We are workers, not criminals

In the big immigrant marches that swept the country on May Day in 2006 and 2007, one sign said it all: “We are workers, not criminals!” Often it was held in the calloused hands of men and women who looked as though they’d just come from work in a factory, cleaning an office building, or picking grapes.

The sign stated an obvious truth. Millions of people have come to this country to work, not to break its laws. Some have come with visas, and others without them. But they are all contributors to the society they’ve found here, not people who mean it harm. Again this May Day, immigrant workers filled the streets, making the same point.

Yet today the Federal government is taking actions that make holding a job a criminal act. Some states and local communities, seeing a green light from the Department of Homeland Security, are passing measures that go even further. These actions need a reality check.

Last summer, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff proposed a rule requiring employers to fire any worker who couldn’t correct a mismatch between the Social Security number they’d provided their employer, and the SSA database. The regulation assumes those workers have no valid immigration visa, and therefore no valid Social Security number.

With 12 million people living in the United States without legal immigration status, the regulation would lead to massive firings, bringing many industries and businesses to a halt. Citizens and legal visa holders would be swept up as well, since the Social Security database is often inaccurate.

Under Chertoff the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement has conducted sweeping workplace raids, arresting and deporting thousands of workers. Many have been charged with an additional crime — identity theft — because they used a Social Security number belonging to someone else to get a job. Yet workers using another number actually deposit money into that holder’s account, and these immigrants will never collect benefits their contributions paid for.

The Arizona Legislature has passed a law requiring employers to verify the immigration status of every worker through a federal database called E-Verify, which is even more incomplete and full of errors than Social Security. They must fire workers whose names get flagged. And Mississippi passed a bill making it a felony for an undocumented worker to hold a job, with jail time of one to 10 years, fines of up to $10,000 and no bail for anyone arrested. Employers get immunity.

Congress is now debating two bills, the SAVE Act and the New Employee Verification Act that would require similar use of the E-Verify database.

In 1986 the Immigration Reform and Control Act made it a crime, for the first time in our history, to hire people without papers. Defenders argued that if people could not legally work they would leave. Life was not so simple.

Undocumented people are part of the communities they live in. They will not simply go, nor should they. They seek the same goals of equality and opportunity that everyone else in our country believes in.

For most, there are no jobs to return to in the countries from which they’ve come. Rufino Dominguez, a Oaxacan community leader in Fresno, Calif., says, “The North American Free Trade Agreement made the price of corn so low that it’s not economically possible to plant a crop anymore. We come to the U.S. to work because there’s no alternative.”

When Congress passed NAFTA, six million displaced people came to the U.S. as a result. If Congress stops passing new free trade agreements, and instead faces the damage NAFTA and other pro-corporate measures did in Mexico, the poverty and desperation that fuel migration can eventually be reversed.

Trying to push people out of the U.S. who’ve come here for survival simply won’t work. The price of trying is that the vulnerability of undocumented workers will increase. Unscrupulous employers use that vulnerability to deny overtime or minimum wage, or fire workers when they protest or organize. Increased vulnerability ultimately results in cheaper labor and fewer rights for everyone. Children live in fear that their parents will be picked up in raids.

After deporting over 1,000 workers at Swift meatpacking plants, Homeland Security Secretary Chertoff called for linking “effective interior enforcement and a temporary-worker program.’’ The government is really after giving cheap labor to large employers. Deportations, firings and guest worker programs all make labor cheaper and union organizing harder. They contribute to a climate of fear and insecurity for everyone.

Instead of making work a crime and treating immigrants as criminals, we need equality, economic security, jobs and rights for everyone.

David Bacon is a writer and photojournalist (dbacon.igc.org), and author of the forthcoming book “Illegal People — How Globalization Creates Migration and Criminalizes Immigrants” (Beacon Press).