According to an article in today’s Los Angeles Times, “L.A. Mayor Chides ICE for Workplace Immigration Raids,” Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa “has asked the federal government to review its immigration enforcement priorities, warning that work-site raids on ‘non-exploitative’ businesses could have ‘severe and lasting effects’ on the local economy.”
Villaraigosa “said ICE should spend its limited resources targeting employers who exploit wage and hour laws,” according to the article.
But ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) has no power to enforce wage and hour laws. That’s the responsibility of the federal Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division and of the labor department of each state. ICE only enforces immigration laws.
And where is the wage and hour enforcement? “Over the past three decades, enforcement resources and activities of the U.S. Department of Labor have either stagnated or declined, at the same time that the number of workers and workplaces in the country has expanded,” according to a 2005 report from the Brennan Center for Justice.1 Resources available for the enforcement of health and safety laws are also inadequate at a time when immigrant workers make up a growing percentage of those injured on the job.2
ICE is increasing its worksite enforcement. But ICE raids never result in a positive resolution for exploited workers — in fact, workers who are jailed and deported after being picked up in raids face a real challenge collecting their last paychecks, let alone suing their abusive employers for underpayment of wages. And employers use the fear of immigration enforcement to keep workers afraid of organizing.
So why do we accept the framing of this debate around immigration raids? Why aren’t we talking about increasing government resources for enforcement of wage and hour laws, and health and safety laws?
Matt Szabo, the mayor’s spokesperson, threw out another spin. “At a time when we are facing an economic downturn and gang violence at epidemic levels, the federal government should focus its resources on deporting criminal gang members rather than targeting legitimate businesses,” Szabo said.
This comes at a moment when the press in LA is focused on the tragic death of Jamiel Shaw Jr., a promising high school student murdered last month in an act of random violence by a foreign-born — but US-raised — gang member just out of prison. Jamiel’s grieving family has been protesting Special Order 40, the rule that keeps the LA police from enforcing immigration law, saying the perpetrator should have been deported, not released from jail.3 But if a stint behind bars didn’t change the killer’s violent habits, it’s unlikely that sending him across a border would have kept him off LA’s streets for more than a few days.
There are better ways to reduce gang violence. Less than two months ago, an expert advisory committee introduced a “community-based gang intervention model” to the Los Angeles City Council that aims to “assist in the promotion of a community vision for public safety, plus youth and community development that moves beyond suppression, incarceration, and deportation.”4 Such community strategies are effective, but underfunded, says Alex Sanchez, director of the gang violence prevention and intervention organization Homies Unidos.5
The positive alternatives are right in front of us. How much longer will we allow ICE to call the shots?
1 Annette Bernhardt and Siobhan McGrath, “Trends in Wage and Hour Enforcement by the U.S. Department of Labor, 1975-2004,” Brennan Center for Justice, September 2005. Accessed through the Mobility Agenda page on wage and hour enforcement: <mobilityagenda.org/wageandhourenforcement>.
2 Stephen Franklin and Darnell Little, “Fear of Retaliation Trumps Pain: Deaths, Injuries on the Job Soar for Illegal Immigrants,” Chicago Tribune, 3 September 2006 Available at <latinamericanstudies.org/immigration/job-injury.htm>.
3 Amanda Price, “Jamiel’s Loss: Grieving Family Pleads for a Crackdown on Illegal Immigration,” Los Angeles City Beat, 9 April 2008.
4 Community Engagement Advisory Committee’s “Community-based Gang Intervention Model: Definition and Structure,” produced by the Los Angeles City Council’s Ad Hoc Committee on Gang Violence and Youth Development and introduced to the Los Angeles City Council on February 13, 2008. Accessed through the Homies Unidos website: <homiesunidos.org/forms/doc1.pdf>.
5 Daniel Doperlaski, “Gang Intervention Programs Lack Resources: Outreach Leaders Say Government Should Focus Less on Suppression Tactics,” Daily Trojan (student newspaper of the University of Southern California), 9 April 2004.
Jane Guskin is co-author of The Politics of Immigration: Questions and Answers, published by Monthly Review Press in July 2007. Guskin also edits Immigration News Briefs, a weekly newsletter covering immigration issues. She lives in New York City.