In difficult economic times fears about economic security bring the issue of immigration to the forefront. But immigrants are usually not the real issue, merely foils for failures in policymaking.
“We don’t really have a policy on immigration,” says Paul Frymer, associate professor of politics and acting director of the program in law and public affairs at Princeton University. “Many Americans oppose people coming to the United States illegally, but many corporations bring in immigrants illegally because they are cheap.”
Factories in states as far north as the Dakotas recruit immigrants from Mexico, says Frymer, and the government looks the other way. Taking advantage of Mexico’s surplus labor, these employers bring the immigrants north and then pay them minimum wage or less.
The icing on the cake is that if the employers do get caught — and during a period of budget balancing when Department of Labor inspectors are being laid off right and left, this is far less likely — they simply pay a fine and send the workers back to Mexico.
Frymer sees a simple policy step: “The people doing the hiring need to be told that they need to hire American citizens.”
Frymer will moderate two panels at a conference titled “Race, Immigration and the Law of the Workplace: 21st Century Challenges,” on Friday and Saturday, February 26 and 27, at Robertson Hall, Princeton University. Friday’s session begins at 2 p.m., Saturday’s at 9:30 a.m. The program, organized by the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies at University of California-San Diego and Princeton’s program in law and public affairs, is free and open to the public. Call 609-258-5626 or E-mail email@example.com.
The obverse of the immigration issue, of course, is relocation. Companies in need of cheap labor that do not bring in immigrants simply move their factories to other countries. “Take Nike,” says Frymer. “As of few years ago, it didn’t make a single shoe in the United States.”
If businesses like hiring illegal immigrants and the government watchdogs are not able to stop them, then perhaps government policy needs to change. But the problem is complicated: “How do you keep companies in the U.S. when they can go abroad and make the same product at a tenth of the price,” asks Frymer. Furthermore, “how do we negotiate a situation where we keep jobs in the U.S. but also not just let companies hire people at below-minimum salaries? How do we maintain our workplace standards while still maintaining jobs, a living wage, and certain conditions?” In many factories, for example, immigrant workers don’t even have bathroom breaks.
Perhaps one way that immigrants will get some of the protection they need is from unions. Unions have been in decline and have had a hard time attracting members over the last couple of decades, but after being anti-immigrant for a long time, they have had significant success bringing in Latino immigrants as members.
About 10 years ago the AFL-CIO moved away from its suspicions that immigrants were competing with native workers for jobs, but for lower pay, and endorsed immigration. “They couldn’t stop the process of immigration,” says Frymer. “So instead of fighting immigrants, they are unionizing them.”
Employers, in turn, are threatening immigrant workers with deportation in battles with unions. In fact, over the last three decades, a new industry — union-proofing — has grown. “It works, but the question is whether it makes things better for everyone,” Frymer says. “The research shows that when a union is a threat and someone needs to union-proof, salaries and benefits go up.”
Employers and unions have not always been at such odds. “For many decades,” says Frymer, “business and unions worked together, and a lot of businesses today run smoothly with unions.”
Frymer grew up in San Jose, California, where his mother was a high-school teacher and his father a journalist. Frymer graduated from the University of California-Berkeley with a bachelor’s in political science, and hid J.D.
He did his graduate work at Yale, where his dissertation focused on race and party politics in the United States — in particular on how well political parties incorporate racial issues into presidential electoral campaigns. Because presidential elections tend to focus on the mainstream and moderates, he found, groups like African Americans, evangelical Christians, gays and lesbians, and even unions are not necessarily given much attention.
Frymer taught at University of California in San Diego and Santa Cruz, and he came to Princeton as an associate professor of politics last year. He taught a class on work and law and is now teaching an introduction to American politics.
He also has written two books: “Uneasy Alliances: Race and Party Competition in America” and “Black and Blue: African Americans, the Labor Movement, and the Decline of the Democratic Party,” both published by Princeton University Press.
Business and labor today are in an uncomfortable spot. “We’re in an era with a lot of economic problems, and the question for business and workers generally is, how do we get a work environment that provides the intersection of what everybody wants,” says Frymer. He would like to see an environment that supports economic growth, but at the same time offers workers some form of job security and decent pay.
“Often employers will decide to fight unions and spend hundreds of millions doing it,” he says. “Wouldn’t it be cheaper to just get along with everybody?”
More cooperation between workers and employers might be promoted, suggests Frymer, in a more democratic workplace, “one where people do have rights, are not fired on the spot, threatened, or given wages that are quite disparate from others.”
So how do we get there? “Ideally we will have employers who will listen,” he says. “Without that, we need better government policies that mandate this kind of stuff. The rights that workers have — minimum wage, eight-hour workdays, paid holidays — they are all mandated.”
Right now, however, the opposite seems to be true. “The mindset for employers is that the more they cut costs and show they are tough on workers, the more their own salary goes up,” says Frymer. “Far too often, there are massive layoffs and then the CEO salary goes up. He is seen as making the tough decisions that need to be made, but maybe this is not the best mentality.”