Monday, February 19, 2007

Undocumented Workers

The current situation with immigration is not sustainable. American citizens, due to media propaganda, have a difficult time understanding how important undocumented workers have become in sustaining the American way of life(the very use of the term undocumented workers as opposed to illegal aliens belies much about what a person's stance is on the issue). There exist many arguments about what should be done and also what can be done. It is clear that deportation is not a viable option for the estimated 11-13 million undocumented workers. This is because both the logistics of removing millions of people to other countries and the effect on the American economy. The American economy rests on the backs of the cheap labor from Latin America. These people work for minimum wage or less and work longer and, by many accounts, harder than Americans would be willing to.

There are many that argue that these immigrants are soaking up our welfare and other social services while not paying taxes. This argument does not hold up to critical scrutiny. First is the issue of taxes. Most of these workers will not formally be filing income tax. This is a significant penalty for them as most would be able to get money back because they are making below poverty wages. Many immigrants work under false social security numbers and so they have regular taxes taken out of their checks each month. The fear is that if they file that they will be caught and deported. Also these workers have a host of other taxes that either they are responsible for paying or are payed on their behalf by those that exploit their labor. All of the taxes that are paid by these undocumented workers go to benefit the rest of American society but cannot be drawn upon by the workers due to the legal limbo in which they currently reside.

One significant tax that that these workers pay but receive no benefit from is is sales tax, the bane of poor people everywhere. This tax that is used extensively in 48 states is one of the most regressive that can be instituted. Most states have no provision for food exemptions and other important measures that reduce the negative effects of this tax. Another significant set of taxes are employer taxes. This includes a host of taxes that are paid by companies on the profit they make. This is extremely significant because we are talking about large amounts of money. This has been made particularly clear by the recent "Un Dia Sin Inmigrantes" . Large companies such as Tyson faced plant closures on the day of the protests. These large companies are paying significant taxes on revenue that is generated by workers that are unable to receive the social services that the rest of us take for granted.

For me the reason that this current system can't continue is one that I don't see discussed very widely. These workers are exploited and marginalized at every turn. By crossing the border illegally they lose all power to negotiate. The employers know this and exploit it to their full advantage. Things such as minimum wage, mandatory breaks, clean and safe facilities have no meaning when those who are marginalized have no legal rights. Any complaint by undocumented workers means being fired, again something from which they have no protection, and likely deported. It is difficult to imagine how undocumented workers can bring about such animosity from the general public. These workers face a deadly border crossing, made more deadly by changes to border surveillance that have pushed crossers to more treacherous terrain. Also upon entering, they face difficult exploitative labor that is difficult to envy in any way. Finally, they are often away from their families for months to years at a time. How could these people be seen as a threat to our way of life? In many ways they represent the dogged determination to create a better life that is characteristic of what most Americans subscribe to as "the American dream."

While no simple solution can be instituted to ameliorate the divergent interests that are affected by this issue. It will take time and critical reflection to create a policy that ensures that workers are treated fairly and that the deaths from crossing the border illegally cease to happen. For me what makes the most sense is an immigrant worker program that gives protections to workers and allows border crossing to be standardized. We need some sort of system that allows for different levels of workers, depending on what the worker wants. Individuals should at least be able to get into a track to either be a guest worker, or to work in the U.S. and be on a track toward immigration. Also necessary would be some sort program that allows workers (and presumably their families) who have been here to have an expedited process of immigration. These people are already working and living here and there is really no reason to force them to leave only to attempt to immigrate "legally." The specifics of these programs should be open to public debate as opposed to just being misinterpreted by American media that consistently takes the side of their corporate backers on matters such as this.

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