Extending human rights to America’s illegal aliens

I met Lupe about five weeks ago at Junta, a non-profit committed to progressive action for new immigrants in New Haven. Lupe is the same age as me — 20 years old. She arrived from Mexico in 2000 by walking through the desert to Arizona. The coyotes who charged her family $2400 to cross the border told her the trip would only last five hours. The trip lasted four days. They ran out of water and drank from muddy puddles on the ground. They suffered lacerations from crossing so many wire fences and hiding in bushes. They covered themselves in sand to fight the cold at night. They arrived in Arizona with badly blistered and thorn-filled feet. Lupe described the trip as hell.

Her husband picked her up in Phoenix, and the pair picked up their daughter from an American couple who had charged them $2,000 to smuggle her over the border in their car. Her daughter was badly malnourished and hadn’t eaten in over a week. The family drove to New Haven.

Lupe’s husband and brother both work 77 hours a week at a diner in Hamden, seven days a week from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. earning just $326 a month–wages which are 40 percent below Connecticut’s minimum wage of $6.70/hour. This translates to an annual salary of less than $16,000. After a year and a half of working in the same place, her husband receives no health or social service benefits despite paying state and federal taxes. Lupe is blind and her three year old daughter suffers from medical and severe dental problems, but the family is unable to afford medical treatment for either of them.

There are an estimated 8.7. million undocumented immigrants in the United States and an estimated 3.6 million undocumented workers in the U.S. labor force. These immigrants typically work seventy to eighty hour weeks in menial, entry-level jobs at wages that are most often significantly below legal standards.

They often live in subhuman conditions and receive no help in times of need. As a group, they pay billions of dollars in state and federal taxes but receive no social security, social service or health benefits. They are denied the right to vote and their constitutional rights are not protected. Last Wednesday, the Supreme Court ruled in a 5-4 decision to explicitly deny undocumented workers one of the most fundamental of their constitutional rights — the right to organize.

In Hoffman Plastic v. National Labor Relations Board, No. 00-1595, the Court overturned the decision of a federal appeals court and rejected the policy that the National Labor Relations Board has followed since 1995. This policy had ordered Hoffman Plastic Compounds, Inc., a California company, to reinstate and pay back wages to three employees who had been dismissed for trying to organize a union.

The Supreme Court ruling last week asserted that employers who violate federal labor law in their treatment of undocumented workers could not be required to pay back wages. Jose Castro, one of the three workers dismissed, had never been legally admitted to the United States or officially authorized to work. The NLRB still held that he was entitled to back pay for his wrongful dismissal. The Supreme Court determined that since the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 prohibited the employment of illegal immigrants, the labor board had no authority to order back pay.

This decision reconciles the nation’s immigration and labor law in a way that violates and weakens the rights and of all American workers. The court’s decision, combined with the reality that immigration is a fact of today’s global economy, promise a severe undermining of human rights and labor’s bargaining power.

Despite two restrictive immigration acts and the militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border through Operation Gatekeeper, beginning in 1994, the number of undocumented people in the United States has doubled during the past ten years, growing by at least 5 million in the past decade. Forty-four percent of these undocumented people are believed to come from Mexico. Operation Gatekeeper represents an investment of over a billion dollars and has transformed the border into a war zone. Despite massive spending and militarization, apprehensions across the border have increased by less than one percent, while the rate of illegal immigration to the country has continued to rise and the number of migrant deaths has reached appalling proportions. The border’s militarization has forced migrants into extremely treacherous terrain. According to Mexico’s Foreign Relation’s Office, over 1800 people have died while trying to cross the border since 1995. Each day, someone perishes while attempting to cross the border. Others, like Lupe, arrive injured, malnourished or near death. Why are people willing to risk so much for jobs that by American standards pay so little?

Clearly, powerful economic push and pull factors remain in operation, resulting in continued migration despite physical and social barriers nearly as powerful. Operation Gatekeeper began during the same year in which the North American Free Trade Agreement went into effect. The international movement of products and capital was radically liberalized while the government attempted to radically restrict the international movement of people. People will not remain immobilized while $196 billion dollars in products and capital flow back and forth between the two countries, severely disrupting the indigenous economy of the less powerful trading partner.

NAFTA is only the most recent of a long exploitive history of U.S. economic and political intervention in Mexico and throughout Latin America, which has resulted in both linkages between the U.S. and other countries and in today’s economic reality of global inequity, which work together to facilitate migration. This migration works to the advantage of the U.S. economy, like most aspects of the global order. The idea that undocumented workers take jobs away from American workers has been shown to be unsubstantiated by numerous studies. The service sectors jobs in which they work are often shunned by American workers. Most significantly, employers in certain sectors of the economy, such as agribusiness in the West and Southwest, argue that their businesses would collapse due to labor shortages without undocumented workers.

Undocumented workers offer this country their significant labor in jobs shunned by other workers and billions of dollars in taxes to national and state governments. When we refuse to protect those who productively engage society as “citizens,” it is time to re-conceptualize what citizenship truly means.

The U.S. has no less of an obligation than any other nation or institution to protect the human rights of those living and working within its borders. Among the most basic of these rights is the right to organize. Because of last week’s ruling denying those without legal status their basic human right to organize, the only way to protect such rights is a general amnesty, which was being seriously discussed last September but has been left off of the national agenda since Sept. 11. The tragedy of Sept. 11 should not provoke Americans to perpetuate the daily tragedy experienced by hardworking and exploited workers.

Many groups throughout the country, such as the National Coalition for Dignity and Amnesty for Undocumented Immigrants are pushing for such a general amnesty, to award the protection accorded by legal status to those undocumented workers already in the country. Since the Supreme Court has forcefully undermined these rights, it is up to legislators to reconcile immigration law and labor rights in a just and productive way. Civil society must demand this.



Shonu Gandhi is a junior in Saybrook College. Her columns appear on alternate Mondays.

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