While it is important to understand the construction and application of labor and employment law, it is equally important to acknowledge that there are still gaps in the law that allow for the exploitation of millions of workers in the United States. Undocumented immigrants in states that have passed anti-immigration legislation represent a prime example of a group of workers left in one of these gaps.
The Public Policy Institute of California recently published a study detailing the effects of Arizona’s anti-immigrant law, SB1070. The study had two major conclusions. The first was that the law had the intended effect of reducing the record of undocumented immigration in the state. The second was that those undocumented immigrants who stayed in the state were forced into an even deeper underground economy – one in which labor regulations are practically nonexistent. The study indicates that the since the law was passed, substantially more Hispanics have categorized themselves as self-employed.
Taken at face value, the statistic reveals very little about the reality that Hispanics in Arizona—and likely those similarly situated in Alabama and Georgia—face. The reality is that a growing number of Hispanics call themselves “self-employed” because they are largely working in an underground economy. Before passage of the law, undocumented workers (which in Arizona, consist primarily of Hispanics) were able to hold “above-ground” jobs while lacking proper documents or possessing fake ones. In these jobs, people receive labor and employment law protections. As a result of SB1070, undocumented immigrants can no longer hold above-ground jobs without proper documentation, so they increasingly began to gain employment on an ad hoc basis. Thus, in states like Arizona, Alabama, and Georgia, which have passed anti-immigrant laws, the size of the underground economy has grown significantly.
The expansion of the underground economy yields two major problems for workers’ rights. The first is that immigrants performing ad hoc jobs in an underground market are working without the ability to gain benefits like health insurance or retirement plans. Because many ad hoc jobs are part-time, employers are not required to extend these benefits. The second, more pressing problem, is that labor and employment law enforcement is non-existent in the underground economy. In this situation, employers hold all the power in the employer-employee relationship. A constant distrust of law enforcement and overwhelming fear of deportation make undocumented immigrants an easy target for employers looking to exploit workers. Simply put, abuse by employers is high because undocumented workers risk too much by denouncing any injustices.
The anti-immigrant measures are even detrimental to the governments establishing them. In this sense, the Republican Party, which stands as the majority in all states enacting anti-immigration laws, exists in a contradiction. On one hand, it seeks to limit government intervention and reduce fragile government budgets. On the other, it hopes to suppress the civil and employment rights of undocumented immigrants. Attempts to prosecute undocumented immigration force immigrants into an underground economy where the government cannot collect any taxes stemming from the underground transactions. When undocumented immigrants are alienated from the above-ground economy, the assets these workers contribute to the economy are also sacrificed. Supporting, not alienating immigrants, furthers the goal of healthy government budgets.
Review the Public Policy Institute of California’s report here.