By Mike Matejka
This may be the year for immigration reform. The topic certainly stirs strong feelings. Many people fear that the nation is being over-run by immigrants.
The reality is that there are 11 million souls in this nation who do contribute economically. They are washing our dishes, cleaning the floors and toilets, picking the crops and doing numerous other jobs. In many cases, they are working under false social security numbers, subject to economic exploitation.
As workers, this is a population at risk. They are afraid that if they speak up about their wages or conditions, the employer will report them to immigration. In many cases they are not paid properly, given bad checks or exploited in the cash economy. We’ve seen this in our own community – a restaurant raided by immigration where it was found workers were sleeping in the kitchen; a local hotel that had hired a contractor to clean rooms, and that contractor then cheated workers of their pay; a construction worker killed on a local job site, whose employer attempted to hustle his body away. Morally, every human being should be treated fairly. The question then becomes, how do we do this politically?
So what do we do? Number one, employers should not be able to skirt the law. Employers need to check documents, and also require their subcontractors to do the same. Number two, those that are here need a path to legality. Right here in McLean County we have a shadow population. Many have been here for a decade or more. Their children were born here and go to our schools. As long as these individuals are law-abiding, they deserve a door to American participation. It is time to come out from the shadows.
Finally, we need a national policy that is clear about access to this nation. Many industries claim that “Americans won’t do the jobs” that immigrants perform. I always have to ask, is the issue “Americans won’t do the job” or is it really, “Americans won’t do the job at the wages being offered?” With immigration reform, we have to take care that a new group of migratory workers isn’t being set up for low wage work. If a job needs doing, the worker should have a family wage. This might mean higher costs for us as consumers or it might mean a smaller percentage of corporate profit, but it is the fair route for our future. If workers are treated fairly and paid justly, there is less room for exploitation. That topic needs inclusion in our immigration debate.
Mike Matejka is the Governmental Affairs director for the Great Plains Laborers District Council, covering 11,000 union Laborers in northern Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska and South Dakota. He lives in Bloomington with his wife and daughter and their two dogs. He served on the Bloomington City Council for 18 years, is a past president of the McLean County Historical Society and Vice-President of the Illinois Labor History Society.
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