Let’s assume that Linda Chavez had the best of intentions when she broke the law by harboring an illegal immigrant. More power to her for her compassion, even if at the very same time that she was playing hostess to her house guest, she was criticizing Zoe Baird, President Clinton’s choice for attorney general, for hiring “an illegal alien.”
Let’s face it, crimes involving the use of immigrant labor are committed by many otherwise law-abiding citizens on a regular basis in any of the large states–California, Texas, Florida and New York, for example–where immigrant labor is a mainstay of the local economy. As with the absurdly constructed drug war, our irrational and unenforceable immigration laws have made law-breakers out of many otherwise upright citizens. It is difficult to always live within the confines of a contradiction that passes as a policy.
But beyond that, Chavez’s predicament forces us to recognize that it is both compassionate and prudent for this nation to rethink its immigration policy. It is time to lower the obstacles to immigrants who want to come here and to grant amnesty to the millions who have been law-abiding citizens in this country for many years but cannot prove they entered legally.
Historically, when we loosened the laws for European immigrants, it was noncontroversial, but recent amnesties that have mostly benefited Latin Americans and Asians have met strenuous resistence. Never mind that all previous amnesties, no matter the prime ethnic beneficiaries, have worked out splendidly. Indeed, our ability to absorb immigrants is the key to the success of the US economy. A new, far-reaching amnesty is once again needed, particularly to unify families on opposite sides of the US-Mexico border and in Central America.
Meanwhile, there is much that can be done to slow the flow of illegal immigration and to ensure that undocumented workers already in this country do not undermine the prevailing wage rates. The main weapon is as simple as it is often ignored: Enforce and strengthen the existing labor laws. If we would only enforce the existing laws on minimum wage, overtime pay, the requirement that employers provide workers compensation and myriad occupational safety rules, that would ensure the end of sweatshops in factories and the fields.
The fact is, employers largely rely on cheap labor made possible only by a failure to improve and enforce this country’s labor laws. In California, former Gov. Pete Wilson, a Republican, empowered the state labor department (under the inspired leadership of Victoria Bradshaw and Jose Millan) to enforce the laws, resulting in a dramatic decline of exploitation of immigrant labor. The success of the California program was so obvious that the US Labor Department, to great effect, expanded a similar campaign to other states with high immigration.
Key to that program is establishing and enforcing a minimum wage that makes work attractive to legally documented workers. The evidence shows that when wages are good, the jobs are taken by documented workers. And if the jobs do not exist, the flow of immigrants will dramatically decline into a non-problem.
Yet the Republicans in Congress have resisted even the idea of adjusting the minimum wage to keep up with increases in the cost of living. Chavez was a lousy choice for secretary of Labor precisely because she has been one of the main voices in the Republican camp against the very idea of a minimum wage. In a 1995 Denver Post article, she criticized the Clinton Administration’s attempt to adjust the minimum wage to account for inflationary increases in the past decade, writing: “A 90-cent minimum wage hike over two years isn’t just bad politics–it’s bad policy. The folks at the Clinton Labor Department seem to think wage policy should follow Karl Marx’s dictum ‘from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.'” What a bizarre thing for her to say.
To increase the minimum wage in real dollars to where it was decades ago under Republican Presidents is hardly a radical step. Chavez should not have worried that it might produce an egalitarian society, since people making less than $6 an hour still are deep in poverty and require food stamps not to starve.
But someone so heartless as to deny the need for even meager guarantees of subsistence for those who work should never have been appointed secretary of a department whose purpose is to look out for the well-being of workers. The pocket change she gave her house guest for cleaning the toilets is no substitute for federal guarantees of decent pay for hard work.
If this is the sort of “compassionate conservative” that George W. Bush has in mind, it will be a grim season for the vast number of hard-working people who, though they did not benefit from the boom of the past decades, have helped make Bush and his key backers even richer.