By James Goldsborough
“The law is an ass,” said Micawber, and there are times one must agree.
American Apparel is a giant garment maker in Los Angeles, a successful company whose “Made in U.S.A.” labels on slacks, shirts and dresses shock customers used to seeing “Made in China” on everything they buy.
Employing some 10,000 workers, American Apparel keeps prices low enough to compete with imports from Southeast Asia, whose low prices in stores like Wal-Mart are made possible by sweatshop conditions. At a time when U.S. garment manufacturing, like most U.S. manufacturing, has left America to implant itself abroad, American Apparel is a growing success story, helping to mitigate the effects of 10 percent unemployment during what is now known as “The Great Recession.”
Last week, following a series of visits from immigration officials, American Apparel began firing some 1,800 employees whose papers were found to have “immigration discrepancies,” which is a nice way of saying they were fake.
“Many of you have been with me for so many years,” wrote company CEO Dov Charney to the fired employees, “that I just cry when I think you will be leaving the company. It is my belief that immigrants bring prosperity to any economy.” Most of the 1,800 are from Latin America, China, Korea and Vietnam.
American Apparel is no sweatshop: Its workers earn $10 to $12 an hour, more than the garment industry standard, and receive health insurance and company stock. They pay income taxes. The fired workers are not likely to be deported, but will join the
15 million other workers currently unemployed in America. Many of them are parents of “citizen children,” American children of illegal immigrants, of which Los Angeles, with an estimated 500,000, is the world capital.
“Devastating,” said Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa of the action.
Not everyone agrees with Villaraigosa.
Leading the cheering is San Diego Rep. Brian Bilbray, who ran for his seat on an anti-immigration platform and like the rest of his party has been steadily moving right. American Apparel, sniffed Bilbray to The New York Times, is “addicted to illegal labor. They seem to think that somehow the law doesn’t matter.”
So let’s look have a look at the law.
The immigration laws passed over the past two decades represent some of the worst laws ever passed by Congress. The laws of 1986, 1990 and 1996 opened the floodgates to the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants now here. You, Rep. Bilbray, and others like you in Congress who rejected the Jordan Commission proposals on immigration, are responsible for those 12 million.
The Jordan Commission, established by the first President Bush, presented its proposals to Congress in 1996 after four years of work. The key proposal aimed to halt illegal immigration by giving employers access to a centralized computer system that would enable them to verify the legal status of employees.
“Members of Congress don’t want immigration reform,” charged Sen. Alan Simpson, R-Wyoming, when the Jordan proposals were rejected. Simpson, chairman of the Senate subcommittee on Immigration, accused Congress of “straining the fabric of the country” and left the Senate.
You were there, Rep. Bilbray, you remember.
Having helped scuttle provisions that would have made it impossible for Dov Charney to hire illegal immigrants, Bilbray now cheers him for adding 1,800 more workers to the masses of unemployed. American Apparel, he says, thinks that “somehow the law doesn’t matter, that crossing the line from legal to illegal is not a big deal.”
Once fired, these workers do not go home. There are some 380,000 illegal immigrants in detention centers across the country, representing 3 percent of the 12 million presently here. Without a law that gives employers the tools to verify papers, the Obama administration is proving no better at dealing with the problem than previous administrations. Some 1,000 illegal immigrants are estimated to pass our borders every day, meaning that in one year we nearly equal the number currently in detention.
Few of the 12 million will ever be deported. Government wastes time and money ($2.4 billion annually to run the centers) by throwing people with good tax-paying jobs, who are contributing to the economy and the community, onto the street.
The effect of the half-ass law Bilbray so ardently defends is the following: We lose employment, lose tax dollars, lose competitiveness with countries like China that exploit their workers and steal our industry, throw thousands of able-bodied workers onto the street and allow officials like Bilbray to crow over the misery and chaos being created. Obama officials insist they are being kinder and gentler than Bush II, who preferred to invade plants and arrest immigrants as red meat gestures for the rabid right, but the effect of the action is the same.
Californians learned something about immigration fecklessness during the fiasco over Proposition 187, the centerpiece of Gov. Pete Wilson’s 1994 presidential campaign. But a funny thing happened on Wilson’s way to the White House: the courts decided that throwing California’s citizen children out of schools was unconstitutional.
The solution to illegal immigration lies in stopping them from coming, which is achievable through a centralized verification system, as Jordan proposed. It is not in making people miserable once they already are here.
So what is to be done with the 12 million? Should they all be thrown onto the street because Bilbray’s Congress continues to pass laws that invite more illegal immigrants into the country? Or should the nation accept that the ones who are here are not going anywhere, and that the goal is to integrate them into the economy while at the same time passing laws to assure that no more illegal immigrants come?
James Goldsborough is a distinguished foreign affairs writer, winner of the Edward R. Murrow award for foreign affairs reporting and a former columnist for The San Diego Union-Tribune.