Published on Wednesday, July 5, 2006 by CommonDreams.org
Reclaiming the Issues: "It's an Illegal Employer Problem"
by Thom Hartmann
Every time the media - or a Democrat - uses the phrase "Illegal Immigration" they are promoting one of Karl Rove's most potent Republican Party frames.
The reality is that we don't have an "Illegal Immigration" problem in America. We have an "Illegal Employer" problem.
Yet it's almost never mentioned in the mainstream media, because to point it out could slightly reduce the profits and CEO salaries of many of America's largest multi-state and multinational corporations - who both own the media and contribute heavily to conservative politicians. Republicans would prefer that the "criminals" covered in the press are working people, and that corporate and CEO criminals not get discussed.
As the Busby/Bilray contest showed, "illegal immigration" is a red-hot issue for American voters. The Democrat Busby was way ahead until she committed a faux pas before a group of Latinos, leading to (false) media reports (particularly on right-wing talk radio) that she was encouraging illegal immigrants to vote for her in the upcoming election. Her Republican opponent seized on this and hammered the district with ads for the last few days of the campaign (while voting machines curiously went home at night with some of the poll workers), and now a Republican lobbyist has taken the seat of a Republican congressman convicted of illegal deals with Republican lobbyists.
Encouraging a rapid increase in the workforce by encouraging companies to hire non-citizens is one of the three most potent tools conservatives since Ronald Reagan have used to convert the American middle class into the American working poor. (The other two are destroying the governmental protections that keep labor unions viable, and ending tariffs while promoting trade deals like NAFTA/WTO/GATT that export manufacturing jobs.)
As David Ricardo pointed out with his "Iron Law of Labor" (published in his 1814 treatise "On Labor") when labor markets are tight, wages go up. When labor markets are awash in workers willing to work at the bottom of the pay scale, unskilled and semi-skilled wages overall will decrease to what Ricardo referred to as "subsistence" levels.
Two years later, in 1816, Ricardo pointed out in his "On Profits" that when the cost of labor goes down, the result usually isn't a decrease in product prices, but, instead, an increase in corporate and CEO profits. (This is because the marketplace sets prices, but the cost of labor helps set profits. For example, when Nike began manufacturing shoes in Third World countries with labor costs below US labor costs, it didn't lead to $15 Nikes - their price held, and even increased, because the market would bear it. Instead, that reduction in labor costs led to Nike CEO Phil Knight becoming a multi-billionaire.)
Republicans understand this very, very well, although they never talk about it. Democrats seem not to have read Ricardo, although the average American gets it at a gut level.
Thus, Americans are concerned that a "flood of illegal immigrants" coming primarily across our southern border is, to paraphrase Lou Dobbs, "wiping out the American middle class." And there is considerable truth to it, as part of the three-part campaign mentioned earlier.
But Dobbs and his fellow Republicans say the solution is to "secure our border" with a fence like that used by East Germany, but that stretches a distance about the same as that from Washington, DC to Chicago. It'll be a multi-billion-dollar boon to Halliburton and Bechtel, who will undoubtedly get the construction and maintenance contracts, but it won't stop illegal immigration. (Instead, people will legally come in on tourist and other visas, and not leave when their visas expire.)
The fact is that we had an open border with Mexico for several centuries, and "illegal immigration" was never a serious problem. Before Reagan's presidency, an estimated million or so people a year came into the US from Mexico - and the same number, more or less, left the US for Mexico at the end of the agricultural harvest season. Very few stayed, because there weren't jobs for them.
Non-citizens didn't have access to the non-agricultural US job market, in large part because of the power of US labor unions (before Reagan 25% of the workforce was unionized; today the private workforce is about 7% unionized), and because companies were unwilling to risk having non-tax-deductible labor expenses on their books by hiring undocumented workers without valid Social Security numbers.
But Reagan put an end to that. His 1986 amnesty program, combined with his aggressive war on organized labor (begun in 1981), in effect told both employers and non-citizens that there would be few penalties and many rewards to increasing the US labor pool (and thus driving down wages) with undocumented immigrants. A million people a year continued to come across our southern border, but they stopped returning to Latin America every fall because instead of seasonal work they were able to find permanent jobs.
The magnet drawing them? Illegal Employers.
Yet in the American media, Illegal Employers are almost never mentioned.
Lou Dobbs, the most visible media champion of this issue, always starts his discussion of the issue with a basic syllogism - 1. Our border is porous. 2. People are coming across our porous border and diluting our labor markets, driving down US wages. 3. Therefore we must make the border less porous.
Lou's syllogism, however, ignores the real problem, the magnet drawing people to risk life and limb to illegally enter this country - Illegal Employers. Our borders have always been porous (and even with a "fence" will still allow through "tourists" by the millions), but we've never had a problem like this before.
