undocumented workers

Immigration Reform Frees Us All

Immigration rally in Bakersfield, Calif., Richard Thornton / Shutterstock.com
Immigration rally in Bakersfield, Calif., Richard Thornton / Shutterstock.com

"All persons are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be.” - Martin Luther King, Jr.

When my husband Billy and I married, he was a supervisor for underground drilling construction crews. It was hard work, but he enjoyed the fast pace and his team. Most of the workers, including Billy, were undocumented immigrants, working illegally in the U.S.

I was nervous. My new husband was driving giant construction equipment all over Southern California without a valid driver’s license. I knew one mistake could result in deportation and our sharing life together in Guatemala.

I expected exploitation and injustice. So while I was angry when situations arose, like not getting paid for a month’s worth of work, I can’t honestly say I was surprised. What did stun me, however, was a bizarre experience with Billy’s boss.

Billy had worked for James for a little over a year when a series of broken promises encouraged Billy to look elsewhere for a job. He found a company familiar with his work and willing to make him an offer. He politely turned in his two week’s notice.

James was not happy. In fact, he told Billy not to bother working the final two weeks. Then he did the unthinkable: he called and reported Billy’s immigration status to the authorities.

ICE Follies

There are no whirring helicopters, law enforcement vehicles, or hundreds of federal agents swooping down on businesses as in days of old. Instead, such immigration raids have been replaced by a less overtly brutal approach: "silent" raids, or audits of work eligibility I-9 forms.

But the fear remains.

At the first whisper of an employer receiving notice from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) that employees' eligibility records are about to be checked, pulses rise. Legal workers worry about being erroneously bounced out of work; unauthorized employees fear being kicked out of the country and separated from their families. Communities are shaken, business operations are disrupted, and jobs are lost. The anemic economy takes another hit.

In June, ICE revealed that it had recently sent 1,000 companies in all 50 states notices of pending I-9 audits -- and that, in the fiscal year that started Oct. 1, the agency had racked up 2,338 audits, handily exceeding the total for the entire previous year.

The auditing process was stepped up by the Obama administration in an attempt to show that it could enforce immigration laws in a more effective yet compassionate manner than the preceding Bush administration, whose high-profile raids focused on rounding up workers, not employers. "ICE may arrest workers we encounter, but arresting workers in and of itself is not a strategy or the goal of the program," ICE spokeswoman Gillian Christensen said.

But the current enforcement program misses its mark: Unscrupulous employers in the underground, cash economy largely escape detection. Meanwhile, hard workers are punished, rather than the "worst of the worst" criminals that the law enforcers would rather be chasing.

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