DMI Blog

Amy Traub

Immigration in Everything

Weren't we supposed to be talking about health care? As Rep. Joe Wilson's deeply inappropriate outburst during President Obama's health care address demonstrates, it's hard to tackle any major domestic policy issue in the U.S. without hitting on the raw nerve of the nation's broken immigration system. The good news: an immigration overhaul is on the Congressional agenda right after health care.

To guide the debate, DMI released the latest edition of our landmark immigration analysis "Principles for an Immigration Policy to Strengthen and Expand the American Middle Class: 2009 Edition." We build on our earlier research to argue that immigration policy must be driven by the needs of American workers striving to stay afloat through the economic crisis and earn a middle-class standard of living.

The report reveals that the American middle class relies on the economic contributions of immigrants both authorized and undocumented, but also that the exploitation of undocumented immigrant workers threatens to drive labor standards down for current and aspiring middle-class workers. Our conclusion? We need a new immigration policy that will both bolster immigrants' economic contributions and strengthen their rights in the workplace. Providing a path to earned legalization for currently undocumented immigrants is the best way to achieve both goals. Done right, it would eliminate the entire category of undocumented immigrants, ending the debate over who should be excluded from the U.S. health care system among many other things.

The findings of the report are controversial. Some Americans are so immersed in an anti-immigrant outlook that they simply won't accept the well-documented fact that immigrants - including undocumented immigrants - are contributors to the U.S. economy, paying taxes and creating new jobs through their spending and entrepreneurship.

But it's actually the second half of DMI's immigration report that harder to prove. How do we prove that exploitation of undocumented workers is actually widespread? And what's the evidence that it actually impacts the rest of us? After all, it's not as though employers come forth and announce their workforce abuses. And immigrant workers are frequently too afraid to come forward. While we amassed convincing evidence to back up the idea of pervasive exploitation, the most significant piece of research on this topic came out just after our study was released. "Broken Laws, Unprotected Workers: Violations of Employment and Labor Laws in America's Cities" published by a consortium of researchers, is the first study to systematically document the prevalence of workplace violations in major U.S. cities.

For the first time, the report quantifies "significant, pervasive violations of core workplace laws in many low-wage industries. Workers are being paid less than the minimum wage and not receiving overtime pay. They are working off the clock without pay, and not getting meal breaks. When injured, they are not receiving workers' compensation. And they are retaliated against when they try to assert their rights or attempt to organize... [B]oth large and small employers violate the law, in industries such as retail, residential construction and home health care that are at the core of urban economies." Undocumented immigrants are consistently the most likely to suffer violations of workplace laws, according to the study, but they are far from the only ones. In many low-wage industries where undocumented immigrants are common, violating the employee protections most Americans take for granted has become standard business procedure. What happens then? "When responsible employers are forced to compete with unscrupulous employers who violate core workplace laws by paying subminimum wages or cost-cutting on worker safety, the result is a race to the bottom that threatens to bring down standards throughout the labor market."

"Broken Laws, Unprotected Workers" is about the need to fix our labor laws, but, like the health care debate, it resonates with the urgency of repairing our broken immigration system. Until we do, immigration will continue to confound every domestic policy debate before us.

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Posted at 8:16 AM, Sep 11, 2009 in Immigration | Labor
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