Sunday, October 10, 2004

Slavery in America in the 21st Century

About 140 years ago, slavery was officially abolished in the United States. I say "about", because the abolition of slavery in this country took a number of painful years during which the southern states, averse to giving up slavery, fought a hard-fought civil war against the northern states. Slavery in the United States was all about economics. The economy of the southern states was heavily dependent on a labor-intensive activity (cotton). Slaves were simply a cheap source of labor that allowed the cotton industry in the southern states to be more competititive.

Today, 140 years later, slavery is still alive and well here in America. In the 18th century, slaves were known as "blacks" or "negroes", today they are called "illegal immigrants", or more euphemistically, "undocumented workers".

Like 140 years ago, there are many businesses in America such as car washes, poultry processing plants, janitorial services, and the like that are dependent on a workforce willing to do hard work in poor working conditions for low wages. Most Americans are not willing to do this type of work for these low wages, so these businesses have a choice: they can either pay their workers more money (increasing their cost and decreasing their profit), or they can hire undocumented workers who are generally willing to work under these conditions. Many businesses choose the latter option, especially when their competition is also doing it.

Many illegal immigrants are honest, hardworking people whose only goal is to provide a better living for themselves and their families. They work hard for little money, and many business people actually prefer hiring them, since it is widely perceived that for $7 an hour, you can either get the type of lazy worker nobody else wants to hire, or a hardworking illegal immigrant.

Because of their legal status in the country, undocumented immigrants are vulnerable to maltreatment by their employers. Since their employers know they are illegal, and are unlikely to complain to government agencies about working conditions, employers may feel free to cut corners in terms of working conditions, benefits, and even workplace safety. In all their social interactions, illegal immigrants must carry on with the Sword of Damocles hanging over their heads every day, knowing that just a single anonymous phone call from anyone to the Department of Homeland Security could disrupt their family life by getting them locked up and eventualy on a plane back to their homeland.

The government in the United States has a mixed record in dealing with illegal immigration. On one side, you have the Department of Homeland Security (formerly the INS) patroling the borders and doing a thorough job with questioning travelers arriving by air or sea, but on the other side you have other government agencies who turn a blind eye to illegal immigrants living in plain view inside the country. Many of these businesses that depend on illegal immigrants in their workforces have traditionally been very good at making political contributions, hiring lobbyists, and doing what they need to do to make sure that any attempt by government bureaucrats to crack down on them is promptly shut down by their bosses in Washington.

This problem has been festering here in the United States for a long time, and would have continued festering even longer if it were not for the events of September 11, 2001, when people were shocked by the fact that these terrorists had been living among us for years prior to the attack. It is exactly the same illicit infrastructure that aids undocumented workers that can easily be used by a terrorist to obtain false identification, obtain employment, and live here in the United States under the nose of the authorities.

The conundrum the United States is in now is what to do with the millions of undocumented workers in this country. These are hardworking people, many of whom have been living here for ten or more years, whose only goal in coming here was to make a better life for themselves and their families. But, as long as they remain here in their illegal state, the whole infrastructure that supports them, the employers who hire them, and the people who provide false identification for them will remain there and operational, ready to provide unintended support to the next batch of terrorists that set foot on American soil.

But what is one to do about it? Cracking down on employers of undocumented workers would force some of them into a life of crime. Deporting them would be difficult, and would cause ripples through the economy. But leaving them as they are leaves the door wide open for terrorists and criminals to come here and live here under the authorities' noses. But, on the flip side, issuing an amnesty would only encourage more illegal immigration.

The fix for the problem of illegal immigration will be difficult, but is extremely necessary. September 11, 2001 was evidence of America's inability to guard its own border and to control who it allows into this country. This is a deficiency that desperately needs to be fixed.

More to come in a later post.....