Saturday, April 22, 2006

THE CITY DESK - City Council President Rory Riddler

Cheap Labor Centerpiece Of
Illegal Immigration Debate

In the current debate over the status of illegal immigrants, what really bothers me are the cheerleaders of cheap labor who keep telling us that an estimated 11 million illegal immigrants are only doing the jobs American’s won’t do. Right. Apparently the homeless people I see standing on street corners, holding up going out of business signs for $50 a day, didn’t get that memo. Or the single moms who open up restaurants at six in the morning for minimum wage and those great “flexible” hours.

Somebody also forgot to tell the entire State of West Virginia. Or perhaps working yourself to death in a coalmine just isn’t as tough as manicuring lawns in Los Angeles. I also don’t like people to tell me there are tough jobs Americans “won’t” do when there are Americans dying in the streets of Iraq trying to bring peace and stability to sectarian factions who appear to want neither. Sounds like a pretty tough job to me.

I’ll be the first to admit that many of the jobs taken by illegal immigrants are hard. But there are plenty of tough jobs Americans do every day. How much particular employers are willing to pay seems to be the real issue.

O’Fallon recently passed legislation to keep contractors from hiring illegal immigrants on jobs involving taxpayer dollars. It grew out of an incident where undocumented workers were brought into the county on a project where there was plenty of willing local manpower to do the job. There simply was no pretext or excuse for turning to undocumented workers other than the lure of cheap labor.

Every American who wants to work should be given every opportunity to work. They price of their labor should not have to compete against undocumented workers. It is simply not a level playing field, when for one set of workers you have to pay applicable taxes and abide by labor and safety regulations and for another set of workers none of that applies.

I have tremendous sympathy for people who want to improve their life or provide for their family. I can’t blame someone for wanting to live the American Dream. But illegal immigrants are exploited because of their status. They have become a permanent underclass of people without the same legal rights, votes or say in the affairs of the place where they live. How likely are they to complain if they are cheated? Who do they call if injured on the job? How do they stop an employer working them sixty hours a week without overtime if in fear of being deported?

John Steinbeck’s novel, The Grapes Of Wrath, tells the story of a farm family who lost everything and were forced to became migrant farm workers to keep from starving. It paints a stark, but accurate picture of waves of desperate displaced persons, willing to work for almost anything. They were hated for taking jobs away from people in the communities to which they traveled. They lived in horrible conditions and were constantly threatened, cheated and bullied. Sounds familiar doesn’t it.

If you haven’t watched the black and white movie version staring Henry Fonda in a while, it’s well worth the rental. But if you think what it portrays is all part of America’s past…think again. Ask yourself if the high prices charged in the “Company” store in the 1930s are really that much different than the excessive fees those without access to regular bank accounts now pay to the Check-Cashing store?

We are all immigrants or the children and grandchildren of immigrants. My fraternal grandparents came to the United States by steamship from Scotland and were processed through Ellis Island in site of the Statue of Liberty. I don’t want to close that door to others. But there is a big difference between coming through the front door and sneaking in through the window.

So what should be done? First, secure the borders. Solving the problem of what to do with 11 million illegal immigrants won’t be helped by adding another 11 million. Hold employers who knowingly hire illegal immigrants responsible. Don’t reward people for breaking the law…but recognize that those already here could be given the second chance we all hope a benevolent God and country would offer us…a chance to make things right…a chance to make restitution and earn the rights of citizenship.

Let some hate us if they must, but America is still the destination of choice for most of the oppressed and economically downtrodden people around the world. We bring cultures together better than any nation of Earth. The great melting pot continues to work. The Statue of Liberty has the same meaning for people today as when my grandfather and grandmother first set eyes upon it…a beacon of hope.