Modern day slavery: How immigration laws lure and trap undocumented workers

silhouettes of immigrants walking with luggage

Let’s cut to the chase and call undocumented immigration what it is: modern-day slavery. The flow of undocumented immigrants into the U.S. exists by design, not because of poor border security. Our laws are designed to lure undocumented workers into the country with the prospect of loosely regulated employment (aka a job waiting for them once they arrive). These workers are then exploited while the employers are not held accountable for illegally hiring them.

Once in the U.S., they are trapped, separated from their families here and abroad, taxed without representation or benefits, have no voice or vote, are criminalized, dehumanized, and exploited for economic and political gain. As if that were not enough, they are villainized and persecuted by law enforcement and civilian militias and incarcerated in for-profit detention facilities. Ask yourself, if this is not systemic oppression that compares to modern-day slavery, then what is?

According to the National Equity Project, systematic oppression has historical antecedents; “it is the intentional disadvantaging of groups of people based on their identity while advantaging members of the dominant group (gender, race, class, sexual orientation, language, etc.)”. Systematic oppression in the U.S. is not a thing of the past; it is alive in our society and culture with African Americans, Hispanic Americans, and undocumented immigrants/workers standing among the most discriminated and marginalized groups.

Some argue that we have an illegal immigration problem that requires building a $20 billion wall to keep our neighbors out. Others call for tougher border security at the cost of $8 billion a year and climbing, most of which is spent on for-profit detention facilities. Facilities where detainees are treated as a commodity at $120 per day to enrich the pockets of a few at the cost of taxpayers and the humanity of those detained. I argue that we do not have an illegal immigration problem; what we have is an illegal employment problem built upon the systemic exploitation, marginalization, and oppression of undocumented workers. This is not only unsustainable, but it is wrong, inhumane, and immoral. 

So, what do we do? I believe there is a public, business, and political consensus on the need for foreign workers to fill jobs that domestic workers are unable or unwilling to fill. This need can be met by reforming our guest worker programs to meet the labor needs of our economy. This would provide a legal and humane path for vetted workers to enter the U.S to work and return to their families once their season ends. In tandem with a functional guest worker program, we need tough enforcement of the law with employers who attempt to circumvent the system. To accomplish this, we also need to make the verification system (E-Verify) used to verify the identities of new hires mandatory so that employers are required to verify the legal status of the people they hire or face legal consequences. In the end, this will dry up demand for undocumented workers thereby drastically reducing, if not eliminating, the flow of undocumented immigrants into the U.S. It is a simple demand and supply issue.

Think about it this way: If you leave an open jar of honey on your kitchen table it is likely to attract a caravan of ants. You can build a wall around it or send an entire army to guard it, but the ants will find a way in… Which poses the question: Would it be more effective to simply take the honey away?

So, you may ask, why are we not doing what seems so obvious? Well, like health care and education, immigration reform has been held hostage for decades by the large industries that control politicians and policies for their benefit. On one side Democrats will not do a thing unless it’s “comprehensive immigration reform”, which to me is just another term for “do nothing.” They argue that we must fix everything that is broken in one piece of legislation including a path to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants living here today, many of whom simply wish to work legally and return to their home countries with the money they earn, not settle here permanently. On the other side, we have Republicans opposing a path to citizenship amongst other reforms.

While both sides argue, workers are exploited and essential industries, such as agriculture, are left without the labor needed to produce our food which has forced the U.S. to depend more and more on foreign imports for our food supply. We recently experienced what happens when we depend on other countries to provide essential medical equipment. Think about where we will be in 5 or 10 years with our food supply if we continue this trajectory. Our dependence on imports for our food poses a potentially catastrophic threat to our national security. 

Morality aside, while in the past enslaving and exploiting people may have resulted in economic benefit for the country, today it is no longer sustainable. The cost of immigration enforcement alone is unsustainable, and it is starting to outweigh the economic benefits, not to mention its social implications (i.e the dehumanization of immigrants and hate crimes) which we are experiencing today.

We cannot continue this divisive path of US vs. THEM. We need to end systemic oppression; we need to stop tearing children from their mothers and fathers and locking them in cages; we need to end modern-day slavery in the USA. 

Laz Ayala is the author and producer of “Illegal,” a book and documentary on the topic of immigration. He is a Salvadoran immigrant who entered the U.S. undocumented in 1981 during the 12-year Salvadoran Civil war.