Immigration Reform and the Jobs Dilemma

by Brendan Walsh

Photo by  Anuska Sampedro Flickr Creative Commons

Photo by Anuska Sampedro Flickr Creative Commons

Having flexed their muscle in November’s elections, Latino voters momentarily had Republican elected officials, especially in Arizona, falling over themselves in an effort to appear more friendly to the state’s Hispanic communities. Infamous sheriff Joe Arpaio, when announcing his intention to run for reelection in 2016, made an effort to reach out to Latinos in Maricopa County. Five days after the election, Governor Brewer announced that she was “fine and dandy” with the idea of immigration reform (before quickly backtracking). And Senator John McCain told Fox news that, in order to create a “bigger tent,” Republicans “have to do immigration reform.”

These remarkable developments had many advocates of Comprehensive Immigration Reform (CIR) feeling as if the wind is at our backs, and that CIR will finally be a reality in 2013. Those advocates, however, would be wise to keep in mind, especially now, the fact that the fight for immigrants’ rights in the United States involves addressing the continued consolidation of corporate power in this country, and won’t be won simply by leveraging the minimum number of congressional votes for a least-common-denominator CIR package. Nor will it be won without a significant change in our public discourse about jobs.

Perhaps the best example of the connections between immigration policy and the pervasive power of corporations in U.S. involves the enormous rise in the last decade of private prisons that house immigration-related detainees. Such prisons have boomed since 2005, when then-DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff proclaimed an end to “catch and release” in favor of “catch and return”–where apprehended undocumented immigrants would be detained until their deportation hearing. Between that announcement and the end of 2011, the number of ICE detention beds beds grew 85% from 18,000 to 33,000, and the ranks of immigrant detainees industry wide has doubled to about 400,000. Nearly half of those detainees are held in private prisons, and the percentage of U.S. immigrant detention beds that are operated by private companies has tripled since 2002.

At the center of the expansion of private prisons in the U.S. are the two largest for-profit prison companies, Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and The GEO Group, Inc.–both of which have more than doubled their immigrant-detention revenues since 2005. To maintain that revenue flow, both CCA and GEO stepped up their lobbying game, spending at least $45 million on federal and state lobbying activities over the last decade.

Connections between CCA and Arizona’s government are particularly insidious. Former U.S. Sen. Dennis DeConcini sits on CCA’s board of directors, and CCA in 2011 had 22 registered lobbyists in Arizona, the most prominent of whom was Chuck Coughlin, president of HighGround Public Affairs Consultants and a senior political adviser to Governor Jan Brewer (Coughlin also served as Brewer’s campaign manager in 2010). NPR exposed CCA’s connection, through ALEC, in the drafting of SB 1070 (a September 2012 report in the Nashville Business Journal ties them to the movement of copycat legislation in their home state of Tenessee). And CCA won a significant prisons contract with the State of Arizona in 2012, after a legislative change made it no longer necessary for private prisons the prove they could be run more cheaply than a public one (CCA is paid $65.43 per detainee, whereas the cost of detention in public facilities was determined to be 48.43).

If this picture of a conspiracy at the top of Arizona’s political pyramid seems too nefarious to be true, it’s because it is. Which is not to say there is not something rotten at the top; instead, it is to say that the feat could not have been pulled off without a direct, consistent, and ultimately persuasive appeal to the popular rhetoric of job creation. Indeed, while some proponents of private prisons point to cost savings as the main benefit (see for example this recent op ed by Glen Hamer, President of the Arizona Chamber of Commerce), CGA’s own press strategy is centered around the company’s success as a job creator in Pinal County, in south central Arizona, where CCA is now the largest private employer. But they are not alone in making this appeal. A 2010 independent financial impact report compiled by the Arizona real estate firm Elliot D Pollack and Company declared that a new CCA facility in Pinal would create “hundreds of permanent career opportunities in a fairly recession-resistant industry.”

And how could anyone disagree? For years, cash strapped towns in Pinal county have competed with each other to attract private prisons. As Jess Knudson, Deputy Town Manager of Florence, AZ told Chris Kirkham, “we’re one of the few towns in Arizona that has been able to stay in the black with this recession.” Instead of cutting services like other Arizona cities and towns, Florence — which has a prison population of more than 17,000, plus 7,800 residents outside of prison — has been able to increase services for seniors, and to build skate parks, dog parks and little league fields throughout town.

And here is where we come full circle on the connection between immigrants’ rights and the fight of American workers–particularly those stuck in the low-wage service sector–for fair job standards. In our recession economy, appeals to the gods of job creation trump all. In Arizona in 2011 they led to $538 million in corporate tax breaks that were underwritten by cuts of nearly the same amount to the state’s k-12, higher education, and public health-care programs. Nationwide, those appeals create a race to the bottom in order to attract corporate business, and they bring non-union Casinos, Walmart, and other aggressively low-wage employers to our communities, just as they have helped propel the unprecedented expansion of the U.S. prison system on the back of undocumented immigrants.

There is a way out of this dilemma, however. We need, today, to shift the public discourse of job growth to the issue of job quality, especially in the low-wage service sector. We must move beyond focusing, as even President Obama did in his 2012 campaign visit to Arizona, exclusively on the centrality of high-tech jobs and a renewed manufacturing base as the key to restoring America’s economic security. Instead, we need to train our sights on an effort to make the millions and millions of low-wage service jobs in the U.S. good, family-sustaining jobs. Catherine Ruetschlin, in an important Demos article on the retail industry takes just this tack, arguing that “given the vital role retail plays in our economy, the question of whether employees in the sector are compensated at a level that promotes American prosperity is of national importance.”

The recent wave of attention and support for worker actions at Walmart and New York City fast food restaurants indicates that such a discourse may be gaining purchase among the American public. An equally important development was the Adios Arpaio campaign, where hundreds of highschool students, many of whom had family members awaiting deportation proceedings in Arizona’s private prisons, worked side by side with hotel and airport-food service workers to build a New Arizona where working families, and especially immigrant working families, would be bullied neither by racist politicians nor by the multinational corporations (particularly hospitality corporations) the Arizona government has been conditioned to serve. Even the Arizona labor movement, slow to take a clear stand on Arizona’s immigration controversies, has begun to take a leading role in clearly linking the need for quality jobs with the essential push for immigration reform with an accessible path to citizenship now. Thank goodness for these initiatives that can keep focus on the need to talk immigration and jobs at the same time.

Surely, just as the rights of workers cannot be served without justice for immigrant families in the United States, the rights of immigrants in the U.S. will never be secured if the jobs the immigrants seek permission to legally pursue remain poverty jobs. The guest-worker question, therefore, and potential obstacles allowing undocumented immigrants work permits without an option for citizenship, represent a potentially massive wedge issue when it comes to jobs quality and immigration. Indeed, at stake today, as congress drafts a potential CIR bill, is the capacity of progressives in the U.S. to avoid falling into the latest divide and conquer strategy. God help us if we reverse the left’s critical New Deal era mistake–stopping short of racial justice for black and Latino farm- and domestic- workers in favor of improved workplace rights primarily for white, male workers in the north and northeast–by trying to advance CIR as a stand-alone political issue while devoting little energy or resources to nationally-important, but less sexy, jobs-quality campaigns like the Walmart fight, fast-food service organizing, and innovative hospitality organizing campaigns like UNITE HERE’s Hyatt Hurts Campaign.

Brendan Walsh is a UNITE HERE! Organizer and is Executive Director of CASE. His blog is Brendan Walsh: Views from the Ground in the Valley of the Sun, where this post originally appeared and the views there are his own.

Photo by Anuska Sampedro Creative Commons/Flicker.

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