Weld: Perpetuating the Problem

Employers go unchecked to maintain the “invasion” fantasy.

by Teddy Hill-Weld | 8/16/19 2:30am

On Aug. 7, federal Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agents conducted raids in Mississippi targeting immigrants working in food-processing factories across the state. Around 680 immigrant workers were detained by the more than 600 ICE agents in the largest single-state coordinated sting operation in U.S. history. 

My conspiracy-loving heart nearly exploded when I heard that one of the raided factories was owned by Koch Foods. Koch. I knew what that meant. David and Charles Koch, heads of the energy and manufacturing conglomerate Koch Industries, had gotten caught with their hands in the cookie jar. But I was wrong — the billionaire owner of Koch Foods, John Grendys, has no connections to the evil empire. It turned out that the truth was just as shocking: The Trump administration is targeting defenseless immigrants rather than the criminal corporate interests who exploit them to look like he is addressing the immigration crisis when he is only perpetuating the problem. 

Last year, Koch Foods settled an Equal Employment Opportunities Commission class-action suit for $3.75 million. Plaintiffs testified to a working environment characterized by sexual harassment, discrimination and retaliation against Latino workers. After this month’s raids, labor activists are concerned that ICE may be targeting factories where immigrant workers have challenged unsafe conditions. These workers have little to no power under the law already, but when the threat of deportation looms over any desire to register an official complaint, workers are unlikely to even consider voicing their concerns. It means their employers can treat them however they want to because the threat of ICE outweighs the suffering they endure as these companies profit from their labor.

And it isn’t just Koch Foods getting away with shady business. Other companies employ undocumented workers without any consequences all the time. Unlawful residents make up half of all field workers, 24 percent of all workers in farming, fishing and forestry, and 15 percent of all construction workers. 

From all of Trump’s rhetoric on the need to push back against immigrant “invasion,” we could reasonably assume that immigration enforcement is working at an all-time high. From April 2018 to March 2019, ICE prosecuted 120,344 individuals for illegal entry and another 4,733 individuals for trafficking. But in that same 12-month period, there were only seven cases against groups hiring undocumented immigrants, and only three of the 11 individuals named in those cases were sentenced to serve prison time. 

It seems that corporations don’t face same risks their employees do. Admittedly, there are far more undocumented immigrants than employers, and ICE has only prosecuted one percent of the undocumented population in the United States. But it’s hard to imagine that the seven cases against employers made much of a dent. How are we supposed to blame and punish people for working while undocumented if companies are willing to hire them because they know they won’t face any consequences? 

Some might worry that if we were to enforce these laws to their full extent, well-intentioned employers who aren’t aware of their misconduct might be harmed. However, to pretend that companies like Koch Foods fall under that category is an act of willful ignorance. According to a woman from the raided plant, the detained employees made up half of the workforce at the raided Koch Foods facility. These companies aren’t unaware of the status of their workers, they rely on the fear of undocumented employees to keep them in line and maximize their potential profits.

It’s easy for Trump to crusade against innocent individuals because there are no voices defending them. On Monday, Trump announced a new “public charge rule,” making it harder for legal immigrants to apply for permanent residence status when they are deemed likely to someday need the assistance of public welfare programs. Attacking people who come to the United States without wealth, who seek an opportunity to provide for themselves and their families, goes against the most fundamental values of American society that Trump pretends to cherish. That’s probably why his new Citizenship and Immigration Services Director tried to give his own revision of American ideals Tuesday morning on NPR, changing the famous “give me your tired, your poor” etched on the Statue of Liberty with the qualifier “ … who can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge.” But the the promise of equal opportunity America pretends to make must be defended at some point. Trump’s nominees are in no moral position to determine who can make a worthy contribution to American society. 

Perhaps Trump doesn’t really want the problem to go away at all. It wouldn’t be at all surprising if the president chooses to continue going after the immigration players who have no economic or political power. But to change a problem like this you must go at the power rather than appease it. If we keep falsely blaming immigrants for this problem, we can be sure that next year, and each year after that, will bring hundreds more raids and thousands of deportations without anything ever changing.