Stop the Racist Attack on Immigrants

Recently I was asked to give a talk on immigration. It’s been a long time since I’ve been asked to give a talk on any topic, and the first time I’ve been asked to talk about immigration. Below is the talk I gave at the University of Oregon campus on April 29th:

During the past decade, more than 3,000 people have died crossing the U.S.-Mexican border. These are people coming to look for work. They come here because the economies of Mexico and Central America have been devastated by NAFTA and other “free trade” agreements. These agreements are meant to under-develop these nations so they can serve as sources of raw materials and cheap labor. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has called these immigrants “criminal aliens”.

The state of Arizona recently passed a law making it a state crime for immigrants to not carry authorization papers. The bill also requires the police to ask anyone they suspect of being an illegal immigrant for papers, a sure-fire invitation to racial profiling. The bill makes it possible for people to sue police who refuse to do racial profiling. Meanwhile, in Maricopa County Arizona, Sheriff Arpaio keeps arrested undocumented immigrants in tents 110-degree heat. In 20009, thousands of workers at American Apparel, American Building Maintenance and Overhill Farms lost their jobs because they purportedly lacked proof that they were legally eligible to work in the U.S. When Obama was running for president, he promised to reform the country’s immigration system and offer undocumented workers a path to citizenship. (67 percent of Latino voters voted for Obama.) Instead, the Obama Administration has expanded the 287(g) program. This is part of the 1986 Immigration and Control Act (IRCA) that was passed under the Reagan Administration. This bill enabled three million undocumented immigrants to acquire legal residency. However, it also contained a clause, 287(g), which enabled the U.S. government to deputize local and state law enforcement officials to enforce immigration laws (something that previously only the federal government could do). As a result of this expansion, police have been able throw immigrants into jail after traffic stops. In 2009, immigration prosecutions were up 20 percent over the previous years.(1) A third of all filings in U.S. district courts are immigration cases.(2) Pablo Alvarado, executive director of the National Day Laborers Organizing Network (NDLON), has said:

    We’ve seen racial profiling practices that we haven’t seen in a generation, perhaps since Jim Crow. Obama ran on an agenda of inclusion… He wants equality. He said that we have to promote understanding. Well, guess what – the 287(g) program is not promoting that kind of understanding. It’s promoting division. It’s giving ammunition to all those anti-immigrant organizations, to all those groups with strong white supremacist ties. Day laborers all over the country have experienced it… the men and women who every day defy the odds to find a day of work – they’ve seen what hatred looks like.(3)

The Obama Administration has also announced that it will only award federal contracts to companies that use E-Verify to check employee work authorization. E-Verify is a program started by the Bush administration. It is on-line system by the government that allows companies to verify whether employees have work authorization. Journalist David Bacon has described the effect of this policy:

    Workplace immigration enforcement is filled with examples of employers who use audits and discrepancies as pretexts to discharge union militants or discourage worker organization… Overhill Farms has a union. American Apparel pays better than most garment factories. In Minneapolis, the 1,200 fired janitors at ABM get a higher wage than non-union workers–and they had to strike to win it… If anything, ICE seems intent on punishing undocumented workers who earn too much, or who become too visible by demanding higher wages and organizing unions.

    And despite Obama’s notion that sanctions enforcement will punish those employers who exploit immigrants, at American Apparel and ABM the employers were rewarded for cooperation by being immunized from prosecution… No one in the Obama or Bush administrations, or the Clinton administration before them, wants to stop migration to the U.S. or imagines that this could be done without catastrophic consequences…Instead [e]nforcement is a means for managing the flow of migrants, and making their labor available to employers at a price they want to pay. (4)

Bacon touches upon a point that is often misunderstood by both the Right and the Left. The government does not want to stop the flow of undocumented immigrants into the U.S., rather it wants to manage it. This is because the exploitation of undocumented workers is an essential element of how the U.S. economy works. Undocumented workers can be paid lower wages and forced to work longer hours than other workers, and forced to work in dangerous conditions, and they don’t have recourse to any labor laws in the U.S. What’s more, it’s difficult for undocumented workers to form unions, because organizers can be easily targeted and fired by companies. Let me use the case of Overhill Farms as an example. Overhill makes processed foods that are served on airlines and in other places. The workers at Overhill are unionized. Overhill has used the firing of workers as a way to weaken the union. Last year, the company fired 254 unionized workers, claiming there were discrepancies in the Social Security numbers. They then replaced the workers with “part-time” workers who receive no benefits, even though they sometimes work up to thirteen hours a day.(5)

Currently the Democrats in Congress are considering legislation that would create a guest worker program here in the U.S. This is not a solution to the immigration problem. Such a program would merely allow employers to do legally what they have so far been doing illegally, that is, exploiting immigrant workers. Workers who complain or try to organize can be fired, and they would have to leave the country under the terms of the guest worker program. The real purpose of this legislation is to provide U.S. companies with cheap labor. It has nothing to do with helping immigrant or native-born workers. The best way to protect the rights of both of these groups is give legal status to undocumented workers. According to Phil Gasper:

    A UCLA study conducted a few years ago concluded that if undocumented workers were given legal status, wages for all workers would immediately increase by approximately 5 percent in agriculture, 2.75 percent in services, and 2.5 percent in manufacturing.(6)

