The Real Political Purpose of the ICE Raids

Using immigration raids as a pressure tactic to get Congress to approve new guest worker programs is not a legitimate use of enforcement.


This article is from the Spring 2007 issue of Dollars & Sense: The Magazine of Economic Justice available at

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This article is from the Spring 2007 issue of Dollars & Sense magazine.

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For the last several months, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents have carried out well publicized raids in factories, meatpacking plants, janitorial services companies, and other workplaces around the country employing immigrants. ICE calls the workers criminals because immigration law forbids employers to hire them. But while workers get deported and often must leave their children with relatives or even strangers, don't expect to see their employers go to jail. Further, ICE can't, and won't, deport all 12 million undocumented workers in the country. This would quickly bring many industries to a halt.

Instead, these raids have a political purpose.

Last fall, after agents raided multiple Swift & Co. meatpacking plants, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff claimed that the deportations would show Congress the need for "stronger border security, effective interior enforcement, and a temporary-worker program." President Bush, he said, wants "a program that would allow businesses that need foreign workers, because they can't otherwise satisfy their labor needs, to be able to get those workers in a regulated program."

During his recent visit to Mexico, the president again proposed a new guest worker program; two weeks ago, Congressmen Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) introduced a bill to create it. The proposed legislation would allow corporations to recruit 400,000 workers a year outside of the United States and put them to work here on temporary, employment- based visas, while putting the kind of sanctions that have led to the recent wave of workplace raids on steroids. Then last week, the administration and Republican Sen. Jon Cornyn proposed to eliminate all family-based immigration visas, meaning that people could come to the United States only as a result of recruitment by corporate employers. Under this scheme, all immigrants would become guest workers.

Labor schemes like this have a long history. From 1942 to 1964 the bracero program recruited temporary immigrants, who were exploited, cheated, and deported if they tried to go on strike. Growers pitted them against workers already in the country to drive down wages. Cesar Chávez and other Latino leaders campaigned to get the program repealed. Advocates of today's programs avoid the bitter "bracero" label, and call them "guest worker," "essential worker," or just "new worker" schemes. You can't clean up an unpleasant reality, however, merely by renaming it.

Guest worker programs are low-wage schemes, intended to supply plentiful labor to corporate employers at a price they want to pay. According to Rob Rosado, director of legislative affairs for the American Meat Institute, meatpacking companies want a guest worker program, but will not countenance a basic wage guarantee for those workers. "We don't want the government setting wages," he says. "The market determines wages." The Southern Poverty Law Center's recent report, "Close to Slavery," shows that existing guest worker programs allow labor contractors to maintain blacklists of workers who work slowly or demand their rights. Public interest lawyers spend years in court, trying just to get back wages for cheated immigrants. Meanwhile, the Department of Labor almost never decertifies contractors who abuse workers.

The AFL-CIO opposes guest worker programs, and says immigrants should be given permanent residence visas so they have labor rights and can become full-fledged members of the communities they live in. Since 1999, the AFL-CIO has called for legalization of the 12 million people living in the United States without documents. Most unions oppose employer sanctions and the recent immigration raids because they're often used to threaten and punish workers when they speak out for better wages and conditions.

Today over 180 million people in the world live outside the countries where they were born. In the countries that are the main sources of migration to the United States, trade agreements like NAFTA and market-based economic reforms have uprooted hundreds of thousands of farmers and workers, leaving them little option other than coming north.

A rational immigration policy should end trade and investment policies abroad that produce poverty and displace people. In the United States, immigration policy should emphasize rights and equality, and protect all families and communities—of immigrants and native-born alike. Using immigration raids instead as a pressure tactic to get Congress to approve new guest worker programs is not a legitimate use of enforcement. It undermines the family and community values for which this country stands.

David Bacon is a journalist and photographer covering labor, immigration, and the impact of the global economy on workers.

A version of this comment originally appeared on the website of New America Media.
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