What Will Immigration Reform Do to America's Worst Workplaces?

Immigrant and migrant farm workers at harvest Photograph by Mark Miller

Will immigration reform pressure the country’s worst-paying, most exploitative employers to change their ways?

The Senate’s immigration bill adds protections for undocumented workers in two ways, and these have the potential to change how factories, warehouses, and restaurants that rely on illegal labor do business. First, employers who exploit undocumented workers by stealing their wages can be imprisoned for 10 years, up from six months under current labor laws.

Also, exploited immigrant workers who become whistleblowers will be allowed to apply for special visas that are currently reserved for crime victims, called U-Visas. Typically, employers who underpay and abuse workers can stop them from filing claims with the threat of outing them to authorities. In general, the circumstances under which many unauthorized immigrants work—getting paid in cash, being wrongly classified by employers, or having faked a Social Security number to get work—make it difficult to bring a legitimate wage theft lawsuit against an employer. (Using a fake Social Security number does not disqualify a person from worker protections.) In theory, the U-Visa would protect workers from retaliation and make it easier for them to bring cases to court.

If more workers become citizens, workplace dynamics could change dramatically. After the U.S. passed immigration reform in 1986, illegal workers who were granted amnesty saw their wages increase 15 percent in three years, says Raul Hinojosa, associate professor at the University of California Los Angeles. Some moved on to better-paying jobs, but many simply found that they had more bargaining power to demand higher wages.

Another effect of the earlier reform, Hinojosa says, was that the lowest rung of the U.S. economy bottomed out. Employers who ran the poorest-paying sweatshops and farms simply moved production to Mexico. He says that outcome is less likely to happen if the U.S. passes immigration reform this time around, because wages in Mexico are higher than they were then.

Hinojosa predicts that employers who underpay immigrant workers could be forced to change, either by raising prices or cutting production, or by trying to game the new system by recruiting more illegal immigrants. That could be tougher to do with universal E-Verify and a beefed-up border. If they can’t pack up and move, they might have to shut their doors.

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