The Business of Immigrant Workforces

Business is booming in California, and while many of us sit back and enjoy all the benefits that come with being a citizen of the United States, there is a level of acknowledged ignorance across the state regarding our immigrant workforce. Migrant workers from all cultures are often forced to work under constant threat of deportation, and for very little pay.

"California has the fifth-largest economy in the world, but also has the fourth-highest level of income inequality in the nation,” states the California immigrant Policy Center (CIPC).

California is investing time and capital to maintain a migrant workforce that continues to supply cheap labor for our agriculture, servicing and manufacturing industries.

California has become a battleground between the haves and have-nots. For decades now, California has struggled with its identity and position in the public eye as a vocal supporter of open state immigration. Yet, our history and voting choices clearly shows otherwise, from the devastating effects of Prop. 187 to the temporary relief for dreamers. The state now faces a situation that has been brought about more by government policy and an unethical blind eye towards business practices, than by migrant caravans and illegal border crossings.

Our workers have no union contracts and very little understanding of their legal rights, which often leads to employers violating these laws with minimal repercussions. Worse, almost all these cases, when brought to light, end with worker deportation instead of a conviction for the business. In cases where a business is found guilty, minor financial slaps on the wrist are dished out as the workers are shackled and deported. All this leads to a vicious cycle of employment abuse that has gone on for decades, and all for the benefit of California’s economic status.

Unfortunately, if an employee complains about pay or is injured on the job. They can, and most likely will be, removed with an anonymous phone call to ICE. This creates a problematic imbalance in a free labor market, and effects the economic output that would normally be generated for the community at whole.

Companies profit significantly through illegal labor practices, and force unfair competition in the market. This can allow for price undercutting, market share acquisition and a handful of other snowballing effects. Leading to mega-conglomerates that eat up competition, and lobby politicians for forced rotation of immigrants to keep their employee levels fresh and full, all at the expense of the average tax paying citizen.

Twenty-four years ago, on November 8, 1994, California voters passed proposition 187, which established a screening system that would prevent undocumented immigrants from having access to any non-emergency care, public education, welfare and several other public related services. A law so innately discriminatory that it was found unconstitutional in 1997, and was bound during a majority of those three years. The proposition won by a margin of 59 percent to 41 percent in a state where non-Hispanic whites made up 57 percent of the Californian population. California effectively declared "they suffer from economic hardship caused by the presence of illegal aliens in this state." per Section 1 of Proposition 187. Of course, others have followed, like Prop. 209 in 1996 or Prop. 227 in 1998 which eliminated bilingual classrooms and passed with a 61 percent margin, to continue a long line of harassment and reduction in civil liberties that are meant for all.

So, what has been happening for the past 25 years? Why hasn’t California seen the broad and sweeping changes that should come from one of the most liberal states in the country? Well, 1994 turned out more than just Prop. 187, a recently elected and inexperienced senator named Dianne Feinstein emphatically campaigned for stronger border controls to be put in place. She stated in an aired ad during her initial campaign "where 40 percent of the babies born on Medicaid in California today, are born of illegal immigrants. Creates a very real problem for the state."

Feinstein was a vocal support of boarder control to the point she wanted it to be delegated to the federal government. Further stating:

"The day when America can be the welfare system for Mexico is gone."

These are the leaders who have been entrenched within our government for decades, and hold complete control of the ruling party. Senator Feinstein won in 1994, was just re-elected in 2018, and has already set her sights on 2024.

Situations like these have risen time and time again throughout the history of California, and its immense need of a cheap, reusable workforce. One that South America has been all too happy to supply, due to their own faulty governments and impoverished citizens. How we tackle these problems moving forward will be dependent on the growth and economic survival of the immigrant population. For as long as California grows, it will find ways to continue the practice of abusive labor tactics.

