Immigrant justice

Two busloads of Detroiters will join thousands of marchers in the streets of Washington, D.C., Oct. 16, demanding amnesty for all undocumented immigrants. The march is sponsored by immigrants rights groups, religious groups, and labor and community organizations, including the Xicano Development Center on Detroit’s southwest side. Asked why she’s going, the Center’s Maria Zavala says, "I know how people that are undocumented live. My parents were undocumented till about five years ago. They always have to sneak around, they can’t get good jobs."

The Center’s Todd Mireles says, "My grandfather and older aunts and uncles were caught up in Operation Wetback in Texas in the early ’50s. They used the Army to cordon off areas where immigrants were." Today, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) uses computers more than soldiers, but the effects on those seeking decent jobs to support their families are the same. They face deportation or, just as important, intimidation that keeps immigrants from claiming a living wage or their rights on the job. Today as in past decades, many industries are completely – often purposely – dependent on immigrant labor. Electronics, meatpacking, garment manufacturing, janitorial services in many big cities, and fruit and vegetable farming exist off the low wages of immigrants. Says Mireles, "Employers want workers who are afraid to speak up and demand their rights. They bleed them dry under the shadow of a raid by the INS, and this makes it worse for all workers."

When the janitorial workforce, for example, was transformed in the 1980s from native-born to immigrant, wages fell. In Los Angeles, pay dropped from nearly $10 an hour in 1977 to just over $6 in 1993 (in 1993 dollars). In Silicon Valley, electronics assemblers earn the lowest wages of any occupation other than food preparation.

Despite their low income, undocumented immigrants pay about $7 billion a year in taxes, forking over Social Security and unemployment funds they can never collect.

Under the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, employers are required to check the citizenship status of all job applicants. But in workplace after workplace, immigrants have found that employers are lax about the law when hiring in – but when workers begin to organize a union, they are suddenly called into the office and required to show papers. The employer can, in effect, call the INS on himself.

Now the INS is testing Operation Vanguard. The agency subpoenaed the personnel records of every employee of every meatpacking plant in Nebraska and part of Iowa – about 40,000 workers. "We will remove the magnet of jobs," INS regional director Mark Reed told The Nation. "We will clean up one industry and turn the magnet down a bit, and then go on to another industry, and another, and another."

The idea is to scare undocumented workers into leaving their jobs. The resulting labor shortage would create pressure for Congress to enact a "guestworker" program like the "Bracero" plan that existed until 1964. This solution, favored by both industry and the INS, would allow companies to recruit outside the United States for contract workers, bound to the particular company that hired them. To be fired would equal deportation.

"We’re going because these things have to stop," says Mireles.

Buses to Washington leave Friday night, Oct. 15, and return Sunday morning. For information call the Xicano Development Center at 313-841-0838.

About The Author

Jane Slaughter

When she's not reviewing restaurants, Jane Slaughter also writes about labor affairs, having co-founding the labor magazine Labor Notes. Her writing has also appeared in The Nation, The Progressive, Monthly Review, and In These Times.
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