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Obama's labor secretary pick backs enforcement

by Tyche Hendricks
2/4/2009
in the San Francisco Chronicle

President Obama's pick for secretary of labor, Rep. Hilda Solis, could help shape a new approach to immigration control that emphasizes the robust enforcement of labor laws.

Where the Bush administration stepped up workplace immigration enforcement, sweeping up migrant workers and not always going after the employers who illegally hire them, the Obama administration is expected to take a different tack.

Immigrant advocates hope that strengthening compliance with workplace health and safety laws and wage and hour standards - which Solis promised in her hearing before the labor committee in January - will protect workers in general and could reduce the likelihood that some employers will seek to profit by hiring undocumented workers.

A vote on Solis, a Los Angeles County congresswoman who is a labor advocate and the daughter of immigrants, is expected in the Senate labor committee today and could go before the full Senate later this week.
Cracking down

Obama has said he supports cracking down on employers who exploit immigrants and condemns federal immigration raids as divisive and ineffective. Like Solis, he has emphasized the need to better protect the labor rights of all American workers.

The Obama administration is expected to increase focus on labor standards to address concerns that illegal immigrants in the workforce depress wages and working conditions because they are less likely to complain about substandard conditions, said Don Kerwin, vice president for programs at the Migration Policy Institute in Washington.

"I think they'll be looking for ways to both strengthen enforcement and make it more humane, and this is a clear opportunity to do that," Kerwin said.

An advisory committee on immigration convened by the Obama transition team was looking at labor law enforcement as a new arrow in the quiver for creating an immigration system with integrity, said immigration experts who worked with the committee.

Solis has declined to speak about her plans before the Senate confirmation vote, which was stalled for several weeks by Republican opposition to her support for a bill making it easier for workers to unionize. But she has a track record of endorsing workplace rights for all employees, regardless of immigration status, and has suggested that to do otherwise would weaken protections for U.S. and immigrant workers alike.

"Hilda Solis understands these issues," said Nathan Newman, director of the Progressive States Network, a nonprofit group lobbying state governments to increase oversight of labor laws. "Most complaints come from workers. If you want employers afraid to exploit workers, you don't want the kind of ICE enforcement that keeps workers scared to come forward. ... Labor law enforcement is the one (approach) that can make sure people aren't being pulled into this country by low wages."

But business interests said the Obama administration would probably find labor law too blunt an instrument to effectively deter illegal immigration.

"There's been a lot of talk about increased labor enforcement at employers suspected of utilizing undocumented workers, but when it comes down to it and they're looking at rational ways to target their enforcement resources, I think they're going to find that's a very difficult tool to use," said Randy Johnson, a vice president at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. "One can generalize about meatpacking or the chicken industry and their use of undocumented workers, but that doesn't tell you about the specific employer you're going to target for a raid."
Immigration raids

For the past three years, the Bush administration, as part of a campaign to put teeth in the nation's immigration laws, stepped up workplace immigration raids, including the arrest of 63 undocumented workers at 11 Balazo Taqueria restaurants in the Bay Area, as well as thousands of arrests at businesses, including a New Bedford, Mass., backpack factory, a kosher slaughterhouse in Postville, Iowa, and an electrical transformer factory in Laurel, Miss.

Criminal charges against employers - for violation of immigration, tax and labor laws - are pending at several of these businesses. Federal authorities say an investigation of the Balazo owners is under way, but nine months after the raid, no arrests have been made and no charges filed against the company's management.

Some labor and immigrant advocates have complained that the Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids have disproportionately affected workers, in some cases separating parents from infants and children, and in others, pushing workers without legal counsel to plead guilty to criminal charges as well as immigration violations.

In a directive issued last week on immigration and border security, Obama's secretary of homeland security, Janet Napolitano, did not address work site enforcement raids specifically, but did raise questions about the effectiveness of a program to arrest fugitive aliens and concerns about the treatment of families and children in immigration detention.

University of Illinois economics Professor Barry Chiswick, an authority on immigration, has criticized ICE raids as "show raids," but he said greater attention to labor standards is unlikely to reduce illegal immigration. Instead, he endorses wider use of the government's electronic employment verification system, known as E-verify.

"What they need is some way of verifying a legal right to work," he said. "I see that as essentially the only way. Relying on greater enforcement of the Fair Labor Standards Act is just not going to work."

The Bush administration's approach has been effective, said Janice Kephart, national security policy director at the Center for Immigration Studies, which favors tighter immigration controls.

"The notoriety, good and bad, of the work site enforcement raids has put employers on notice, that it is federal law that you not employ an illegal alien," said Kephart. "It's a two-pronged approach: On the front end, you're offering employers to voluntarily sign up with E-verify. ... Then on the back end, you're going after the bad actors with the work site enforcement."

But other analysts say that criminalizing undocumented immigrants who are otherwise law-abiding is inhumane, especially in the absence of an overhaul of immigration laws that would offer a legal way for foreign workers to enter the country.

"The linchpin of an enforcement strategy has to be employers," said Kerwin of the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute. "If you had an employer verification scheme that really worked and you put the onus on employers to abide by immigration laws and labor laws, and used them as a force multiplier, then you could get the enforcement."

E-mail Tyche Hendricks at thendricks@sfchronicle.com.