Last Thursday Joan Prado, who has worked for many years for the Department of Labor, led a discussion on immigration. She described the current political atmosphere and attitude toward undocumented migrant workers and also the harsher penalties being considered for “illegal aliens” and those who employ them. The conversation around the issue was particularly interesting because of the diverse experience of the folks at the table.
Joan pointed out some of the misinformation we regularly hear: that these people do not pay taxes for instance – which they do through their employers; and that they are taking jobs away from American citizens – when her perception was that they were taking jobs (and hours), as farm workers, that no one else wanted. Several folks who work at labor pools in construction pointed out that they felt they had lost jobs they were seeking in construction when Latinos, who were willing to accept much lower wages, were hired before them. These folks understood the desperation of people who have traveled so far from home to work but were feeling the pinch because of it. This led to a discussion about the loss of production work in the U.S., since so much has been sent overseas to lower paid workers in order to increase profits for shareholders (at the expense of the workers who relied on that work to take care of their families). It made us wonder how the resentment between workers will grow if the economy continues to falter.
And if there’s anything we can do about it. Toward the end of the discussion, someone pointed out that there were probably not five items in Jubilee House’s large dining room that were made in the U.S. Are there ways that our habits of consumption are supporting this system that is causing harm to some of the most vulnerable people? How much of it is so far gone that we are locked into a system of supporting unfair practices in other countries, as well as our own? Do our own spending patterns mirror the greed (in a very reduced way) that motivates corporate execs to abandon factory workers here to increase their own profits?
It also raised the question of what is going on with the migrant workers’ home country’s economies that they are forced to travel so far from home and family – and often at extreme risk – to find work. One friend from the labor pools, experienced in construction work, put it clearly: “If you’ve got a leak, you don’t keep mopping up the mess, you look for the source.” This made everyone consider whether our time and energy prosecuting illegal immigrants might be put to better use helping support their home countries’ economies.
We ran out of time too quickly, but I think we came away from this roundtable better informed by the various viewpoints – and the complexities of the issue. We’re hoping to revisit issues surrounding immigration soon.