More recently, on the 2018 ballot, California once again addressed the hindrances that prevent this minority group from being able to work in such conditions without actually targeting the main problem. Proposition 1 suggests providing affordable housing for farm workers and low-income residents with mobile homes and transit-oriented housing. This provides temporary relief to workers across the state, but it changes nothing for the working conditions that transpire daily within our cities.

In the summer of 2016, the labor department investigated 77 garment factories located around Southern California that supply retail clothing chains like TJ Maxx, Ross, Nasty Girl, Forever21 and Macy’s, just to name a few. With violations underpayment, threats of deportation, to health and safety issues. Pundits will state that these types of measures will push forward immigrant rights, but they only perpetuate the growing problem of wealth inequality in California. A problem that is hidden behind political fundraising and heavy lobbying on multiple business fronts.

These workers are often subject to the use of highly exploitative practices involving the threat of deportation, excessive forced debts for room and board and intimidation tactics that put the blame on the employee. A common theme among these employers warns that if one employee speaks out, everyone gets deported. That pressure alone could silence even the most committed immigrant worker rights advocates.

Stories like these are often sprinkled into local media posts or two-minute news clips of a bust by authorities, but are rarely given the proper depth of investigation that they deserve. I am left to ask; how does one effectively shake the hornet's nest without getting stung?

Surely, if we turned our attention towards these businesses with greater scrutiny, it may lead to more invasive forms of discrimination, and at worse force a mass deportation of thousands of current American citizens in the broader sense. Can we force companies to play by the rules without hurting the very same workforce we are trying to protect and give rights to, as well? Ultimately, would they risk their livelihoods to fight for what is rightfully theirs?

It would seem that calmer heads could prevail in the senate and house, and simple solutions with our current technical acumen should effectively handle the processing for immigration. The first step would be to reward or force companies who actively assist in the nationalization process. This may be a crucial step to cutting the backlog and preventing additional barriers for new citizens to enter our workforce.

The state of California needs to put some emphasis back onto the businesses that are abusing this system for their own financial benefit. Although forcing businesses to practice proper legalization standards seems implausible and risky, I would suggest it apply to offenders only, and a regulatory government team should be deployed in more risk-adverse industries for routine checks and balances. When businesses take a hand in bettering the economy locally, we all benefit from that growth.

The Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) issued multiple state-wide surveys over the past few years, and up to 82 percent of Californians felt that providing clear pathways for undocumented immigrants to become legal citizens with a specific set of requirements is a good idea. With initiatives like the Power Act, California can start to provide some measure of protection for displaced Californian employees. By granting temporary reprieves from deportation for five years (the minimum amount of time to apply for a green-card) not only for whistleblowers but for all employees involved in labor abuse, we can more effectively rebalance the business playing field while stimulating the economy naturally.

California needs to correct the level of wealth inequality and abusive practices taking place within its borders. This, in turn, should not only increase overall funding supplied to local governments through properly documented taxation, but could also lower crime often have associated with lower income environments. However, the tactics at play within the current California government focus solely on providing limited rights that entice more and more immigrants to remain silent instead of speaking out.

They are provided with quasi-benefits aimed at keeping the workforce healthy and mobile enough to work through drivers’ licenses and free medical at the cost of taxpayers, instead of the companies that employ them. We hire undocumented workers knowing that we can take advantage of their vulnerabilities. Dreamers are protected to a certain point, but what good is it to protect a child from deportation if you take their parents away?

How does a family build self-wealth or change public policy when we constantly find ways to pull them apart? These minor victories do little more than provide a carrot dangling from a stick to the constant influx of undocumented immigrants who enter California each and every year only to be excluded from basic civil rights afforded to U.S. citizens.

From agriculture to textile and services, we ride freely on the back of our immigrant population with more concern over their right to live in these conditions than in fixing the conditions themselves. An unacceptable outcome to a group of hard-working "Americans" living and providing economic benefits within our community, even if their title is not official. With better guidance in our local government and stronger commitments for protection and rights throughout businesses in California, we can actually move in the right direction and start to balance the economic wealth available in California.