Last week, advocates of immigration reform cheered as Democrats and republicans proposed a bipartisan bill to reform U.S. laws on immigration. The Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013 is a 900-page bill that aims to legalize many of the country’s 11 million undocumented workers, making it easier for both skilled and unskilled workers to be employed legally in the U.S. The list of reasons why people should support immigration reform is a long one.
The countless abuses of illegal migrant workers in the U.S. have been well documented; and the lives of these migrants, as well as the U.S. economy, have a good chance of improving if the country’s broken immigration system is truly reformed. But while the new law may appear to be a dream come true at first glance, upon further inspection it becomes apparent that implementing these new laws will be far from a walk in the park.
Despite the proposal’s many merits, it fails to address the reasons why immigration exists in the form that it does. Employers decide to hire illegal migrants so they can profit from paying workers less than a living wage. Employees can pay illegal migrant workers far less than the minimum wage to work 18 hours a day, generally in conditions that are detrimental to their health. It is far more profitable for employees to minimize the amount they spend on labour power by hiring immigrants without legal working papers, than it is for them to hire legal workers who will demand to be paid minimum wage or more.
Individuals without legal working status bring the added benefit of being unable to complain about their working conditions for fear of being deported. Moreover, those working illegally don’t demand additional benefits such as health care, paid vacation, and pensions; and many are willing to relocate at a moment’s notice without bringing their families with them.
While the proposed bill could ostensibly make it easier for those already working in the U.S illegally to obtain legal working papers, the incentives for them to pursue legality may not always be there. If passed, the bill will allow migrants to come forward to apply to adjust their status. Migrants will be expected to pay a penalty fee of 500 U.S dollars (for agricultural workers the fee would be 400 U.S.D.), repay all assessed taxes, and pay an additional fee in order to cover the costs of processing the application.
For a population whose average income is 40% less than the U.S. average, these economic burdens may prove to be insupportable. Additionally, once granted legal status many workers could face the possibility of losing their jobs after employers decide that hiring legal workers isn’t as profitable as employing an underclass that is easy to exploit and can be treated as expendable.
Although bipartisan efforts to legalize the working status of the U.S immigrant population are admirable, more emphasis should be placed on protecting the rights of these workers across the U.S. As a New York Times editorial recently pointed out, the protection of immigrant workers against abuse and exploitation has hardly been mentioned in this new reform package. In order for this legislation to be truly successful, the government will need to crack down on profiteering employees and work to ensure that immigrants who do volunteer to adjust their status are given enough social protection to make their decision viable.