Needless to say, with its leaders gone, the union lost.

That’s why the AFL-CIO, in 1999, began calling for the repeal of sanctions, and for giving the undocumented legal status.

Under Bush, the firings continue. Today, most enforcement is based on letters sent to employers by the Social Security Administration, listing the names of workers whose numbers don’t match its database. Although the letters caution employers not to assume that discrepancies indicate a lack of legal immigration status, thousands of workers have been terminated anyway.

Many firings target immigrant workers trying to organize unions, or enforce legal wages and working conditions. At the Cintas laundry chain, over 400 were terminated in November alone, as a result of no-match letters. Cintas is the target of the national organizing drive by UNITE HERE, the hotel and garment workers union.

In November also, hundreds walked out of the huge Smith-field pork processing plant in Tarheel, N.C., after the company fired 60 workers for Social Security discrepancies. That non-union plant is the national organizing target for the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, and has a record of firing employees for union activity. And, in an escalation of its tactics, the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (BICE) on Dec. 12 arrested workers for deportation in Swift & Company meat-packing plants nationwide.

When workers at Emeryville’s Woodfin Suites tried to enforce the city’s new living wage law, Measure C, they too were suddenly hit with a no-match check.

To Rahm, Reyes and their fellow sanctions supporters, these casualties don’t count, because, they say, the government hasn’t collected many fines against employers who violate the prohibition.

That’s news? The government has a lousy record collecting fines against employers for violating overtime laws, mine safety laws, health laws, anti-discrimination laws — pretty much all laws that protect workers.

But unlike these other laws, sanctions don’t protect workers. The true victims are the fired workers themselves, who pay with lost jobs, by the thousands. Unions also lose, because their drives are busted when their supporters are driven from the workplace.

The government collects no statistics on no-match firings.

To appeal to conservative Republicans, this fall the Bush administration proposed a new regulation, which would require employers to fire workers listed in a no-match letter. Reyes and fellow Texan Charles Gonzalez (D-Tex.) introduced a similar proposal this year, in cooperation with one of California’s most anti-labor, anti-immigrant politicians, Rep. David Drier (R-Calif.).

Employers now claim anti-union firings are simply an effort to comply with Bush’s new regulation, although it hasn’t even been issued. If it is enacted, and if the Democrats support the administration in enforcing it, many more will lose their jobs. Rather than leaving the country, as proponents hope, workers will simply go underground, accepting pretty much any job at any wage, under any conditions. And if they try to organize unions and lift wages, companies will have a readymade excuse for the same kinds of firings.

Last month, 5,300 Houston janitors won their first union contract. Men and women earning minimum wage, working only 20 hours per week, got on the road to a better life. When Social Security sends its next no-match letter to their employers, hundreds will lose the jobs they tried so hard to improve. Their coworkers, whether white, black, or greencard-holding immigrants, will also suffer, because the terminations will tear their union apart.

The Democratic Party could fight this. It could defend its growing union base. It could propose a bill in Congress, as did Houston Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Tex.) last year, to give green cards to those undocumented janitors and their families, and set them on the road to citizenship and voting rights.

Or it could follow Rahm Emmanuel and Silvestre Reyes over a cliff.

David Bacon is author of “Communities Without Borders — Images and Voices From the World of Migration” (Cornell University Press, 2006).

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