Editor’s note: As U.S. lawmakers begin to consider proposals for comprehensive immigration reform, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has called for “just and compassionate” reform legislation that
• provides a path to citizenship for undocumented persons in the country;
• preserves family unity as a corner-stone of our national immigration system;
• provides legal paths for low-skilled immigrant workers to come and work in the U.S.;
• restores due process protections to our immigration enforcement policies; and
• addresses the root causes (push factors) of migration, such as persecution and economic disparity (http://www.justiceforimmigrants.org).
In the coming weeks, Diocesan Director of Social Action Ministry Paul Welch and others will offer insight on the importance of each of these points.
By Paul Welch
Sun contributing writer
In January 2011, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a letter entitled The Catholic Church’s Position on Immigration Reform. The first part of the letter, which follows, provides key information on the economic impact of immigrants:
“According to the Pew Hispanic Center, there are currently 11.2 million unauthorized persons residing in the United States. Each year, approximately 300,000 more unauthorized immigrants enter the country. In large part, these immigrants feel compelled to enter by either the explicit or implicit promise of employment in the U.S. agriculture, construction, and service industries, among others. Most of this unauthorized flow comes from Mexico, a nation struggling with severe poverty, where it is often impossible for many to earn a living wage and meet the basic needs of their families.
Survival has thus become the primary impetus for unauthorized immigration flows into the United States. Today’s unauthorized immigrants are largely low-skilled workers who come to the United States for work to support their families. Over the past several decades, the demand by U.S. businesses, large and small, for low-skilled workers has grown exponentially, while the supply of available workers for low-skilled jobs has diminished. Yet, there are only 5,000 green cards available annually for low-skilled workers to enter the United States lawfully to reside and work. The only alternative to this is a temporary work visa through the H-2A (seasonal agricultural) or H-2B (seasonal non-agricultural) visa programs, which provide temporary status to low-skilled workers seeking to enter the country lawfully. While H-2A visas are not numerically capped, the requirements are onerous. H-2B visas are capped at 66,000 annually. Both only provide temporary status to work for a U.S. employer for one year. At their current numbers, these are woefully insufficient to provide legal means for the foreign-born to enter the United States to live and work, and thereby meet our demand for foreign-born labor.”
Locally, we see these labor shortfalls on our farms. The vegetable and fruit farmers in the diocese’s seven-county area need roughly 3,000 seasonal workers. As documented in the book Farm Hands by Batavia Daily News agricultural reporter Tom Rivers, farmers in the Batavia, N.Y. area depend almost exclusively on foreign workers to plant, weed and harvest their crops. The experience in our area is identical. While vegetable and fruit farmers have the option of getting legal migrant workers through the H-2A program, the dairy farmers who need 9,000 workers have almost no legal means to get immigrant workers. Since few Americans have dairy experience, dairy farmers have a very small pool of possible workers. They are forced to hire undocumented immigrant workers or else give up their farms.
On a macro scale, the U.S. has begun to lose workers from the “Boomer Generation.” It is estimated that by 2030 there will be 10 million fewer workers than there are currently. Our Social Security and Medicare programs are based on the contributions of the workforce through the payroll tax. One of the key elements of the solvency of both Social Security and Medicare is finding new workers who can contribute to the system. Immigrants and their children are a necessary element in addressing this problem.
A number of states, including Alabama, have enacted strict anti-undocumented immigrant legislation. A study by the University of Alabama, however, found that state’s gross domestic product will shrink by up to 6 percent, or $11 billion, due to that legislation. Alabama’s farmers can verify that when the Hispanic farmworkers left the state after the legislation passed, their ability to run their farms was crippled.
The most deleterious effect of undocumented labor is the inability of the worker to object to harsh labor practices. Whether the employer pays sub-minimum wages, refuses overtime pay or maintains seriously dangerous or unhealthful working conditions, the undocumented worker is at the employer’s mercy.
Consider the following story of documented Mexican temporary workers, which appeared in The (Syracuse) Post-Standard on April 17, 2011: “[Nineteen] men worked in conditions close to slavery at the New York State Fair. They made and sold chicken gyros and French fries for 16 to 18 hours a day with a 15-minute break and one meal. They were paid $1 an hour. They slept nine or 10 men to one bug-infested trailer, sometimes two to a bed. Some became ill. They worked like this for 11 days at the fair. On the 12th day — Labor Day — they worked 24 hours in a row, according to a federal criminal complaint against their boss.”
Undocumented workers are even more vulnerable than the workers cited above. Such practices spill over and allow unscrupulous employers to drag down the pay levels for other legal, low-skilled workers. The shadow of illegality exacerbates abuses. Bringing these undocumented workers into legal status will go a long way in curbing labor abuses.
Paul Welch is Diocesan Director of Social Action Ministry.