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Published on Wednesday, April 5, 2000 in the Miami Herald
It's Time To End Our Hypocrisy Regarding Undocumented Workers By Offering Them Amnesty
by Lawrence Mishel
Illegal -- or, if you prefer, undocumented -- immigrants are here, everywhere.

They work with and for us. They live in our communities and go to our schools.

Their future and the future of their children affect us. Thus it's time to accept and regularize the situation of these immigrants so that their contributions are maximized and their negative fallout minimized.

This is the logic of the new AFL-CIO policy on immigration that recommends a general amnesty for undocumented workers and the elimination of employer sanctions or penalties for hiring undocumented workers.

This is a startling reversal of labor's long-held anti-immigration positions, especially on the removal of the employer sanctions for which labor lobbied so heavily to include in landmark legislation in 1986. So it's worth considering the reason for labor's shift.

There's no denying that greatly expanding the pool of workers via immigration, either legal or illegal, puts downward pressure on wages -- particularly for low-wage workers -- because employers have more workers to choose from, and workers have more competition. But maintaining a large pool of workers who are afraid of being deported and live at the margins of our society can make matters only worse.

Employers know that these workers are vulnerable and can, and regularly do, exploit them. In turn, undocumented workers cannot press their rights under our employment laws, be they about minimum wage, overtime, safety and health or anti-discrimination. If undocumented workers pursue their right to form a union, their protected rights under our laws, then many employers suddenly discover they are illegal and fire them or call in the INS to deport them.

This is exactly what has been happening in organizing drives all over the country. Thus the vulnerability of the immigrant workforce probably does more to depress labor standards than their mere presence and availability.

The alternative would be massive deportations and a vigorous application of sanctions on employers who hire undocumented workers.

Yet this has not happened under either Republican or Democratic administrations because the government fears antagonizing employers. The resulting muddle is that we have millions of vulnerable workers, and rarely used employer sanctions do not serve to prevent further illegal immigration.

Regularizing the situation of today's immigrant workforce does not mean we should throw open our borders. We can adjust immigrant flows by tightening up our rules on family unification.

We can make sure that people overstaying their visas are required to leave. And we need not allow employers legally to import workers to deal with ``shortages,'' as the high-tech industry wants to do with ``information technology'' or IT workers.


At the same time that high-tech industries boast of their increasing economic prominence and world preeminence, they also tell us that they can't afford to raise wages to attract IT workers or upgrade their current workforce.

The only choices, the industries say, are to bring in foreign workers or ship work overseas.

But this is a false set of choices.

High-tech companies drove down wages from 1985 to 1995, thereby removing the incentives for students to enter their field. Now they are asking U.S. workers to pay the price for their shortsighted policies, but we shouldn't let these employers off the hook.

It's time to end our hypocrisy regarding undocumented workers by offering them amnesty.

Lawrence Mishel is vice president of the Economic Policy Institute in Washington and co-author of The State of Working America.

2000 Knight Ridder/Tribune


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