And it's not just because poverty has increased in Mexico - today, about half of Mexico lives on less than $2 a day, but 50 years ago half of Mexico also lived on the equivalent of $2 today. Our trade and agricultural policies are harmful to Mexican farmers (and must be changed!), but we were nearly as predatory fifty years ago (remember the rubber and fruit companies, particularly in Central America?).
Yet fifty years ago we didn't have an "illegal immigration" problem, because back then we didn't have a conservative "Illegal Employer" problem.
As the Washington Post noted in an article by Hsu and Lydersen on June 19, 2006:
"Between 1999 and 2003, work-site enforcement operations were scaled back 95 percent by the Immigration and Naturalization Service, which subsequently was merged into the Homeland Security Department. The number of employers prosecuted for unlawfully employing immigrants dropped from 182 in 1999 to four in 2003, and fines collected declined from $3.6 million to $212,000, according to federal statistics.
The hiring crimes of Illegal Employers are being ignored by the law, and rewarded by the economic systems of the nation.
Proof that this simple reality is ignored in our media (much to the delight of Republicans) is everywhere you look. For example, check out a series of national polls on illegal immigration done over the past year at www.pollingreport.com/immigration.htm. A typical poll question is like this one from an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll conducted in June, 2006:
"When it comes to the immigration bill, the Senate and the House of Representatives disagree with one another about what should be done on the issue of illegal immigration.
The question: "Or would you prefer companies that employ undocumented workers be severely fined or put out of business?" wasn't even asked. The word "employer" appears nowhere in any of the questions in that poll. Nor is it in the CBS News immigration poll. Or in the Associated Press immigration poll. Or in the Fox News immigration poll.
Only the CNN poll asked the question: "Would you favor increasing penalties for employers who hire illegal immigrants?" Two-thirds of Americans, of all party affiliations, said, "Yes," but it went virtually unreported in mainstream media coverage.
"Illegal Immigration" is really about "Illegal Employers." As long as Democrats argue it on the basis of "illegal immigration" they'll lose, even when they're right. Instead, they need to be talking about "Illegal Employers."
Politically, it's not a civil rights issue, it's a jobs issue, as working Americans keep telling pollsters over and over again.
"Mass deportations" and "Fences" are hysterics and false choices. Start penalizing "Illegal Employers" and non-citizens without a Social Security number will leave the country on their own. And they won't have to confront death trying to cross the desert back into Mexico - Mexican citizens can simply walk back into Mexico across the border at any legal border crossing (as about a million did every year for over a century).
Tax law requires that an employer must verify the Social Security number of their employees in order to document, and thus deduct, the expense of their labor. This is a simple task, and some companies, like AMC Theatres, are already doing it.
For example, Cameron Barr wrote in The Washington Post on April 30, 2006, that: "At one area multiplex owned by AMC, the Rio 18 in Gaithersburg, 11 employees 'decided to resign' this month after they could not rectify discrepancies that arose during the screening, said Melanie Bell, a spokeswoman for AMC Entertainment Inc., which is based in Kansas City, Mo. She said such screening is a routine procedure that the company conducts across the United States."
Not wanting to be an Illegal Employer, the Post noted that AMC "has long submitted lists of its employees' Social Security numbers to the Social Security Administration for review. If discrepancies arise, she [company spokeswoman Bell] said in an e-mailed response to questions, 'we require the worker to provide their original Social Security card within 3 days or to immediately contact the local SSA office.' She said the process is part of payroll tax verification and occurs after hiring."
Easy, simple, cheap, painless. No fence required. No mass deportations necessary. No need for Homeland Security to get involved. When jobs are not available, most undocumented workers will simply leave the country (as they always did before), or begin the normal process to obtain citizenship that millions (including my own sister-in-law - this hits many of us close to home) go through each year.
Republicans, however, are not going to allow a discussion of "Illegal Employers." Instead, they will continue to hammer the issue of "Illegal Immigrants," and tie that political albatross around the necks of Democrats (who seem all too willing to accept it).
Bob Casey, for example, was beating the pants off Rick Santorum in the Pennsylvania senatorial campaign, until Santorum began running an ad that says:
"Bobby Casey announced his support of a Senate bill that grants amnesty to illegal immigrants, shocking hardworking taxpayers all across Pennsylvania. Now Casey's trying to wiggle out of it by saying the bill doesn't offer amnesty and requires illegal immigrants to pay their back taxes. Either Casey didn't read the bill, or he's trying to deceive you. The Washington Times reports the legislation gives amnesty to 11 million who are here illegally, and paves the way for 66 million more immigrants to enter the country. The bill also forgives two of the last five years of back taxes for illegal immigrants, something the IRS would never do for you. This Casey-supported bill even gives illegal aliens Social Security benefits for the time they were here illegally. Fortunately, Rick Santorum voted against the bill, and Rick's leading the fight to make sure it never becomes law. Now you know the advantage of having in our corner a fighter like Rick Santorum."
