Putting a Stop to Slave Labor

I remember my feelings of disbelief when, in the fourth grade, we read about the lives of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Until then, I’d been taught to revere Washington’s honesty and Jefferson’s brilliance. To me, their powdered wigs and knee breeches symbolized a golden era when America’s moral mandate and ethical superiority seemed unassailable.

Yet those colonial heroes who wrote that ‘all men are created equal’ and legendarily declared ‘I cannot tell a lie’ owned slaves. Even at the age of 9, it made no sense to me that we who worshiped freedom not only tolerated but endorsed human bondage.

I was in high school when the deeper horrors of slavery became apparent: dislocated families, deplorable living conditions, sexual servitude, torture.

I was just out of college and working for a bilingual newspaper in northern New Mexico by the time I recognized the irony: My fourth-grade classmates’ parents were keeping local farms and businesses afloat by doing work no ‘legal’ laborer would do. Living in cinderblock hovels hidden away behind the sand hills of southern New Mexio, they made less than minimum wage, suffered inhumane working conditions, and could not protest for fear of deportation.

Economically speaking, they served the same purpose as the Africans who slaved for American masters through the first half of our nation’s history. They provided the cheap labor that allowed us to establish dominance in the international marketplace. And they were invisible.

Chances are that the roof on your home or the food on your table or the tiles on your floor were put there by undocumented workers. In the United States, farmers, food processors, roofers, ranchers, country clubs, contractors, hotels, and mechanics depend on low-wage ‘illegal aliens.’ The United Farm Workers told the New York Times in September that an estimated 90 percent of California’s farmworkers were undocumented. On some construction sites in Seattle, 90 percent of the workers are native Spanish speakers, according to inspectors, construction foremen, and union organizers interviewed by the Seattle Times in 2006. The U.S. Department of Labor figures that some 85 percent of recent immigrants from Mexico are undocumented.

A U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service report estimated that there were 7 million undocumented immigrants in the country in 2000. A more recent estimate of 11 million has been discussed in news accounts. Robert Justich, managing director of Bear Stearns Asset Management, says that 20 million could be a more accurate number. In his 2005 paper ‘The Underground Labor Force Is Rising to the Surface,’ Justich estimates that as many as 3 million people enter the country illegally each year (triple the authorized figure) and hold somewhere between 12 million and 15 million jobs, which constitute 8 percent of the labor market.

For obvious reasons, the statistics are somewhat unreliable. The reality of the situation, however, is not lost on Wall Street or anyone else who cares to take a good, hard look. Our nation is full of undocumented workers. We see them every day. We know why they’re here, and most of us are smart enough to figure out why we won’t do anything meaningful to change the situation. We don’t want to lose the cheap, efficient labor.

‘Four to six million jobs have shifted to the underground market, as small businesses take advantage of the vulnerability of illegal residents,’ Justich concludes in his report. ‘In addition to circumventing the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, many employers of illegal workers have taken to using unrecorded revenue receipts. Employer enforcement has succumbed to political pressure.’

Hiring undocumented workers is illegal. Yet we don’t require that employers verify an applicant’s documents, and there is no simple system for doing so. How hard would it be to give employers access to a database that would, without violating any privacy rights, check a couple of basic facts related to a Social Security number, such as zip code, name, and work history? In this era of instant online credit, when a teenager working at your local car dealer’s parts counter can check a credit score in 15 seconds, it would be neither difficult nor prohibitively expensive. As it is, we don’t even check to see that the Social Security number matches a name.

We are systematically tolerating, even encouraging, undocumented workers to come to the United States. Then, in order to placate a vocal and ill-informed minority, enforcement agencies stage various law enforcement dramas at locations across the country. We erect costly and ineffectual fences on the Mexican border.

Some write off undocumented workers as criminals. Factions within the law enforcement establishment stage sporadic raids with little strategic value on high-profile employers like Wal-Mart and Swift & Company. The raids placate the neoconservatives demanding an emphasis on law enforcement, but that’s all the raids accomplish. Given that there are somewhere between 10 million and 20 million undocumented workers, if just 10 percent of them were arrested there would be no place to incarcerate them — and the sheer numbers would make deportation logistically impossible. How would we transport a million people to the border? Two million? And how do we fill their jobs when they’re gone?

