A year ago, in the middle of the nation's most bitterly fought union organizing drive, management at the Smithfield Foods pork slaughterhouse in Tar Heel, North Carolina, sent a letter to 300 workers. The company, Smithfield claimed, had been notified by the Social Security Administration that the workers' numbers didn't match the SSA database. Come up with new numbers that could pass the "no-match check," the company ordered the workers, or they'd be fired within two weeks.
The Smithfield plant, the largest of its kind in the world, employs 5,000 people, about half of them immigrants. No one can say for sure how many lacked immigration papers, but as in most meatpacking plants, many undoubtedly did. Despite their status, during the previous year those workers walked out twice to join immigrants' rights marches. They even shut down production lines over the high accident rate. The fear created by the no-match check was an easy way to cut that activism short.
For the past two decades employers have threatened, and often implemented, similar terminations in workplace after workplace. At the Woodfin Suites in Emeryville, California, the hotel threatened no-match firings after workers began demanding compliance with the city's living-wage law. At the Cintas Laundry chain, plant managers fired hundreds of employees last year in no-match checks during UNITE HERE's national organizing drive. The list goes on and on.
The Bush Administration says that vastly increased checks will become a fact of life in every US workplace. On August 10, Homeland Security secretary Michael Chertoff told reporters that SSA would send letters to 160,000 employers on September 4, listing all workers whose numbers don't jibe. After a ninety-day grace period, the Administration will require employers to discharge those whose numbers are still in question. Those letters would list the names of millions of workers.
Implementation of the new regulation was halted on August 31, however, after unions filed suit against it. In response to a legal challenge by two Bay Area labor councils in Alameda and San Francisco Counties, the San Francisco Building and Construction Trades Council, the national AFL-CIO, the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Immigration Law Center, US District Judge Maxine Chesney issued a temporary restraining order blocking it. The TRO stopped Social Security from sending letters on September 4.
The suit charges that the new Bush rule will threaten jobs of US citizens and legal residents because of errors in the government's database, and therefore would violate workers' rights and impose burdensome obligations on employers. According to the SSA Inspector General, 12.7 million of the 17.8 million discrepancies belong to US citizens. A series of hearings will now be held to determine whether the order should be made permanent.
The plaintiffs filed suit because of the staggering scope of Chertoff's order. About 12 million people living in the United States have no legal immigration status. Most of them work. In order to get hired, they have to present a Social Security number to their employer. Some use invented numbers, while others borrow existing numbers that belong to someone else. This causes no harm to others--if anything, it subsidizes the Social Security fund, since undocumented workers can't claim benefits, although they're paying deductions like everyone else.
Yet if the Chertoff regulation is implemented as announced, as many as 9 million people will lose their jobs at the end of this year.
The impact will be catastrophic. Most undocumented families live close to the margin as it is, from paycheck to paycheck. They would suddenly have no means to buy food, pay rent, clothe their children or send them to school. The human suffering would be immense. Working-class communities already stretched to provide services to currently unemployed workers would have no means to meet this additional need. Undocumented immigrants are ineligible for welfare, food stamps, unemployment insurance and almost all other public benefits.
Tens of thousands of workplaces would fall silent, as those industries most dependent on immigrant labor would virtually cease to function. Crop cultivation and harvesting would stop immediately. So would meatpacking and most food processing. Hotels and restaurants would turn away customers.
Construction would stall, as laborers and other lower-paid workers would disappear. Shutting down construction would put skilled citizen workers on the streets as well. In convalescent homes, the absence of undocumented caregivers would cause a crisis for the sick, disabled and elderly of all races and nationalities.
Many of these industries contribute heavily to Bush and the Republican Party, including to candidates who have called for this kind of draconian immigration enforcement. Accepted wisdom in Washington says the Administration is pandering to win the support of anti-immigrant extremists in the Republican Party. While this may be true, it hardly explains why the Administration seems so intent on biting the corporate hand that feeds it.
At the August 10 press conference, Chertoff and Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez provided an explanation. Employers worried about the loss of their workers, Gutierrez said, could avail themselves of existing guest-worker programs, which allow corporations to recruit workers outside the United States and bring them into the country on visas tied to employment. The Administration, he promised, would make the programs easier for employers to use.
In recent years companies have pushed relentlessly to relax caps on guest-worker recruitment, and cut already-weak requirements for housing, wages and labor protections. As the cries of employers for workers become louder, it's not hard to predict that Congress will eventually be asked to authorize new contract labor schemes. Providing legal status to people here without papers, however, is excluded from this agenda.
Chertoff's enforcement regulations, and Gutierrez's guest-worker expansion, simply implement by executive order provisions of the immigration bill Congress wouldn't pass two months ago. That bill also coupled big guest-worker programs with no-match checks and raids. These are the centerpieces of the Administration's immigration reform program, and they were originally proposed by some of the country's largest corporations and industry groups.
"We do not have the workers our economy needs to keep growing each year," Gutierrez said at the recent press conference. "The demographics simply are not on our side. Ultimately, Congress will have to pass comprehensive immigration reform." Chertoff rolled out the same message last year, after huge immigration raids at the Swift meatpacking plants. Congress had to understand, he said, that Bush wants "a program that would allow businesses that need foreign workers, because they can't otherwise satisfy their labor needs, to be able to get those workers in a regulated program."
