Are Employers Using Trump’s ICE Agents to Intimidate Workers?

Cold as ICE. Photo: John Moore/Getty Images

Politically speaking, nativism and corporatism make a great team. The GOP’s hard-line immigration message has allowed it to win the ballots of voters who would otherwise see little appeal in conservative economics — while the party’s fealty to big business has enabled it to claim the campaign contributions of companies that would otherwise have no interest in bankrolling xenophobic demagoguery.

The combination of corporate donations and nativist votes has won a lot of elections for the Republican Party.

But while immigration hawks and “job creators” share a coalition, they don’t share an agenda. Breitbart’s brand of populism is built on the premise that undocumented immigrants and crony capitalists conspire to keep wages for the native-born artificially low. Which is to say: Steve Bannon wants to increase corporate America’s labor costs.

While running for president, Donald Trump suggested that he did, too. The first sentence on his campaign’s “Immigration” web page was a promise to “prioritize the jobs, wages and security of the American people.” The second, a vow to “establish new immigration controls to boost wages and to ensure that open jobs are offered to American workers first.”

To accomplish these goals, the mogul pledged to “turn off the jobs and benefits magnet” that draws undocumented workers across the border by cracking down on employers who exploit illicit labor.

For some strange reason, the president has largely neglected this prong of his immigration agenda. The administration’s initial budget proposal called for $2.6 billion in border-wall funding; $1.5 billion in new resources for deportation and detention; but a mere $15 million for nationwide E-Verify, a system that allows employers to cross-reference a prospective employee’s work-eligibility documents against government records.

“The takeaway is clear,” the New York Times editorial board wrote of that last, minuscule appropriation. “While it has become politically expedient to malign and scapegoat immigrants, Mr. Trump and Republican lawmakers across the country recognize that finding a way to excise them systematically from payrolls would have a crippling effect on several industries.”

Trump’s complicity with “the jobs and benefits magnet” goes beyond his refusal to back adequate funds for E-Verify. The Labor Department has significant authority to punish employers who hire the undocumented. But Trump’s initial pick to head the agency was a fast-food CEO who allowed his company to routinely violate labor law, and proudly advertised his preference for immigrant laborers — workers whom he described as being more “hardworking” and grateful than entitled, native-born Americans. It’s hard to imagine such a figure prosecuting an unprecedented crackdown on companies that hire “unAmerican.” And while Andy Puzder’s nomination ultimately fell through, the president’s second choice for Labor secretary, Alex Acosta, is a business-friendly moderate on immigration issues.

Now, a report from the Los Angeles Times suggests that in the Trump era, America’s immigration-enforcement regime isn’t merely neglecting to punish companies that hire the undocumented — but actively helping employers enjoy the full advantages of exploiting black-market labor:

Federal immigration agents have shown up twice at California labor dispute proceedings to apprehend undocumented workers, in what state officials believe may be cases of employer retaliation.

The Labor Commissioner’s Office, the state’s labor enforcement arm, said that since November U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents showed up at locations in Van Nuys and Santa Ana looking for workers who had brought claims against their employers. In January, ICE also contacted a state official and asked for details about an ongoing investigation into labor violations at several construction sites across Los Angeles, according to Julie Su, the state’s labor commissioner and the agency’s head.

… Su said she suspects that the employers being accused of underpaying employees tipped off federal immigration agents about the status of the workers. The timing of wage hearings isn’t public, and generally the worker and employer are the only ones who know that information outside of the agency…She said 58 workers have reported immigration-related threats from bosses to her office so far this year, compared with 14 in all of 2016.

A spokesperson for ICE told the paper that the agency had “no information to corroborate” Su’s claims, and insisted that it did not endorse such practices.

Nonetheless, if the California Labor Commission’s claims are true, the irony is stark. Instead of chastening employers who rely on undocumented labor, Trump’s aggressive immigration enforcement is, in some cases, making it easier for said employers to intimidate undocumented workers into accepting exploitation. And the easier it is for companies to get away with underpaying undocumented workers, the greater their incentive to avoid hiring American citizens.

Now, a humane and rational immigration policy would not seek to make millions of undocumented breadwinners unemployable, but rather, would give them access to citizenship — or, at the very least, to robust labor protections that would both acknowledge their human dignity, and allow native-born workers to compete on an even playing field.

But Trump did not promise his supporters a compassionate immigration policy founded on humanism. He promised to make unpatriotic employers regret their decision to exploit undocumented workers, instead of hire American ones. In California, some ICE agents appear to be doing the opposite. And, at present, Trump’s base doesn’t seem to mind.

So, perhaps nativists and job-creators can enjoy mutual tolerance and amicable co-existence in the GOP tent — even as they make it evermore difficult for the rest of the country to enjoy those things.

Are Employers Using Trump’s ICE to Intimidate Workers?