In our opinion: Immigrants need the legal right to participate in the economy and be paid market wages

Published: Wednesday, June 11 2014 10:11 a.m. MDT

Updated: Wednesday, June 11 2014 10:11 a.m. MDT

The detention centers, whose workforces are often managed by private contractors, rely on immigrant detainees. Their labor is not protected by federal law. They work in low-skilled jobs for little or no pay. The Times article estimates that the practice saves these facilities about $200 million a year.

Kate Brumback, Associated Press

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Several large businesses have formally asked Congress to move forward on immigration reform as a way of helping employers deal with a critical shortage of low-skilled workers. At the same time, the government itself pays tens of thousands of immigrants held in detention centers on non-criminal charges as little as $1 a day for work. There is something wrong with this picture.

The CEOs of the businesses asking Congress to push forward on immigration reform include Coca-Cola and McDonalds, and they tell lawmakers about the growing gap between low-skill jobs available and the number of people willing to take them.

This comes against the backdrop of a front-page piece by The New York Times on the janitorial, food preparation and similar work being performed by immigrants in civil detention facilities throughout the country.

The detention centers, whose workforces are often managed by private contractors, rely on immigrant detainees. Their labor is not protected by federal law. They work in low-skilled jobs for little or no pay. The Times article estimates that the practice saves these facilities about $200 million a year.

One detainee told The Times that he had been earning $15 an hour in a California restaurant before being apprehended by immigration officials and ordered into one such facility. There, he works a similar job for $1 a day. He is among tens of thousands being held for indeterminate periods, lasting months or years, on non-criminal charges involving their legal status to be in the United States. Many are simply awaiting hearings and will eventually be released.

Taking advantage of their presence in detention centers by paying detainees microscopic wages – when there are no other jobs or options available to them – is exploitive.

In a similar spirit (although not in reference to this detainee work program), the business leaders tell Congress that “most unauthorized immigrants are otherwise law-abiding and doing needed work – work that bolsters U.S. prosperity and sustains jobs for Americans. We should provide them with an opportunity to come forward and earn their way onto the right side of the law.”

Today’s situation speaks to the problematic policies that deprives immigrants who are not likely to be deported the opportunity to participate in a national labor market that sorely need their services.

We have repeatedly called upon state and national leaders to pursue immigration reform with an eye toward practical changes governing immigrants’ admission to the United States. Law enforcement officials, religious leaders and CEOs are making similar calls based on the nation’s economic and social interests.

The U.S. government’s employment of immigrants in detention proves the point that undocumented workers need legal rights to participate in the economy, to work and to be paid a market wage – not a prison wage – for their labors.

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