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Occupy Wall Street and its sister mobilizations across the world have forcefully brought the issue of inequality to the global fore and, with it, the matter of work and the wellbeing of workers. According to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Article 23), “Everyone has the right to work” and “to just and favorable conditions of work.” All workers also have “the right to just and favorable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection.
What transpired last week in a federal courtroom in San Diego shows how meaningless this right has become in practice. It also highlights the need for human rights and migrant rights activists to directly challenge a nation-state system that criminalizes non-citizens laboring without official sanction, thus effectively denying migrant workers what political philosopher Hannah Arendt called the “right to have rights.”
On October 13, Michel Malécot, the owner of one of San Diego’s more exclusive restaurants, The French Gourmet, pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of ongoing employment of unauthorized workers. One of his managers, Richard Kauffmann, pleaded guilty to hiring at least 10 “illegal” workers in 2006 and 2007, a felony. The two could face six months and five years, respectively, in prison. The restaurant could also end up losing between $350,000 and $650,000 in earnings, an amount that will be determined at the Dec. 19 sentencing hearing.
The guilty pleas are the latest in The French Gourmet story, one that broke nationally in May 2008. It was then that—in the style of militarized overkill that has come to characterize such raids—a dozen armed immigration agents stormed the restaurant after closing down the surrounding streets. The federal agents arrested 18 workers and took away boxes of files and computer hard drives.
The punishment inflicted by the federal government could have been far worse than it appears it will be. Indeed, Malécot, in the face of a slew of various charges, faced the possibility of 30 years in prison and the seizure of his restaurant. No doubt, the threat of such sanctions helps explain his guilty plea and the fact that The French Gourmet now uses E-Verify, an Internet-based system, as the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) bureaucratically puts it, “that allows businesses to determine the eligibility of their employees to work in the United States.”
It is the Obama Administration’s hope that mandatory use of E-Verify, now used by 11% of U.S. employees, will be phased in universally over the next several years. And it is their hope that by publicly pursuing the likes of The French Gourmet other employers will get a message. And it seems to be working: As the head of the California Restaurant Association told The New York Times, “If their strategy is to get the attention of the industry, mission accomplished.”
The Obama administration’s approach is a manifestation of a seemingly less violent one than that adopted by G.W. Bush—whose administration used high-profile raids of workplaces to send a message. Although DHS under Obama still employs workplace raids on occasion, the administration’s preferred modus operandi is that of the “silent raid,” involving letters to employers warning them that workers without proper documentation are in their employ and that they need to rectify the situation. Thus, instead of having to drag workers out of their workplaces, which would likely lead to embarrassing media images and an accompanying outcry from civil libertarians and immigrant advocates, the Obama White House has opted instead for quietly forcing employers to fire unauthorized immigrants.
Such an approach, one that focuses law enforcement efforts directly on employers rather than their workers is the outgrowth of the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA). While employing unauthorized migrants has long been against U.S. federal policy, IRCA’s passage institutionalized and codified the prohibition—in part by making it a crime for employers to “knowingly” hire or employ unauthorized workers.
For many liberals, progressives, and populists, focusing on employers rather than workers is a good thing. What they typically miss is that the outcome is, in many ways, the same: the denial of the right to work. While the “silent raids” don’t necessarily result in deportations, they are part and parcel of the larger restrictionist project of making life unbearable for those in the United States without authorization, the hope being that people will effectively “self-deport” and return to their countries of birth.
It is for such reasons that a political strategy that invests energy in “outing” and shaming powerful, high-profile individuals—especially ones who have embraced an anti-immigrant or restrictionist politics—for employing unauthorized workers (as The Nation magazine did in the case of Lou Dobbs last year) is a dead-end from a human and worker rights perspective. (This has been a staple of U.S. politics since the early 1990s. Just last night, in fact, during the Republican presidential candidates debate in Las Vegas, Texas governor Rick Perry accused former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney of employing illegal workers on his property.) Such a strategy only bolsters the very practices of unjust exclusion that underlie the intensifying war on immigrants—in the United States and in many other parts of the world.
Occupy Wall Street and its sister mobilizations remind us that another world truly is possible—in addition to desperately needed. As a movement that transcends national territorial boundaries—as do the socially and ecologically destructive relations of capitalism, consumerism, imperialism, and militarism that have helped to give rise to it—so, too, must the new responsibilities, privileges, and rights that result from the movement. As The French Gourmet case reminds us, a right to dignified work with just conditions for all workers, regardless of where they find themselves and where they were born, needs to be at the center of the national and global struggle.
Addendum (Oct. 21, 2011): In a May 15, 2008, press release about the arrests of 18 “Mexican nationals” at the French Gourmet for “administrative immigration violations,” U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) reported the following: “All of the workers arrested today are being interviewed, fingerprinted and photographed by ICE agents and processed for removal. Those who contest their deportation will be provided with an opportunity to see a judge in the immigration court.”
According to Lauren Mack, a spokesperson for ICE, nine of what the agency refers to as the “illegal alien bakery workers” have now been deported. More than three years after the arrests, another seven are still in “immigration proceedings”—in other words ICE is trying to “remove” them, but the individuals are contesting their deportation orders. And two were allowed to stay for serving as “material witnesses” in the case against
Among the many troubling aspects of the case, says Pedro Rios of the U.S.-Mexico Border Program of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) in San Diego, is that many of these workers had been employed at the French Gourmet for several years. In addition, ICE agents detained an AFSC staff member and a volunteer who were present at the raid, confiscated their video camera and erased footage that they had recorded.
For more from the Border Wars blog, visit nacla.org/blog/border-wars. And now you can follow it on twitter @NACLABorderWars. See also the May/June 2011 NACLA Report, Mexico's Drug Crisis; the Jan/Feb 2009 NACLA Report, Taking on Policy in the Obama Era; and the May/June 2007 NACLA Report, Of Migrants & Minutemen.
First image (above) of Michel Malécot at his restaurant. Credit: Sandy Huffaker, The New York Times
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