By Joe Nalven
When you hear the word “sustainability” do you think of the natural environment or whether there is a future for legal workers in the American?
At UCLA, for example, the degree in environmental science takes a narrow view of sustainability — it “looks to protect our natural environment, human and ecological health, while driving innovation and not compromising our way of life.” This is a common view of “sustainability.”
I suggest that we need to emphasize “sustainability” in a broader sense, for “our way of life having a country that can support itself without exploiting foreign workers either within our borders or in foreign countries.”
One trending option is automation, artificial intelligence and robotics to hurdle over the history of human labor. Humans require time off; humans retire; humans get stressed out; humans need a living wage. Robots and other forms of automation just go clickety-clack with nary a complaint except for an occasional software upgrade.
Until total replacement occurs, employers still need human labor. Unions in the 1970s saw the possibility of illegal alien workers as a way to exploit the situation until the inevitable occurs. NAFTA and offshore assembly were other ways to exploit the situation.
The AFL-CIO and the NAACP began to pressure Congress in 1973 to make the hiring of unlawfully present workers illegal for employers. Prior to that, it was illegal to harbor illegal aliens for everyone except employers. That loophole needed to be closed.
It was a decade later that the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 became law making the knowing hiring of illegal alien workers unlawful — what is now known as “employer sanctions.”
This law was a three-legged stool: border enforcement, employer sanctions and amnesty for millions of undocumented aliens. It was a hard-won compromise.
The curious question is why the surprise now, and the disingenuous condemnation, when over 600 illegal aliens were arrested at a series of chicken ranches in Mississippi. USA Today published an account of this immigration raid, “’Let them go!’: Largest US immigration raids in a decade net 680 arrests.”
Aren’t employer sanctions intended to keep the American labor market sustainable for those lawfully present in the United States? Would we prefer to have illegal alien workers be exploited or used against Americans willing to work?
To be sure, there is an outcry that “Americans don’t want those jobs.” From my own research, wanting jobs is often a question of wages. Pay American workers enough and most jobs will get filled. But the outcry continues: “Consumers won’t pay for the increase in the cost of goods.” That’s an interesting way to look at exploitation of labor in foreign countries, often child labor, or justifying a second-class citizenry in the United States.
Do we really need all those creature comforts? Do we need the latest gadgets and electronics? So, if we are honest, it is not just employers who exploit undocumented immigrant and foreign labor. We need to include ourselves as consumers looking for low cost products and new-fangled technology from video-games to self-driving cars.
We’ve all seen dystopian movies like “Divergent,” “Hunger Games,” “Soylent Green,” and the 1927 classic Metropolis. And if you haven’t seen those movies, you can read Jack London’s “The Iron Heel” or “Nineteen Eighty Four” by George Orwell. Perhaps it would be better to anesthetize ourselves to the woes of the world with Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World.”
Projections of the future are never completely reliable, but we should consider what we need to do to enjoy a sustainable way of life. Is sustainability merely a veneer of hypocrisy to keep our comforts — whether in our search for low-cost goods at the expense of an exploited illegal or foreign workforce?
I can hear another outcry championing a “living wage.” That is just another band-aid until automation and the robots replace workers. We can see how raising wages forces many employers to close shop or lay off other workers to make up the shortfall. The trends will be towards megalithic companies who can afford the living wage along as well as automation.
Also in the equation are employer preferences and chain-migration among the workers. In the years leading up to the 1986 law, I led a study that eventually was submitted to Congress, “The Employer’s View: Is there a need for a guest-worker program?” (1982). The manager of one premier San Diego restaurant provided an example of why his Mexican employees were preferable to those in the same company but located in St. Louis: “The entire dish and bus crews are black. These guys always want more money and are constantly belly-aching about the job. They just feel it’s beneath them — unworthy of them.”
Discrimination based on other factors, aside from wages, is also a consideration with undocumented workers being more compliant out of fear of being deported. A farmer located in North San Diego County explained this attitude: “There is an invisible fence about five miles from here. Once our man crosses that fence and decides to venture into the this whole different world of Anaheim, Santa Ana, and L.A., and he lives there say six months, when he comes back he would be a total misfit! The term is: he has had to adopt the ‘gringo way.’ He’s also been exposed to things he has never heard of: fringe benefits, unionism, etc. These things occur almost magically, and you know there is a little reluctance to get legality to our man down here.”
Is there, though, an alternative where we Americans can have the good life, promote a better life in developing countries and still appreciate the value of work for ourselves and our children? Is there a future beyond a marijuana-filled or opioid-induced superficial reality that we see nightly on Netflix?
Clearly, the answer is multifaceted and requires commitment. But one such commitment is to face up to the civilization we have created. Sustainability requires committing to the laws we have passed, until such time that we change them. Sustainability requires not being surprised, or expressing naive moral condemnation, when the law intending to protect American labor is actually enforced — as in the recent raid in Mississippi.
Employer sanctions will actually work when they are broadly and rigorously enforced. In my own research for the U.S. Department of Labor, “Tracking and Changing Employer Behavior: A Study of IRCA Compliance” (1991), I was able to interview employers who were found to have hired illegal alien workers, examine Immigration and Naturalization Service data on whether employers who were fined were likely to repeat or not, as well as listen in on an administrative law judge working through the employer’s arguments of why he should not be held liable for not dotting his ‘i’s and crossing his ‘t’s when filling out the I-9 form.
A typical employer’s response: “They’ve [INS agents] never given us a letter, an actual fine or anything official. They’re still playing used-car salesman with us. A friend of mind in another part of the county is being harassed continually by them and trying to defend himself legally. He told me just to do it or pay whatever they say because if you don’t they’ll make your life hell. I’m expecting another sweep and I-9 check. We’re just waiting.”
I do not enjoy saying that holding an employer’s, or a consumer’s, or a worker’s, or a politicians’ feet to the fire is often required for making laws do what they were intended. If we were all angels, laws would not be needed. In this case, INS data showed that its bureaucratic fire was effective. The re-inspection of employers found 100% compliance. INS staff did acknowledge that when earlier data was included, the compliance rate was somewhat lower but still over 90%.
And lest we forget, the general amnesty of the bipartisan 1986 legislation legalized the unlawful status of 1.6 persons and another 1.1 million were legalized as special agricultural workers. Subsequent amnesties have legalized even more, including 578,000 in 1994, close to 1 million Nicaraguans in 1997, 125,000 Haitians in 1998, and 1.3 million in 2000.
And, then, there is the third leg of the legislative compromise — namely, border enforcement. That’s about the sustainability of national sovereignty.
Joe Nalven is a former associate director of the Institute for Regional Studies of the Californias at San Diego State University.
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