DMI Blog

Amy Taylor

Steve Levy Complains But Misses The Point

Steve Levy has a lot of complaints about immigrants that we've all heard before. His latest complaint comes in the form of legislation designed to require any company or agency doing business with the county to verify that their employees are authorized to work in the United States. He says this will prevent contractors from relying on immigrant workers who will accept low wages allowing them to outbid those who "play by the rules."

Levy is right that many contractors deny minimum wage and overtime payments to their workers in order to have the lowest bid. They also all too often fail to pay Unemployment Insurance and Workers' Compensation allowing them to take in more profit. But he has got the solution backwards. Federal law already requires employers to verify the work authorization of their employees, yet undocumented workers continue to be hired and cheated out of fair wages. As long as there is an exploitable class of workers, they will be exploited. This issue is intricately connected to another of Levy's pet peeves --overcrowded housing of immigrants in Suffolk County. In response to this problem, last summer Levy joined forces with the Town of Brookhaven to evict the residents.

In a recent conversation on WNBC, between Steve Levy and Pat Young of the Long Island Immigrant Alliance , Mr. Levy mentioned at least six times that illegal immigrants are living 60 people to a 900 square foot house. Why does he think they were living like that? And anyway, how would stronger employer sanctions and evictions end this type of arrangement? Where does he think the residents will go? Many of them will end up homeless. Others will find another place to live until they are evicted again. His argument here does not address the root cause of either problem. Poor immigrant workers live 60 people in one house because they can't afford to live in better conditions. They are forced to share cramped housing because they are exploited out of minimum wage and overtime protections despite legal requirements. How can this situation be improved?

The real problem in both of these situations lies in the fact that undocumented workers are at the mercy of their employers because they face the threat of deportation when they enforce their workplace rights. As a result, these employers may prefer immigrant workers to U.S.-born workers because they can underpay them, creating the very problem Levy mentions --the underbidding of employers who "play by the rules."
The solution lies in the creation of real worker protections for everyone in the workplace. Both U.S.-born and immigrant workers will benefit from the elimination of a two-tiered system, with undocumented immigrants coerced into accepting meager wages out of fear. An immigration policy that enables undocumented workers to continue living and working in the United States, while ensuring that all immigrants are able to exercise full rights in the workplace would more effectively address Mr. Levy's concerns. This type of policy would, in turn, raise wages and working conditions for all workers, including the native-born. Without an exploitable and silent class of workers, all workers would earn better wages and be on an even playing field. Cheating contractors would no longer have a cheap pool of labor to allow them to underbid law-abiding contractors. However, this would not be because those workers simply disappeared. With a less precarious status, immigrant workers would be empowered to enforce their workplace rights. They would still be available to fill the jobs that need them, and wages would not be pushed down as a result of competition for the lowest wage. And don't worry Mr. Levy, with better wages immigrant residents of Suffolk County would surely move into less crowded housing.

Levy's legislation has also been criticized for demonizing immigrants through deputizing local government to enforce federal law --but only some federal law. In the WNBC conversation (see link above), Mr. Levy defended his legislation, "The federal government obviously is not enforcing [federal law]. . . And why do we have to do that? To make sure that those businesses that try to play by the rules in Suffolk County are not put at a competitive disadvantage." To that, Mr. Young countered, "You can violate federal tax law and still be a contractor with Suffolk County. It's only if you have problems with the immigration laws that you can be disqualified." Then he explained the dangers of discrimination that may resulted from such legislation, "It demonizes immigrants . . . And a lot of employers, rather than taking the risk of losing county contracts for the rest of their lives, will instead simply play it safe and not hire anyone who's brown or comes from Asia or anyone who has an accent."

The New York Times has called Levy's approach "vigilante governance, a one-note policy fueled by resentment and indignation, which can be dangerous in a county prone to anti-immigrant outbreaks."
Newsday criticized his response and said that "forcing immigrants into the woods is no solution."
Levy calls the media "out of touch" on this issue. Who, exactly is out of touch?

An alternative route to fixing the same problem would be to enforce other laws that are already on the books, state and federal laws requiring employers to pay minimum wage and overtime payments to all workers.

Amy Taylor: Author Bio | Other Posts
Posted at 11:45 AM, Sep 13, 2006 in Immigration | Labor
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