Our latest newsletter: Reclaiming the Issues: "It's an Illegal Employer
By Thom Hartmann
Every time the media - or a Democrat - uses the phrase "Illegal Immigration"
they are promoting one of Karl Rove's most potent Republican Party frames.
The reality is that we don't have an "Illegal Immigration" problem in
America. We have an "Illegal Employer" problem.
Yet it's almost never mentioned in the mainstream media, because to point it
out could slightly reduce the profits and CEO salaries of many of America's
largest multi-state and multinational corporations - who both own the media
and contribute heavily to conservative politicians. Republicans would prefer
that the "criminals" covered in the press are working people, and that
corporate and CEO criminals not get discussed.
As the Busby/Bilray contest showed, "illegal immigration" is a red-hot issue
for American voters. The Democrat Busby was way ahead until she committed a
faux pas before a group of Latinos, leading to (false) media reports
(particularly on right-wing talk radio) that she was encouraging illegal
immigrants to vote for her in the upcoming election. Her Republican opponent
seized on this and hammered the district with ads for the last few days of
the campaign (while voting machines curiously went home at night with some
of the poll workers), and now a Republican lobbyist has taken the seat of a
Republican congressman convicted of illegal deals with Republican lobbyists.
Encouraging a rapid increase in the workforce by encouraging companies to
hire non-citizens is one of the three most potent tools conservatives since
Ronald Reagan have used to convert the American middle class into the
American working poor. (The other two are destroying the governmental
protections that keep labor unions viable, and ending tariffs while
promoting trade deals like NAFTA/WTO/GATT that export manufacturing jobs.)
As David Ricardo pointed out with his "Iron Law of Labor" (published in his
1814 treatise "On Labor") when labor markets are tight, wages go up. When
labor markets are awash in workers willing to work at the bottom of the pay
scale, unskilled and semi-skilled wages overall will decrease to what
Ricardo referred to as "subsistence" levels.
Two years later, in 1816, Ricardo pointed out in his "On Profits" that when
the cost of labor goes down, the result usually isn't a decrease in product
prices, but, instead, an increase in corporate and CEO profits. (This is
because the marketplace sets prices, but the cost of labor helps set
profits. For example, when Nike began manufacturing shoes in Third World
countries with labor costs below US labor costs, it didn't lead to $15 Nikes
- their price held, and even increased, because the market would bear it.
Instead, that reduction in labor costs led to Nike CEO Phil Knight becoming
Republicans understand this very, very well, although they never talk about
it. Democrats seem not to have read Ricardo, although the average American
gets it at a gut level.
Thus, Americans are concerned that a "flood of illegal immigrants" coming
primarily across our southern border is, to paraphrase Lou Dobbs, "wiping
out the American middle class." And there is considerable truth to it, as
part of the three-part campaign mentioned earlier.
But Dobbs and his fellow Republicans say the solution is to "secure our
border" with a fence like that used by East Germany, but that stretches a
distance about the same as that from Washington, DC to Chicago. It'll be a
multi-billion-dollar boon to Halliburton and Bechtel, who will undoubtedly
get the construction and maintenance contracts, but it won't stop illegal
immigration. (Instead, people will legally come in on tourist and other
visas, and not leave when their visas expire.)
The fact is that we had an open border with Mexico for several centuries,
and "illegal immigration" was never a serious problem. Before Reagan's
presidency, an estimated million or so people a year came into the US from
Mexico - and the same number, more or less, left the US for Mexico at the
end of the agricultural harvest season. Very few stayed, because there
weren't jobs for them.
Non-citizens didn't have access to the non-agricultural US job market, in
large part because of the power of US labor unions (before Reagan 25% of the
workforce was unionized; today the private workforce is about 7% unionized),
and because companies were unwilling to risk having non-tax-deductible labor
expenses on their books by hiring undocumented workers without valid Social
But Reagan put an end to that. His 1986 amnesty program, combined with his
aggressive war on organized labor (begun in 1981), in effect told both
employers and non-citizens that there would be few penalties and many
rewards to increasing the US labor pool (and thus driving down wages) with
undocumented immigrants. A million people a year continued to come across
our southern border, but they stopped returning to Latin America every fall
because instead of seasonal work they were able to find permanent jobs.
The magnet drawing them? Illegal Employers.
Yet in the American media, Illegal Employers are almost never mentioned.
