Anytime a politician claims that “immigrants take our jobs,” they are confounding two different issues: immigration and worker rights. The general assumption is that employers prefer to hire foreign workers because they can pay them lower wages and keep them under substandard working conditions. But in reality, that issue is not a matter of how many immigrants are admitted into the country, but how labor rights are enforced in the workplace.
Employment-based visas require all employers to show evidence that they tried to recruit American workers. If employers could not find any US citizen prospects, they need to hire foreign workers. There is always the suspicion that the employer could not find any American workers or if the employment conditions were unacceptable for them.
Comprehensive immigration reform could solve part of the problem by granting a pathway to temporary or permanent legal status to millions of unauthorized immigrants who work under unacceptable conditions because of the threat of deportation. As an example, foreign born workers are 47 percent more likely to die from workplace injuries than the general population, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.
If businesses could hire as many immigrants as they wanted to while being obligated to pay minimum wage and comply with safety and health regulations, they would probably have more incentives to hire American workers. Going through the visa process to recruit foreign workers is costly and time consuming. Only when workplace regulations are truly enforced, employers will hire foreign or native-born workers not as a way to cut wages but because of skill level, work ethic, and other qualifications.
“If we allow some employers to jeopardize, exploit and underpay their workers, we encourage other companies to do the same to stay competitive,” said Secretary of Labor Hilda Solís in a statement last June.
The U.S. Department of Labor is trying harder to enforce workplace regulations. Since 2010, the Department has signed ten agreements with diplomatic offices in the U.S. to prevent wage theft and exploitation of foreign workers. The Embassies of eight Latin American countries, including Mexico, as well as India and Philippines are now committed to reach out their immigrant population in the U.S. with brochures and information about health, safety, and wage laws in this country. Work protections apply to any worker regardless of their immigration legal status.
At the same time, Labor’s Occupational, Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has increased workplace federal and state-plan inspections to more than 90,000 per year to identify risky and unsafe conditions. As an example, OSHA authorities currently investigate possible workplace violations at the Formula One racetrack construction site near Austin, Texas, where construction workers, the majority of them immigrants, reported that a contractor told them to bring their own drinking water to the work site, in violation of federal rules, according to The Austin American-Statesman.
Recently, The New York Times revealed the case of a seafood company in Louisiana, accused of violating workplace standards of immigrant workers brought through the H-2B visa program. In 2011, nearly 80,000 temporary foreign workers were admitted into the U.S. through this visa for seasonal non-agricultural work, a 14% increase from the previous year, according to the Department of Homeland Security annual report.
Workers complained about 80-hour weekly shifts and illegal low rates. Additionally, this company sometimes locked workers in the plant and threatened them with beatings according to The New York Times.
Those conditions also affect American workers, who struggle to find jobs that provide them a decent living.
The Department of Labor also released new regulations to bar employers from confiscating immigration documents or charging workers for recruiting fees, and backlisting workers who complain about working conditions. But the new rules have been blocked after business owners sued the Department of Labor and a group of senators from both parties shamefully voted to deny the department funding to enforce them.
Meanwhile, immigrant workers are vulnerable to exploitation under legal terms while their American counterparts suffer the pressure to keep salaries low and bear high unemployment rates.