The legislation being considered by the Democrats would also call for stricter law enforcement along the border including the erecting of a fence. This would merely make things more dangerous for immigrants, forcing them to cross in more isolated areas in the desert and mountains, resulting in more deaths and suffering. The only real solution to the immigration problem is an open border policy that would allow the free flow of people across borders. The outrageous anti-immigrant bill passed in Arizona has provoked an angry backlash among Latinos and other groups. In the days following the bill’s passage, thousands marched through the streets of the state capitol angrily calling for repeal of this bill. Some protestors plastered swastikas made of refried beans on the windows of the state capitol building. Since the politicians are intent on only serving the interests of the capitalist class, only a movement of the people can bring any real change. Last month, 200,000 people marched through the streets of Washington, D.C. to demand an end to raids and deportations and a better immigration system. This Saturday, May Day, people will be marching in Portland and in Salem. We should stand with those people.

1. Orlando Sepulveda, “Is the Gutierrez Bill Good for Immigrants?” Socialist Worker, http://socialistworker.org/2010/01/21/gutierrez-bill-and- immigrants, p. 3.
2. Ibid.
3. Quoted by Brian Tierney, “Standing Up to Immgration Police”, Socialist Worker, September 20, 2009, Issue 706.
4. David Bacon, “The Brutal Dark Side of Obama’s “Softer” Immigration Enforcement”, Znet, http://www.zcommunications.org/the-brutal-dark-side-of-obamas-softer-immigrationenforcement- by-david-bacon.
5. “Standing Up to Overhill Farms”, Socialist Worker, http://socialistworker.org/2009/07/27/standing-up-to-overhill.
6. Phil Gasper, “Scapegoating immigrants”, International Socialist Review, Issue 50, November– December 2006, http://www.isreview.org/issues/50/gasper2.shtml.

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5 Responses to “Stop the Racist Attack on Immigrants”

  1. Alexander Auerbach Says:

    Your article, “Stop the Racist Attacks on Immigrants,” contains some errors of fact regarding workers dismissed by Overhill Farms. I am the spokesperson for the company, and also serve on its Board of Directors.
    The Internal Revenue Service informed the company that the employees were using false Social Security numbers. The company asked the employees to explain or correct the information provided by the IRS. None were able to do so.
    The use of false Social Security numbers in this fashion constitutes tax fraud, a felony. Each employee was subject to a fine of $100,000 and a year in federal prison. The company executives were subject to fines of $2.6 million and five years in federal prison.
    The company consulted its regular law firm, seeking a way to legally retain the employees, many of whom had been with the company for some years. No legal avenue was found. The company then retained two other law firms, one expert in immigration matters, the second expert in IRS matters, also with the goal of finding a legal way to retain the employees. Again, no legal options were found.
    The Union, Local 770 of the UFCW, was informed by the company about the IRS issue from the start, and was continually informed of the company’s efforts. It was not able to suggest a legal way to retain the employees.
    The company did hire replacement workers who initially were technically classified as part-timers. They were covered by the Union contract, and earned slightly higher wages than “full-time” workers (by about 15 cents an hour) because they were not yet eligible for full benefits. They soon were eligible to convert to full-time status and did so, receiving the same pay, and full benefits, as all other Union employees.
    Overhill Farms did not initiate the action that resulted in the termination of these employees, the IRS did. The company did not benefit in any way. It lost good, loyal, hard-working employees. The replacement employees cost the same (actually slightly more) than the employees who were dismissed. The company voluntarily spent very large sums on legal advice, seeking alternatives to dismissing the affected employees, but without success.
    Overhill Farms did not “use the firings…to weaken the Union.” The replacement workers are Union members, and Local 770 represents them as diligently as it does all other employees it represents.
    All Overhill Farms employees, whether full-time or part-time, who work more than eight hours a day receive overtime pay. That is a matter of law, and is of course also closely monitored by Union shop stewards.

    • The Spanish Prisoner Says:

      Assuming that everything you say is true, the main argument of my article remains valid. Why was the IRS so concerned about these “false Social Security numbers”, since your employees were obviously paying income taxes? And why did they target the employees at your company, when tax cheating is such a widespread problem in our society?

      Although your company may have lost some money, the truth remains that our economic system benefits in the long-term from the demonization of undocumented workers.

  2. Alexander Auerbach Says:

    I was not addressing the main argument of your article. I was simply correcting inaccurate statements in the article about Overhill Farms.

    The IRS actions arose out of a routine audit of the company’s tax returns. The agency found that the company’s tax payments were correct, but in the course of that audit the IRS discovered that many employees were using Social Security numbers that were fictitious or did not belong to the employees.

    If the employees or the company had knowingly continued to use false information in filings with the IRS, both would have been guilty of very serious violations of the law, punishable by heavy fines and prison terms.

    The fact that employees were paying their income taxes did not excuse them or the company from the obligation to provide accurate identifying information, including Social Security numbers, in the payroll tax forms which are submitted by the company and each employee under penalty of perjury.

    • The Spanish Prisoner Says:

      Again, why was the IRS so concerned, since these people were merely making an honest living? Doesn’t that suggest that the priorities of our system are screwed up?

  3. Richard Estes Says:

    The workers at Overhill tell a slightly different story.

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