Lou Dobbs, the most visible media champion of this issue, always starts his
discussion of the issue with a basic syllogism - 1. Our border is porous. 2.
People are coming across our porous border and diluting our labor markets,
driving down US wages. 3. Therefore we must make the border less porous.
Lou's syllogism, however, ignores the real problem, the magnet drawing
people to risk life and limb to illegally enter this country - Illegal
Employers. Our borders have always been porous (and even with a "fence" will
still allow through "tourists" by the millions), but we've never had a
problem like this before.
And it's not just because poverty has increased in Mexico - today, about
half of Mexico lives on less than $2 a day, but 50 years ago half of Mexico
also lived on the equivalent of $2 today. Our trade and agricultural
policies are harmful to Mexican farmers (and must be changed!), but we were
nearly as predatory fifty years ago (remember the rubber and fruit
companies, particularly in Central America?).
Yet fifty years ago we didn't have an "illegal immigration" problem, because
back then we didn't have a conservative "Illegal Employer" problem.
As the Washington Post noted in an article by Hsu and Lydersen on June 19,
"Between 1999 and 2003, work-site enforcement operations were scaled back 95
percent by the Immigration and Naturalization Service, which subsequently
was merged into the Homeland Security Department. The number of employers
prosecuted for unlawfully employing immigrants dropped from 182 in 1999 to
four in 2003, and fines collected declined from $3.6 million to $212,000,
according to federal statistics.
"In 1999, the United States initiated fines against 417 companies. In 2004,
it issued fine notices to three."
The hiring crimes of Illegal Employers are being ignored by the law, and
rewarded by the economic systems of the nation.
Proof that this simple reality is ignored in our media (much to the delight
of Republicans) is everywhere you look. For example, check out a series of
national polls on illegal immigration done over the past year at
www.pollingreport.com/immigration.htm. A typical poll question is like this
one from an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll conducted in June, 2006:
"When it comes to the immigration bill, the Senate and the House of
Representatives disagree with one another about what should be done on the
issue of illegal immigration.
"Many in the House of Representatives favor strengthening security at the
borders, including building a seven-hundred-mile fence along the border with
Mexico to help keep illegal immigrants from entering the United States, and
they favor deporting immigrants who are already in the United States
"Many in the Senate favor strengthening security at the borders, including
building a three-hundred-and-seventy-mile fence along the border with Mexico
to help keep illegal immigrants from entering the United States, and they
favor a guest worker program to allow illegal immigrants who have jobs and
who have been here for more than two years to remain in the United States.
"Which of these approaches would you prefer?"
The question: "Or would you prefer companies that employ undocumented
workers be severely fined or put out of business?" wasn't even asked. The
word "employer" appears nowhere in any of the questions in that poll. Nor is
it in the CBS News immigration poll. Or in the Associated Press immigration
poll. Or in the Fox News immigration poll.
Only the CNN poll asked the question: "Would you favor increasing penalties
for employers who hire illegal immigrants?" Two-thirds of Americans, of all
party affiliations, said, "Yes," but it went virtually unreported in
mainstream media coverage.
"Illegal Immigration" is really about "Illegal Employers." As long as
Democrats argue it on the basis of "illegal immigration" they'll lose, even
when they're right. Instead, they need to be talking about "Illegal
Politically, it's not a civil rights issue, it's a jobs issue, as working
Americans keep telling pollsters over and over again.
"Mass deportations" and "Fences" are hysterics and false choices. Start
penalizing "Illegal Employers" and non-citizens without a Social Security
number will leave the country on their own. And they won't have to confront
death trying to cross the desert back into Mexico - Mexican citizens can
simply walk back into Mexico across the border at any legal border crossing
(as about a million did every year for over a century).
Tax law requires that an employer must verify the Social Security number of
their employees in order to document, and thus deduct, the expense of their
labor. This is a simple task, and some companies, like AMC Theatres, are
already doing it.
For example, Cameron Barr wrote in The Washington Post on April 30, 2006,
that: "At one area multiplex owned by AMC, the Rio 18 in Gaithersburg, 11
employees 'decided to resign' this month after they could not rectify
discrepancies that arose during the screening, said Melanie Bell, a
spokeswoman for AMC Entertainment Inc., which is based in Kansas City, Mo.
She said such screening is a routine procedure that the company conducts
across the United States."
