Auditing away immigrant workers’ rights

By Michelle Chen Jul 04, 2009

The Obama administration’s ambiguous promises on immigration reform are confusing enough, but the latest move to crack down on employers of undocumented immigrants may indicate that even if “comprehensive reform” legislation is on the horizon, justice for exploited immigrant workers is nowhere in sight. The New York Times reports :

On Wednesday, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the federal agency known as ICE, said it had sent notices announcing audits of hiring records, like the one it conducted at American Apparel, to 652 other companies across the country. Officials said they were picking up the pace of such audits, after performing 503 of them in 2008. … The Obama administration’s new approach, unveiled in April, seems to be moving away from the raids that advocates for immigrants said had split families, disrupted businesses and traumatized communities. But the outcome will still be difficult for illegal workers, who will lose their jobs and could face deportation, the advocates said.

Now, there’s something not quite right about this. Busting employers who hire undocumented workers might sound like a more sensible approach to dealing with the vast underground workforce, compared to say, indiscriminately rounding up and deporting workers. In fact, the administration has touted the targeting of employers as a centerpiece of its enforcement approach. But American Apparel prides itself on providing employees with decent wages and relatively good working conditions—a counterweight to the sweatshop model that dominates the globalized garment sector. Even more disturbingly, reform advocates have for years decried employer sanctions as a system that further enables exploitative employers, encourages discrimination, and fails to stem the abuse of workers.. The latest version of employer sanctions, based on the notoriously dysunfctional e-Verify program, threatens to further institutionalize this approach. Questioning whether targeting companies like American Apparel really serves workers’ interests, Daphne Eviatar at the Washington Independent wonders:

"why the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency, or ICE, after promising to crack down on employers who illegally hire immigrants and treat them as slave labor, is going after a company that starts its low-skilled workers at $10 – $12 an hour plus health benefits — far above the legal minimum wage."

Angelica Salas, executive director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles (which has opposed employer sanctions and e-Verify), told the New York Times, “there is still enforcement of laws that are broken… The workers will still lose their jobs.” So ICE is threatening to penalize employers that go out of their way to raise standards for immigrant workers, while a two-tiered workforce—and a broad failure to uphold labor standards for all workers—persist. What role would regressive employer sanctions play in a revamped immigration policy? Let’s hope advocates are asking that question as they press Obama for action on immigration reform. Image: American Apparel worker (Madalit del Barco / NPR)