About 10 years ago, I was writing a story about construction and landscaping, and I interviewed the CEO of a fairly large construction company.
He asked that the conversation go off the record for a few minutes as we began to talk about the labor force.
“People in this business hire immigrants,” he told me. “They work hard and they do good work. No one wants to see that change, so you won’t see real immigration reform until the construction, landscaping and other industries want it to happen.”
He told me he hired only legal immigrants, but that much of the industry hires anyone with a Social Security card, and many employers don’t want to know if it’s fake.
And a whole lot of immigrants have fake documentation, which means they’re paying Social Security and other taxes, but they aren’t eligible for any government safety net programs. Even without false ID, immigrants pay sales taxes, gasoline, and through their landlords, property taxes.
Some employers knowingly hire people who aren’t here legally, knowing they can abuse them without any consequences. How many employees will choose to complain when they know it could lead to deportation and the loss of any chance to stay here?
I think my off-the-record source was right. I think big business wants this below-poverty work force to stay. Apparently, free trade isn’t enough; they want what is essentially slave labor here in the US.
According to a study in the journal, “Public Health,” at least half of all current farm workers are undocumented. That makes it easy to abuse them, to withhold pay for little or no reason, to intimidate them with threats of deportation and worse.
Little has improved for migrant farm workers since the documentary, “Harvest of Shame” aired on CBS in 1960. Housing and pay are still substandard, worker rights are pretty much nonexistent, abuse is rampant.
One farmer told CBS News, “We used to own our slaves; now we just rent them.”
Here in North Carolina, we have children working in tobacco fields, and the nicotine that’s being absorbed into their bodies is enough to poison them.
Instead of having compassion for immigrants, we see them as criminals, yet we tolerate the businesses that bring them in by the truckload and abuse them.
President Obama wants to do something about the mess, but Congress refuses to help in any way. There is at lease one bipartisan bill that could pass, but House Speaker John Boehner refuses to bring it to the floor for a vote.
So when President Obama vows to make changes via executive order, the Republicans accuse him of acting like an “emperor,” despite the fact that every president since Eisenhower has taken executive action on immigration — including the precious right-wing icon, Ronald Reagan.
What we’re talking about here is human life. These are people who, like our own ancestors, are desperate for a better life, and they’re being exploited by the greed of big business.
But big business also wants us to hate the people they’re exploiting so that they can continue to exploit them. If we feel compassion, we might rise up and demand action. I’m sure that’s why several of the major networks won’t carry the president’s speech tonight. Better we all believe the lies corporate media are spoon-feeding us than any of us wake up and demand to know what the hell is going on here.