Friday, July 3, 2009

A Kinder, Gentler Immigration Enforcement Policy

On the surface, it is extremely suspicious the New York Times news pages are working in concert with the Obama Administration's initial steps towards immigration reform: A kinder, gentler approach in stark contrast to those employee raids conducted by the junior George Bush.

I'll use the link to the story and you can decide for yourself.

What I do know is that Obama's approach to sanction and fine employers and deport undocumented workers is the most reasonable one the government has adopted since the Reagan administration. It is a major player in the total reform package, still under consideration, that will have to address border security, some form of amnesty for an estimated 10 million illegals, revision of visa procedures and a guest worker program.

You may ask, how do I know? I've been there, done that.

I was born on a farm where my dad's primary work force were Mexicans, first hired during World War II in what was called the Bracero program, and later hired in a cooperative managed by the San Diego County Farm Bureau. The system was strictly enforced by the state and federal departments of labor.

The town I was raised, San Juan Capistrano, was predominately populated by Mexicans, many families residing in the farming community for two to three generations. Yes, their ancestors were probably illegal residents. It was never much of an issue in the 1940s and 50s.

I married a Latina. After 20 years as a newspaper reporter, I formed my own gardening and landscaping business. All but three of my employees were Mexican. Why? Because the work was hard, long and the whites after several days, sometimes as long as six months, would quit. I paid $2 to $5 per hour above minimum wage and guaranteed $40/day when we were rained out and couldn't work. I couldn't afford a health plan either for myself or my employees.

I had the same problem as the New York Times describes about the Los Angeles Apparel owner. That is, some of the documents to check for authenticity were impossible to discern if they were forged and I suspected some were and hoped for the best because I knew I would be immune from prosecution by immigration known in our circles as "La Migra."

But here's the rub: My dad, myself and thousands of employers of Mexican laborers were the exception rather than the rule. We knew some farmers in the Imperial and San Joaquin valleys were exploiting illegal Mexican laborers by not paying them minimum wages or, in piece work situations, not paying them at all. We knew two-thirds of their labor force were paid in cash and simply "off the books." We heard horror stories about illegal immigrants working under harsh conditions in the meat packing industries of the Midwest.

The problem is exactly what Rep. Brian Bilbray is quoted as saying in the NYT piece. The feds must enforce the laws diligently and fine serial employers of illegal workers to the maximum in order to level the competitive playing field in the labor market.

The thing is there is nothing we can do to improve the Mexican economy which drives the heart of its labor force to the U.S. in search of jobs. But, a well-enforced system of checking the documentation of these workers by employers and the government, these job openings will dry up and go to deserving citizens or valid visa holders, perhaps even to a white guy or gal.

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