Casey is still ahead, but the ad is visibly eroding his support. As George Will pointed out in a June 18, 2006 op-ed titled "Calculating Immigration Politics":
"Many Republicans, looking for any silver lining in an abundance of dark clouds, think the immigration issue might be a silver bullet that will slay their current vulnerability. The issue is, as political people say, a 'two-fer.' Opposition to the Senate bill, and support for the House bill, puts Republican candidates where much of the country and most of their party's base currently is -- approximately: 'Fix the border; then maybe we can talk about other things.' And opposition to the Senate bill distances them from a president who, although rebounding recently, has approval ratings below 40 percent in 29 states."
Now even Bush is talking like the Republicans in the House of Representatives - time to "get tough" and give Halliburton a few hundred billion to build a fence.
But still nobody is talking about the real problem here - the Illegal Employers.
Hopefully one day soon a dialogue like this fictitious one may ensue on, for example, Face The Nation:
[Bob Schieffer] Senator, do you really think the solution to the illegal immigration problem in America is to offer amnesty instead of building a fence?
[Senator Stabenow] Bob, I think you've been drinking some of Karl Rove's Kool-Aid. Illegal immigrants aren't the cause of undocumented workers driving down wages in this country. It's caused by Illegal Employers. We need to do something about these corporate criminals.
[Bob Schieffer (baffled)] Illegal employers? But what about the illegal aliens?
[Senator Stabenow] Bob, the aliens wouldn't be here if they didn't think they could get a job. Of course, we need to clean up US agricultural subsidies and trade policies that are causing human suffering in our neighboring countries, but to truly protect the pay standards of workers here in the United States we need to crack down on the Illegal Employers. They're the magnets that are drawing people in from all over the world, many of whom come in as tourists and then overstay because they get illegal jobs. And these Illegal Employers are breaking the law - both immigration laws and IRS laws. I suggest that we need to tighten up these laws against Illegal Employers, adding huge fines for first offenses, jail time for CEOs for second offenses, and the corporate death penalty - dissolve their charters to operate - for repeat offenders.
[Bob Schieffer (stammering)] The, the, er, did you say "corporate death penalty"? You mean against companies?
[Senator Stabenow] Better companies die than human beings. These Illegal Employers, in their quest for ever-cheaper labor, are drawing people to cross our borders in ways that cause many people to die in the deserts of the southwest. These people were executed, for all practical purposes, by the policies of a few greedy and lawbreaking American companies. When companies are repeat offenders, they should be dissolved, their assets sold to reimburse their shareholders, and let other, more ethical companies pick up the slack. We used to do this all the time in America when companies behaved badly. Up until the 1880s, an average of around 2000 companies a year got the corporate death sentence in the US.
[Bob Schieffer (bug-eyed)] But what about the illegal immigration problem?
[Senator Stabenow (patting Schieffer's hand)] It's okay, Bob. You shouldn't listen so much to those Republicans. There isn't really much of an illegal immigration problem - it's an Illegal Employer problem. When we clear up the Illegal Employer problem in this country, we'll be back like we were before Reagan started allowing employers to behave illegally. When non-citizens can't get a job, most of them will go home, as they always have in the past. We don't need a fence, we don't need amnesty, we don't need mass roundups or deportations, and we for sure don't need guest workers. We have as many unemployed citizens in this nation as there are illegal immigrants - in my state of Michigan, for example, Flint and Detroit have massive unemployment since Reagan and his corporate cronies declared war on working people. When we get rid of Illegal Employers, that's one step in helping the job market tighten up so that legal employers will have to pay a living wage to attract legal citizens to work. That and rational labor and trade policies, and we can begin to restore our middle class and put our cities back together.
[Bob Schieffer (nodding)] It makes sense, Senator. An "Illegal Employer problem." Who would have thought of that?
[Senator Stabenow (smiling)] Well, Bob, the Republicans thought about it, back in the 1980s. But they thought it was a good idea. Which is why we have this mess today. Get rid of the Illegal Employers - toss a few CEOs into jail and shut down the outlaw companies - and the rest of this part of the problem will be easy and inexpensive to fix...
Thom Hartmann is a Project Censored Award-winning best-selling author, and host of a nationally syndicated daily progressive talk show carried on the Air America Radio network and Sirius. www.thomhartmann.com His most recent books include "The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight," "Unequal Protection," "We The People: A Call To Take Back America," "What Would Jefferson Do?" and "Ultimate Sacrifice." His next book, due out this autumn, is "Screwed: The Undeclared War on the Middle Class and What We Can Do About It."