Pinkertons at DHS

Source: T.A. Frank, Washington Monthly, Vol. 40 no. 5, May/June/July 2008

Are immigration busts undermining U.S. labor law?

…In fact, there’s disturbing evidence to suggest that unscrupulous employers are leaning heavily on ICE to threaten their employees. Some of the most damning statistics come from a 2004 report by Professor Michael Wishnie of Yale Law School. In a remarkable study of all workplace raids – 184 in all – conducted by federal immigration enforcement in the New York City area over a thirty-month period, Wishnie found that over half were on workplaces officially embroiled in labor disputes.

No matter how you feel about illegal immigration, this is bad news for U.S. workers. Normally, when a factory breaks health and safety rules, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration finds out about the violations thanks to employee tips and subsequent interviews. Likewise, when a factory fails to pay minimum wage or overtime, inspectors from federal or state labor departments can normally depend on employee cooperation. If employees don’t answer questions honestly, or if they run away the moment inspectors enter a building, then investigations go nowhere. And if labor officials are unable to enforce wage and safety standards properly, then law-abiding companies and legal workers suffer too, placed at an unfair disadvantage to rogue competitors.

But the damage goes beyond that. Illegal employees who fear deportation are far easier to exploit than legal ones who don’t fear it. Owners can work illegal employees harder, subject them to more dangerous conditions, and pay them less money. So why not hire as many as possible? (To be sure, none of this would apply if employer sanctions for hiring illegal workers were heavy, but in reality they are light- and rarely imposed.) In this way, the so called “job magnet,” the main driver of illegal immigration, remains as powerful as ever. Perversely, then, the occasional ICE bust can make illegal workers even more appealing to employers than legal immigrants or American citizens.

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