CIS Inadvertently Makes the Case for Legalizing Undocumented Workers

Swift Raids from UFCW on Vimeo.
UFCW’s video on the Swift raid’s damage.

The Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) today released a report which, quite inadvertently, makes an excellent case for comprehensive immigration reform that legalizes undocumented immigrants already living and working in the United States. The report analyzes the high-profile federal immigration raids that were conducted on December 12, 2006, at six Swift & Co. meatpacking plants in Colorado, Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, Texas, and Utah. According to the report, wages and working conditions for Swift & Co. workers improved in the aftermath of the raids as more lawfully present immigrants and U.S. citizens joined the company’s labor force. The report rightly concludes from the example of Swift & Co. that wages and working conditions improve “when illegal immigrant labor is removed from the workplace.”

The key question, however, is how best to accomplish this. CIS has long advocated a costly, inefficient, and inhumane “enforcement-only” solution to the problem of undocumented immigration which would make Swift-style raids commonplace in factories, fields, construction sites, and restaurant kitchens nationwide. Yet this approach would cost taxpayers hundreds of billions of dollars, while wreaking havoc on the economy and tearing apart countless families and communities in the process. One study estimates that it would cost between $206 billion and $230 billion over five years to apprehend, detain, and remove 10 million undocumented immigrants from the country. This estimate does not include the economic costs which would be incurred by employers whose workforces are suddenly depleted and businesses whose customers suddenly disappear.  Nor does it include the extraordinary human costs entailed in breaking up families that include more than three million native-born, U.S.-citizen children who have at least one undocumented parent.

The CIS report on the Swift raids hints at another unworkable and ineffective aspect of an enforcement-only approach to undocumented immigration. The report notes that, in 2006, then-Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff observed that the federal government’s voluntary, electronic, employment-verification program (now known as “E-Verify”) can not detect identity theft in which a worker uses valid identity documents which belong to someone else. Given that CIS champions the mandatory use of E-Verify by all employers in the country, this leaves unanswered the question of exactly how E-Verify is supposed to ensure that undocumented immigrants don’t get jobs. And it does not even begin to address the thorny dilemma posed by E-Verify’s database errors. If implemented nationwide, it is likely that E-Verify would incorrectly flag hundreds of thousands of U.S. citizens and legal immigrants as being unauthorized to work in the United States, thereby at least temporarily denying them jobs.

Despite highlighting the benefits a legal labor force that does not include easily exploited undocumented workers, the CIS report reaches the rather disingenuous conclusion that “the presence of illegal immigrants did lower wages for workers” in Swift meatpacking plants.  This is a classic case of “blaming the victim” and misses the fundamental point. It is not undocumented workers who lower wages, but the employers who exploit undocumented workers to maximize profits at the expense of higher wages. What if a business was exploiting its African American workers in order to keep wages low? Would this mean that the presence of African American workers was lowering wages? Of course not. It would be evidence that wage and labor laws were either inadequate, or not adequately enforced, thereby allowing employers to exploit more vulnerable parts of the labor force to the detriment of all workers. One does not stop the exploitation of workers by blaming the workers who are being exploited, but by cracking down on the employers who engage in exploitation. The CIS report acts as if the only way to get meatpacking plants to raise wages is to decrease the size of their labor pool. How about passing and enforcing wage and labor laws that benefit all workers?

The CIS solution to low wages and poor working conditions for American workers is to spend hundreds of billions of dollars rounding up and expelling from the country millions of the most exploited workers—undocumented immigrants—and hope this persuades employers who can no longer find easily exploitable workers to raise wages. But comprehensive immigration reform that includes the legalization of undocumented immigrants, coupled with strong wage and labor laws, would be far more effective and efficient. Moreover, it would actually generate tax revenue for federal and state governments, rather than simply wasting taxpayer dollars and law-enforcement resources on the pursuit of busboys and nannies.

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  • We need immigration reform to restore the rule of law, uphold American values and to ensure we can protect ALL workers…

  • ron mostyn

    You have to get on the cable news network to sell this important fact. Also, you barely mention the taxes the USA would get from legalizing the workers.
    You need to say how you propose to legalize them so no one can say it is a form of amesty. The only way to do this is with a unforgable green card that allows an illegal worker to stay here while he is working and requires him to pay taxes. No voting, no citizenship, no social security even though the employer has to pay it, no convicted federal crimes.
    All this plus he can borrow money and have a drivers license plus be elligible for emergency room treatment.
    The trick to getting this looked at seriously will be to only allow green cards to those who can prove they have been working here for 2 years through legal affidavits from employers that have teeth in them regarding fraud. Offer buses back home and incorporate local and state law enforcement in the process. Any auto that is stoped for any infraction (after a say 6 months indoctrination period) is checked and anyone found without a legal green card is deported. Wifes and of card holders also get green cards showing they are dependents; children born here are citizens but children not born here are not.

  • Tim Ho

    Two points:
    If all employers are held to the standard requiring only individuals authorized to accept employment, the business / economic model of ‘playing field’ would be even.
    More importantly:
    Those who choose not to review lessons of history will easily pass by the realities of the Regan “once in a lifetime” amnesty where unauthorized workers in all industries suddenly found themselves entitled to contract their labor services competing with everyone else in these United States. They soon left dangerous, arduous employment for better jobs and better pay for their familes. That created a vacum soon filled with what is now Twelve to Twenty MILLION undocumented unauthorized laborers willing to work ‘under the table’ without benefits to the extreme disadantage of employers wanting to live within ‘the law’.
    There are solutions. Unfortunately it would require intestional fortutude not exhibited by our elected unindicted ‘representatives’.

  • joe kaushik

    i’m tired of hearing about how poor mexico is. the mexican poor are not america’s problem and is not an excuse for people breaking laws.
    But more importantly, american’s don’t know what being poor is.. For them being poor is not having a car or a house. Crazy!.
    To see poor people, they should visit india or africa. The average mexican is 6 times richer than the average indian; 7 times richer than the average sub saharan african. So should america let all those people come here too?
    Following the law does not pay in america!

    legal alien indian