The current firestorm that has erupted as a result of the enactment of the “Show Me Your Papers” law in Arizona has further enflamed the already contentious debate about illegal immigration.
Proponents of the Arizona law flatly state that it was needed because of the federal government’s failure to act on comprehensive immigration reform that would address issues related to border security.
Critics, on the other hand, say the Arizona law is nothing more than a pathway to provide state and local police carte blanc authority to racially profile and harass Hispanics.
Either way, because of this firestorm, there are discussions now underway in Washington, DC relating to the introduction of a comprehensive immigration reform bill.
On April 30, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and several of his fellow Senate Democrats introduced a framework for an overhaul of immigration laws in light of the Arizona law. The Senate Democrats’ approach would impose tougher sanctions on employers who hire illegal immigrants, create new identification cards for immigrant workers, reform temporary worker programs, and provide a sensible pathway for responsible immigrants to become full-fledged U.S. citizens.
For his part, President Barack Obama voiced his support for the plan, saying it is "a very important step in the process of fixing our nation's broken immigration system."
In truth, the entire debate around the issue of immigration never seems to effectively address the real problem - our collective national addiction to cheap labor and low wages. In America today, it’s all about next quarter’s profits and the bottom line. While exploitative businesses and their apologists hide behind empty slogans like “free markets,” we know the only freedom they are fighting for is the freedom to exploit workers, steal wages and cut corners.
It's no secret certain industries, such as construction, rely heavily on illegal labor. In recent years, according to the Pew Hispanic Center, undocumented workers accounted for as much as 25% of the entire U.S. construction workforce. And in the residential construction sector, that number is even higher.
In many states, attempts have been made to require employers to check prospective employees on their legal status through the production of a driver’s license, state ID card, or other positive means of identification. But this is hardly a fool-proof method of dealing with the problem, as evidenced by the results of an undercover operation spearheaded by Jobs for Georgians and the North Georgia Building Trades Council, and as reported by the Atlanta Journal Constitution:
“Jose Alvarez first asked about a bricklaying job with M&D Masonry at the Atlanta airport in March, and the foreman assured him that being an illegal immigrant wouldn’t be a problem.
‘Do you have a picture ID?’ said Bob Beaty, hiring foreman for the Americus-based masonry company working on the new $1.4 billion international terminal.
‘But it’s not legal,’ Alvarez told him.
‘I know, I know, none of our guys are, but if you have a picture ID, you can get on here,’ Beaty said. ‘Everybody turns in a Social Security number and we take taxes out for that number. I know none of those numbers are right.’
This, ladies and gentlemen, is the crux of our national immigration problem.
And when states move to address these issues, they are inevitably thwarted by those whose business models are now predicated upon an addiction to cheap, easily exploitable labor.
This was the case in 2006, for example, when the state of Colorado attempted to crack down on employers who hire illegal workers. Governor Bill Owens was initially supportive of the bill, but when business leaders told him the price of a house might go up by 5 percent because some homebuilders could lose their exploitable labor, he backed away.
You can be sure, with talk about immigration reform heating up, that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Home Builders, and the Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC) are all gearing up to engage lawmakers, because their “race to the bottom” business model relies upon the continued exploitation of workers who do not have the same right to join a union or recourse under the law as U.S. workers.
Let us examine what this “race to the bottom” approach (predicated upon the exploitation of undocumented workers) has done to the U.S. construction industry, and to U.S. construction workers. For starters, real wages for construction workers were lower in 2006 than they were in 1973! Adjusted for inflation, construction workers in 1973 earned the equivalent of $22.13 an hour in today's dollars. However, actual average hourly pay for construction workers in 2006 was only $18.29 – 17 percent below the 1973 rate, adjusted for inflation.
Additionally, even when contractors are making money, workers are not seeing the gains. According to the federal government's economic census, contractors' profits grew between 1977 and 2002. However, workers did not get their fair share of the gain; instead the proportion of construction receipts spent for payroll and benefits actually declined by almost 14 percent during the same period!
With those types of statistics in mind, it is simply idiotic for us, as a nation, to pass law after law – like the one in Arizona – and arrest someone with brown skin who can't produce an ID; or confiscate their cars; or deport people and break up families; when we don’t have the sense or the courage to address the real issue - companies maximizing profits at the expense of workers, using a business model that relies on the lowering of standards and wages industry-wide by exploiting a workforce without the legal standing to demand justice.
Instead of demagoguery and divisiveness, we need comprehensive immigration reform that stops this exploitation. America’s Building Trades Unions and this great country were built by immigrants seeking a better life for themselves and their families. Whether it’s a temporary worker program that denies full rights and wages to those working in this country or the “Show Me Your Papers” law, anytime we treat immigrants like second-class citizens, we undermine our core values as Americans, and undermine the American Dream for all of us.
America's building trades unions will never stop in their quest to expose organizations like the Home Builders and the ABC for what they truly are – defenders and practitioners of an abhorrent business model that is contrary to our American beliefs.