Immigration reform and workplace abuse

December 1, 2011 § Leave a comment

By Luis R. Perez

He works the standard long-hours of an investment banker, but he is paid like a pauper. Enrique, “El Neto,” an affectionate nickname in Spanish that can mean someone who is serious, has been working an average of 60-hour shifts at a horse farm in Dutchess County, NY.

Enrique said he earns $ 5 per hour for a scheduled 40-day work week, but he does not earn renumeration in the form of overtime or compensation time for extra work. Enrique’s wages fall short of the federally-imposed hourly rate of $7.25.

During a common work day, Enrique manages a 24-horse stable with the help of a fellow illegal immigrant friend who refused to give his name. Both of them take turns grooming, feeding and walking the horses. Also, they have to rake the stalls, clean out the horse debris, and pickup fresh hay and oats.

In the eyes of illegal immigration advocates, Enrique’s narrative is telling inasmuch illustrates why a stalled immigration reform process must be readdressed in an effort to stem the increase of abuses that take place at the workplace.

While highly-controversial immigration initiatives are being adopted by some states, such as Arizona and Alabama, at the federal level immigration reform has not gained any strong traction since a bipartisan legislative effort died in 2007. On the negative side, some employers are allegedly skirting basic responsibilities.

Donna Lieberman

Donna Lieberman

Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said her office gets hammered with jarring phone calls that involve immigrants being taken advantage of.

“Workers have rights, “ Lieberman said.

Lieberman fears that if there is not a safety-net put in place for immigrants that labor exploitation will continue to go on. “If there is a situation not in compliance with the law, that situation is an invitation for abuse,” she added.

Undocumented workers  often do not address grievances in the workplace for fear of being deported, suffering reprisals, or being subject to scorn in their community for creating trouble with the authorities, said the Rev. Richard Witt, who is the executive director of Rural and Migrant Ministry, an educational and advocacy group with a main office in Poughkeepsie and with satellite offices in Lyons and Ithaca.

“They are being scapegoated over the economy. The kind of menial and low paying jobs undocumented workers perform to keep the country going is a non threat,” Rev. Witt said.

There are 10.2 illegal immigrants in the United States, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.

According to a policy report shared by the National Council of La Raza, the largest Hispanic civil rights and advocacy group in the United States, comprehensive immigration reform is pivotal to improving “inequities in wage and hour laws.” “The culture of fear that exists in many workplaces enables employers to escape punishment for actively subverting workers’ complaints. … The first step toward leveling the playing field in the labor market is to fix the nation’s broken immigration system,” the report found.

There is another school of thought. Bryan Griffith, a spokesman for the Center for Immigration Studies, a policy organization based out of Washington, D.C., pegged the problem of labor abuses on lax enforcement of immigration laws on employers who hire illegal immigrants.

“Not enforcing labor laws will only increase a desire to hire illegal immigrants,” Griffith said.

Griffith feels that a comprehensive immigration reform that focuses on amnesty will continue to foster the attitudes and conditions that give rise to work-related abuses.

“Continuing to hire illegals does not resolve the problem,” Griffith said. “It did not work in the 1980’s, it will not work again.”

William Gheen, who heads Americans for Legal Immigration, a grassroots organization that calls for immigration enforcement, said that immigration advocates are cloaking the illegal immigration debate in a mantle of sentimentality and using the topic as a “wedge issue.”

“We support the adequate enforcement of American laws instead of amnesty,” Gheen said.

In the meantime, Enrique, said he will continue to work hard. In one instance, he was pulling a seemingly rambunctious horse by its reign, as his mop of black hair danced on his formidable shoulders. Enrique said in Spanish, “Horses have bad days too.”

“Managing a horse is like managing your immigration status, it is very unpredictable and dangerous,” he added.

Enrique’s long hair is a symbol of a “promesa,”a promise in English, he made to the Virgin of Guadalupe, Mexico’s patron saint. He vowed that he would uphold the tenets of the Catholic faith and that he will be reunited with his family. Enrique is married and has two teenagers, a boy and a girl, in his native Oaxaca, Mexico.

“I have to buckle up, work hard, and hope for the best,” Enrique said.


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