Not wanting to be an Illegal Employer, the Post noted that AMC "has long
submitted lists of its employees' Social Security numbers to the Social
Security Administration for review. If discrepancies arise, she [company
spokeswoman Bell] said in an e-mailed response to questions, 'we require the
worker to provide their original Social Security card within 3 days or to
immediately contact the local SSA office.' She said the process is part of
payroll tax verification and occurs after hiring."
Easy, simple, cheap, painless. No fence required. No mass deportations
necessary. No need for Homeland Security to get involved. When jobs are not
available, most undocumented workers will simply leave the country (as they
always did before), or begin the normal process to obtain citizenship that
millions (including my own sister-in-law - this hits many of us close to
home) go through each year.
Republicans, however, are not going to allow a discussion of "Illegal
Employers." Instead, they will continue to hammer the issue of "Illegal
Immigrants," and tie that political albatross around the necks of Democrats
(who seem all too willing to accept it).
Bob Casey, for example, was beating the pants off Rick Santorum in the
Pennsylvania senatorial campaign, until Santorum began running an ad that
"Bobby Casey announced his support of a Senate bill that grants amnesty to
illegal immigrants, shocking hardworking taxpayers all across Pennsylvania.
Now Casey's trying to wiggle out of it by saying the bill doesn't offer
amnesty and requires illegal immigrants to pay their back taxes. Either
Casey didn't read the bill, or he's trying to deceive you. The Washington
Times reports the legislation gives amnesty to 11 million who are here
illegally, and paves the way for 66 million more immigrants to enter the
country. The bill also forgives two of the last five years of back taxes for
illegal immigrants, something the IRS would never do for you. This
Casey-supported bill even gives illegal aliens Social Security benefits for
the time they were here illegally. Fortunately, Rick Santorum voted against
the bill, and Rick's leading the fight to make sure it never becomes law.
Now you know the advantage of having in our corner a fighter like Rick
Casey is still ahead, but the ad is visibly eroding his support. As George
Will pointed out in a June 18, 2006 op-ed titled "Calculating Immigration
"Many Republicans, looking for any silver lining in an abundance of dark
clouds, think the immigration issue might be a silver bullet that will slay
their current vulnerability. The issue is, as political people say, a 'two-fer.'
Opposition to the Senate bill, and support for the House bill, puts
Republican candidates where much of the country and most of their party's
base currently is -- approximately: 'Fix the border; then maybe we can talk
about other things.' And opposition to the Senate bill distances them from a
president who, although rebounding recently, has approval ratings below 40
percent in 29 states."
Now even Bush is talking like the Republicans in the House of
Representatives - time to "get tough" and give Halliburton a few hundred
billion to build a fence.
But still nobody is talking about the real problem here - the Illegal
Hopefully one day soon a dialogue like this fictitious one may ensue on, for
example, Face The Nation:
[Bob Schieffer] Senator, do you really think the solution to the illegal
immigration problem in America is to offer amnesty instead of building a
[Senator Stabenow] Bob, I think you've been drinking some of Karl Rove's
Kool-Aid. Illegal immigrants aren't the cause of undocumented workers
driving down wages in this country. It's caused by Illegal Employers. We
need to do something about these corporate criminals.
[Bob Schieffer (baffled)] Illegal employers? But what about the illegal
[Senator Stabenow] Bob, the aliens wouldn't be here if they didn't think
they could get a job. Of course, we need to clean up US agricultural
subsidies and trade policies that are causing human suffering in our
neighboring countries, but to truly protect the pay standards of workers
here in the United States we need to crack down on the Illegal Employers.
They're the magnets that are drawing people in from all over the world, many
of whom come in as tourists and then overstay because they get illegal jobs.
And these Illegal Employers are breaking the law - both immigration laws and
IRS laws. I suggest that we need to tighten up these laws against Illegal
Employers, adding huge fines for first offenses, jail time for CEOs for
second offenses, and the corporate death penalty - dissolve their charters
to operate - for repeat offenders.
[Bob Schieffer (stammering)] The, the, er, did you say "corporate death
penalty"? You mean against companies?
[Senator Stabenow] Better companies die than human beings. These Illegal
Employers, in their quest for ever-cheaper labor, are drawing people to
cross our borders in ways that cause many people to die in the deserts of
the southwest. These people were executed, for all practical purposes, by
the policies of a few greedy and lawbreaking American companies. When
companies are repeat offenders, they should be dissolved, their assets sold
to reimburse their shareholders, and let other, more ethical companies pick
up the slack. We used to do this all the time in America when companies