What’s most appalling is that we have the audacity to label entrepreneurial immigrants ‘criminals’ when the vast majority of undocumented workers are sincere, skilled, industrious men and women doing what they must to support their families. Just ask the people who hire them. A Texas rancher recently told me he gets 50 percent more work from an ‘illegal’ Mexican day worker than from his legal U.S. counterpart. The Mexican ‘is generally a family guy, working for his wife and kids,’ he said. ‘The American is some kid who doesn’t really care, or he’s got other problems — alcohol or whatever — keeping him out of the permanent workforce.’ (Most honest farmers I’ve talked to over the years, in fact, will tell you that their Mexican laborers have better skills and work harder than the rest of their documented employees.)

Somehow many of these laborers manage to save a share of their pitiful wages to send home. Justich reports that in 2003, Mexican workers in the United States sent home $13 billion in remittances. That’s to Mexico alone, and that’s triple the amount recorded in 1995. Talk about family values.

The nation’s farm shacks, decrepit trailer parks, and urban tenements are packed with people who work long hours every day in illegal working conditions. In agriculture they toil in extreme weather handling toxic chemicals and dangerous heavy equipment.

In Fast Food Nation (Houghton Mifflin, 2001), author Eric Schlosser calls meatpacking ‘the most dangerous job in the United States’ with an injury rate three times higher than average factory jobs. No one officially complains because the workers desperately want to steer clear of the authorities. As a result, we have no trustworthy information about the undocumented labor force’s health, living conditions, education, or beliefs. Even if someone managed to come up with a reliable way of collecting such data, the study’s subjects would still be afraid of participating.

This sort of moral myopia is not a new phenomenon in U.S. culture. Yesterday, Native Americans and African slaves fell outside our narrow definition of humanity. Today, the undocumented worker does.

Politicians talk about building fences and sending soldiers to the border, yet they refuse to take the simplest steps to prevent the workers from being hired illegally. They also willfully disregard why immigrants are attracted to the United States in the first place (for the jobs) and why Americans don’t want to admit it.

If we required good documents starting tomorrow, the nation would plunge into an instantaneous economic crisis. Millions of workers would suddenly be missing.
The only practical and ethical solution is to provide legal status to honest, hardworking immigrants. Then we would have to acknowledge how we treat them. We would have to admit that jobs that offer a fair wage and humane working conditions cost money — and that cost would be passed on to consumers, who, for starters, might see an additional 10 percent added to their rent or mortgage payment and pay 15 percent more for groceries.

That’s not a change the average consumer would welcome, of course. And it’s not going to happen until American citizens are forced to confront the human cost of the system we have built. Then maybe we’ll have the guts to change it.

I met Max Gonzales in the mountains of northern New Mexico more than 20 years ago. He lived up there in the Cruces Basin Wilderness seven months a year in a canvas tent. Most of the time, he had only his two horses, a border collie, and 1,500 sheep for company. Every two weeks or so, his supplies were carried in on horseback. When there were fresh batteries, he could listen to a Juarez radio station.

Sometimes backpackers like me showed up for a few days to hike the trails and fish in the streams, but Max didn’t speak English and the campers generally didn’t speak Spanish. It was a life of isolation that only a hermit (or a delusional college boy with literary aspirations and a backpack) would choose, and Max was a gregarious 30-year-old without any romantic notions of the sheepherder’s lonely vocation. He didn’t enjoy the life much. He had a wife and three daughters back in Guanajuato. He was doing it for the money.

Max said he was making about $4,500 a year. Even if you adjust for inflation, that’s not much of a job, but it was the best a farm kid from Mexico could find without a green card. And without someone like Max, the rancher who owned those sheep might have been out of business. A legal worker would have cost the rancher at least twice what he was paying Max, assuming he could find a competent person willing to move into the mountains alone for six months. That sort of increased overhead would have rendered him vulnerable to competitors at home — unwilling and unmotivated to pay a fair wage — or to wool and meat exporters in Australia and Chile.

If we shut down illegal immigration, a program to legalize our ‘guest workers’ would be a matter of necessity to save American agriculture. At that point, the citizenry would have had to acknowledge how we were treating people like Max. But because nothing was done then — and because it doesn’t look like anything meaningful is going to happen in the foreseeable future — illegal immigration endures as a testament to our hypocrisy.

We, the citizens of the United States, are lying to ourselves about our labor force. We are lying persistently, and it’s hurting everyone involved. The lies rob legitimate workers of needed jobs, they rob industrious immigrants of fair opportunities, and they rob America of its essential morality.

Bryan Welch lives on a small farm outside Lawrence, Kansas. He is the publisher and editorial director of Ogden Publications Inc., owners of Utne Reader, Mother Earth News, and other magazines and websites.

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