The laws of the United States are often presented as being in the best interest of society, either for public security, equal rights, or general fairness. However, it is not only worthwhile but also necessary to examine the interests behind our laws, especially as they pertain to labor in our country. Often, our laws serve more as instruments of exploitation than anything else, shown best in the enforcement practices regarding undocumented labor as well as the laws which govern them. Although a popular narrative exists in this country that immigrants “steal” jobs and lower wages, it is largely employer and government labor exploitation that causes these problems.
Overall, undocumented labor makes up approximately 5% of the American workforce, with this number remaining steady in modern times despite various changes in policy, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Their contributions to the economy are large, yet they work from a position of extremely tenuous legal ground. Section 1227 of the U.S. Code calls for the deportation of any immigrant in the country without an approved visa or other form of approval. However, some of the United States’ most vital industries are dependent on these workers, with over half of U.S. farmworkers lacking documentation. So, since immigration laws are obviously not effectively preventing the country from profiting off of undocumented labor, what are these deportation laws for?
If, in reality, immigration law sought only to enforce a national border, one would expect enforcement to be driven by law enforcement. However, U.S. immigration policy often grants employers power over undocumented labor through policies such as No-Match Letters, a method by which the government can inform employers of undocumented employees without actually enforcing that law. In this way, as well as others, the threat of deportation is often used to exploit the labor of undocumented workers while avoiding the consequences that actually enforcing the law would have on the economy. In addition, with the threat of deportation looming, workers are far less likely to report other forms of exploitation to the authorities, and as such, they can be paid illegally low wages, stripped of employee benefits, and have contracts violated at little risk to the employer and a boost to their bottom line. The immigration system, for laborers, operates less like law enforcement and more like a profiteering ring at the expense of the undocumented.
The United States has a history of labor exploitation, that stretches back to before the nation’s founding and the slave trade. With the abolition of slavery, however, these exploitative labor practices simply evolved, and immigrants, as a minority group often without protection, were taken advantage of. In the 1800s, Chinese immigrants working on the Transnational Railroad were found to have received 30% less pay than white counterparts, according to the Los Angeles Times, as well as being forced into the most dangerous work. From the 1940s to the 1960s, the Bracero Program exploited Mexican immigrants, going so far as to read and censor mail from workers’ families that suggested reunification. What exists today is just another, less formal method of mistreating immigrant laborers for profit.
In spite of these policies, undocumented immigrants have worked tirelessly for their rights as laborers, both through collective action and through legislative lobbying. These efforts contributed to such laws as The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which sets standards for wages and overtime. However, in some of these advances, such as the National Labor Relations Act of 1934,which guarantees a right to organize, specifically exclude industries such as service or agriculture, where undocumented immigrants often work. Thus, these workers are still restricted heavily, with laws specifically targeting popular industries for these workers. Despite this, the 1962 inception of the United Farm Workers of America improved labor rights in agriculture, but took time to fully integrate undocumented interests into their actions. In sum, a history of advocacy shows us that anti-immigration policies can be fought through political action.
Ultimately, the immigration laws and policies of this country are not being applied fairly, and the ways they are being implemented and enforced are primary enablers of an exploitative labor system. What is needed to address this are more equitable labor policies that apply to all workers, and a shift in enforcement power away from corporations and parties interested in maintaining a system of unjust employment. Immigration policies can exist, but by no means should they be a tool for employers to intimidate their employers and prevent any necessity for improving workers’ rights, and drastic changes need to be made to fix that. Undocumented workers cannot be a scapegoat for our inability to enact just labor practices in the United States. Immigrants do not drive down wages, cut benefits, or bust unions- employers do.