Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Immigrant Labor Illegal (Unless They Are Prisoners)

Parchman Farm Prison Labor, 1911
It should be obvious that increasing raids and deportations of immigrants is great for business as it reduces the chances that immigrant laborers will organize or fight for their workplace rights out of fear they will be deported. Deportations increased 400% from 1996 and 2011, while the Department of Homeland Security has increased its daily detention capacity to 34,000 beds, according to a recent piece in Truthout, much of it run by private, for-profit prison companies.

There is another less obvious way to profit from the crackdown on immigrants: force them to work while in detention, either for free or for a pittance. The 13th amendment to the constitution abolished chattel slavery, but it did not block prisons (private or public) from compelling prisoners to work for little or no pay. Prisoners at private immigration detention centers are typically paid between one and three dollars a day, according to the Truthout piece, which is on par with some of the poorest paid workers in the world.

The work that prisoners do (e.g., cleaning kitchens and restrooms, cooking, doing laundry) is work that prison companies (or the state) would normally have to contract out to employees at minimum wage or higher. Yet prisoners do this work for far less the minimum wage, saving the prisons considerable expense and increasing their profits.

The work is called voluntary, but it is not. Refusing to work has led to punishment for some prisoners. Yet even when there is not overt punishment, there is still a strong incentive for prisoners to acquiesce to the unfavorable working conditions: access to money for phone cards, supplemental food, soap, toothpaste and other goods and services that make their detention slightly less onerous.

The Truthout article highlights the sad irony that these prisoners are in detention for working in the U.S. without having the legal immigration papers to do so, yet it is precisely because they lack these papers that they are compelled to work in the detention centers.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) tries to reconcile this paradox by claiming that they are not employees, but prisoners. They cannot be considered employees because they work for a “stipend.” Of course this is really just a word game meant to cover up the fact that immigration detention centers engage in slavery. Indeed, Jacqueline Stevens, political science professor at Northwestern University, implies that the “voluntary” work program is tantamount to slavery, as detainees are "forced to work at wages they can't negotiate and far below the wages Congress set."

It is important to recognize that without the exceedingly cheap labor obtained by paying detainees $1 per day, it would be difficult or impossible for the private companies that run the detention centers to make a profit. This has led to heavy lobbying by private prisons companies to maintain harsh immigration policies that maintain high levels of immigrant raids and roundups.

However, support for this system goes well beyond the companies that profit directly from it. Anti-immigrant hysteria in Congress does not simply win support from voters who are terrified of terrorists or bamboozled into believing that immigrants are responsible for their unemployment. The existence of lave-like labor in prisons drives down wages in the industries that provide similar services outside of prisons, thus benefiting companies that provide cheap food, laundry and cleaning services.

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