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Solis signs foreign workers’ rights agreements, conservative media decries ‘protection of illegal workers’

MahurinImmigration_Thumb_1351.jpg
MahurinImmigration_Thumb_1351.jpg

On Monday, U.S. Department of Labor Sec. Hilda Solis, together with the ambassadors of Costa Rica, El Salvador and the Dominican Republic, signed agreements guaranteeing the labor rights of workers from those countries residing within the United States. The ambassadors of Mexico, Guatemala and Nicaragua, countries which already have such agreements with the U.S. government, were also in attendance at the ceremony.

Under the agreements, embassies from these nations will work with regional offices of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the Wage and Hour Division (WHD) to spread information regarding the minimum wage, overtime pay, child labor rules and other regulations. People from these nations residing in the United States will be able to report workplace abuses to their consulates. Solis also committed the WHD to enforcing labor regulations for immigrant workers in the hospitality, agricultural and other industries with large numbers of low-wage workers.

“This is basically about information,” says Migration Policy Institute (MPI) policy analyst Madeleine Sumption. Because the U.S. labor rights system is based on complaints, she says, migrant workers are faced with language barriers and a lack of knowledge of their rights under U.S. law.

But restrictionist organizations and conservative media have condemned Solis and the administration for signing the agreements, arguing that they benefit undocumented immigrants. The conservative Daily Caller questioned Solis about her intent to “protect illegal workers” at a breakfast event on Wednesday:

“I protect all workers here in this country,” [Solis] told The Daily Caller at a breakfast hosted by The Christian Science Monitor. “I have a vested interest in protecting all workers that work here in the U.S. Period.”

Critics of illegal immigration say Solis’ deals and statements show that she doesn’t value American workers more than foreign workers, and that she’s undercutting U.S. workers’ marketplace clout.

The article also quotes Dan Stein, president of the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), and Mark Krikorian, president of the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS), two of the most prominent restrictionist organizations in Washington. Stein accuses Solis of “pandering to a political ethnic bloc,” and Krikorian says that the administration is “ambivalent about American sovereignty … [and] distinguishing between Americans and foreigners,” and that seeking Hispanic votes is a “practical manifestation of this broader ambivalence.”

Phil Kent, a spokesman for Americans for Immigration Control, tells Fox News that, “Obviously everyone wants workers protected in the workplace, that’s not the issue … The problem is the bending over backwards to help and promote black market labor.”

However, it’s by no means definitive that enforcing labor rights for undocumented migrant workers promotes unauthorized immigration. Failing to promote and protect the same labor regulations for unauthorized immigrants could also undercut legal workers by making migrant workers effectively cheaper and easier to exploit by employers, a view that Sumption calls the “demand side” perspective of immigration enforcement. It stands in contrast to the “supply side” perspective, which she summarized as, “If you make life pleasant for the unauthorized than they will stay.”

“My suspicion is that the demand side will be more important,” Sumption says, pointing out that low-skill immigrant workers, having come a long way for a low-wage job, are probably willing to put up with a lot in terms of labor rights infringement.

A July MPI report (PDF), argues that, “The presence of vulnerable workers, including those without immigration status, influences labor standards compliance, as does the necessity of many businesses to cut cost,” and that, “labor standards abuses occur at high rates in certain industries that employ heavy concentrations of low-wage immigrant workers, including those without immigration status.” This suggests a connection between lax enforcement of labor rights and demand for unauthorized immigrants.

The report calls for increasing the number of federal government personnel devoted to labor rights enforcement, which decreased under the Bush administration and has reverted to 2001 levels under the Obama administration. Ultimately, the attention placed upon the signing ceremony by conservative publications may be unwarranted, as the agreements merely extend the role of the consulates in what is an already ongoing process by the Labor Department to increase its labor rights enforcement efforts.

“I wouldn’t describe it as radical,” Sumption says.

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