Firing millions of workers to gain leverage in Congress is a brutal tactic, but the Administration's pressure campaign of raids and no-match checks has been growing for the past two years. Often its enforcement actions on the ground are carried out in cooperation with employers.
When the no-match firings began at Smithfield last November, hundreds of slaughterhouse laborers walked out and stayed out for three days. In an unprecedented accomplishment, they forced the company to rescind the firing order. But after the workers were reinstated, Homeland Security agents came out to Tar Heel in January. They arrested twenty-one people inside the plant and deported them. The fear it inspired broke the back of the union's in-plant organizing strategy.
At the Woodfin Suites in Emeryville, after the company began to threaten no-match terminations, the City Council went to court to prevent the firings. Then San Diego Republican Brian Bilbray, chair of the House Immigration Caucus, called Homeland Security on behalf of company president Samuel Hardage. Bilbray got the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement to jump-start an investigation of the immigration status of the workers who sought to enforce the city's living wage ordinance. All were eventually fired.
Firings for no-match discrepancies are a misuse of the Social Security database. SSA was created not to punish workers but to benefit them by making disability payments when they get injured and providing pensions when they're too old to work. But for twenty years successive administrations have tried to use Social Security as a tool for immigration enforcement. Employers have used those efforts as pretexts to discharge employees when they organize unions, demand better wages and try to enforce labor standards, or simply to replace higher-paid workers with lower-paid ones.
In the past the Social Security Administration has sometimes been uncomfortable with this betrayal of its mission. Community protest in the 1990s convinced the SSA to include a paragraph in no-match letters warning employers not to interpret them as evidence of lack of legal immigration status. In 1999, in the middle of the huge Operation Vanguard immigration raids, the SSA even denied the Immigration and Naturalization Service access to its database, after 3,000 people were driven from their jobs in Nebraska meatpacking plants. Since then, however, the agency has been brought into line by the Bush Administration, and it is now more than willing to go after the nation's undocumented.
Because firing several million people at once would be economically disastrous to the Administration's corporate supporters, actual enforcement will be, as always, selective. At the August press conference Chertoff acknowledged that ICE couldn't track down every failure to fire workers listed in no-match letters but would instead mount highly publicized raids to scare employers into line. The order is intended to encourage employers to act on their own, as Smithfield did. In justifying its no-match firings, the company said it was simply implementing Bush's no-match proposal in advance.
It's time for a few reality checks about what this enforcement scheme will and won't accomplish.
Reality check 1: Workers who lose their jobs won't leave the country. Immigrant communities are deeply embedded in the social fabric of this country, not only in cities like New York and Los Angeles but also in tiny towns like Bridgeton, New Jersey, and Kennett Square, Pennsylvania. To get here, migrants often take out loans on homes in their countries of origin. Losing a job here can mean losing that home. Family members living there, depending on remittances from the states, would go hungry. And for many who emigrated because they were hungry themselves, going back is simply not an option.
Reality check 2: When Bush and many Congress members push for new free trade agreements, and implementation of NAFTA and CAFTA, they are creating the very conditions of poverty that are driving people north. With 200 million people in the world living outside the countries where they were born, the flow of migration is not stoppable. Anti-immigrant measures like raids and no-match checks create human misery but don't stop the movement of people.
Reality check 3: Firing millions of undocumented migrants won't create jobs or raise wages for other workers. When Operation Vanguard railroaded thousands of immigrant workers out of Nebraska meatpacking plants in 1999, there was no wave of hiring that followed in Omaha's African-American neighborhoods. The de facto color line keeping blacks and Chicanos out of many US workplaces instead reflects the belief by employers that they will demand high wages and try to organize unions. At Smithfield, where black workers did organize, no-match firings and deportations created such fear that in-plant activism virtually stopped.
Reality check 4: Employers complain about the no-match regulation, and many are sincerely concerned about its impact on business and workers. But some employers will benefit. Increased fear and vulnerability makes immigrant labor cheaper, by making it riskier to protest bad conditions, or ask for higher wages.
These realities are inspiring a rising wave of protest in unions and immigrant communities. The week after Chertoff's announcement, the United Food and Commercial Workers, the union for the meatpacking industry, held a conference in Omaha to expose the abuse of rights in last year's raids at the Swift plants. The meeting also discussed plans for opposing the new regulation, which it predicted would lead to more firings and deportations.
"We have to do everything we can to stop these aggressive enforcement actions," said Mark Lauritzen, UFCW packinghouse division director. "Last December [in the Swift raids] workers became criminals just by going to work. The Administration is using ICE as a political hammer to beat up on them."
In California the Mexican American Political Association and the Hermandad Mexicana Latinoamericana have organized sit-ins in the offices of Congress members, to demand that they take action to protect immigrant communities. Activists were outraged when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi greeted the no-match announcement by saying, "Securing our border remains a top priority for the New Direction Congress."
"Democrats should remember that undocumented people live in Latino and Asian families and communities that include millions of citizens as well," warned Nativo Lopez, president of the Mexican American Political Association. "They will need our votes next year to elect a new administration. If they don't defend us now, they give us no reason to come out to the polls a year from now."
Both Lopez and Ernesto Medrano, organizer for the Teamsters Local 952 in Orange County, opposed the Senate bill because of its enforcement provisions and criticized Democrats for supporting it. "We are not seeing any leadership from our elected officials," Medrano said bitterly. "Why aren't they speaking out on our behalf? We need to take this to the streets."