Trouble in Store


Last week federal agents raided 60 Wal-Mart stores across the nation, arresting more than 300 illegal workers in 21 states. The seized immigrants were members of cleaning crews contracted by Wal-Mart, and federal law enforcement officials now say that Wal-Mart knew that they were hiring illegal labor.

Commentators are wondering whether this raid on the world’s largest retailer is a one-off or the beginning of a crackdown on illegal workers. Prior to the Wal-Mart raids, the U.S. had somewhat relaxed its grip on illegal aliens, at least of the non-Muslim variety. The numbers of corporations fined for lapses in following immigration policy has dropped dramatically since the late 90s. In 1998, 7,115 employers were fined for hiring illegal immigrants, but by 2000, only 178 were fined, according to the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies at the University of California at San Diego.

It’s unlikely the drop occurred because the U.S. suddenly learned to love illegals. Rather, as the Christian Science Monitor notes, “states were quickly learning that illegal immigration was necessary to keep their economies afloat, and were leaning on representatives to make sure the workplace raids did not continue.”

Bill Maxwell of the St. Petersburg Times writes that this is nothing new:

“In all their naivete, or disingenuousness, immigration experts told the New York Times that the arrests of so many immigrants at Wal-Marts nationwide indicate that these laborers have come to play a significant role in America’s economy. Well, of course. Such workers have played a significant role in the U.S. economy for generations. Many businesses, in fact, depend almost exclusively on undocumented workers to keep their profits soaring.”

The problem is that companies that actually follow the rules end up getting beaten out by companies like Wal-Mart. This from an editorial in the Christian Science Monitor:

“Just saying the US needs the cheap labor, or that companies can’t check every worker’s ID card and follow up on every contractor’s promise, doesn’t cut it anymore during a national security emergency. And those honest companies who try to weed out illegal workers have every right to complain that they are at a disadvantage against companies who don’t pay taxes for their illegal workers.If giant Wal-Mart has been using illegal workers at below minimum wage as one way to drive hometown retailers and other competitors out of business, it shows just how pervasive and insidious this generally flagrant violation of immigration laws is.”

And Wal-Mart, assuming it knew it was hiring illegals, is far from alone in flouting immigration policy. Many other industries do it too-agriculture may be one of the worst transgressors; many vegetable and citrus growers rely on sub-contracted, inexpensive foreign labor.

Recently, 900 immigrants demanded better working conditions, legal status and other reforms on a two week long “freedom ride” across the U.S. There are estimated to be more than 7 million illegal immigrants in the U.S. among around 31 million immigrants.

This seeming contradiction in government policy — calling for a harder line on illegal immigration while countenancing it for economic reasons — speaks to the need for a consistent stance on immigration by the government.

There are two bills before Congress that would legalize the status of many undocumented workers. One would give undocumented farm workers in the U.S. a chance to become permanent residents. Another would allow children of illegal immigrants to become legal residents if they entered the U.S. before the age of 16 and have been here for five years. It also allows them access to higher education

But some critics argue that this “piecemeal” approach to immigration legislation won’t solve any problems. Mark Krikorian writes in the conservative National Review that the U.S. needs to declare a policy on immigration and stick to it. He says that policy should be one of limiting immigration to only a select, and welcome, few:

“The popular wisdom on immigration, inchoate and incomplete as it is, should be our guide. The American people, in every survey taken, say they prefer less immigration and tighter controls–and with good reason, given the economic, fiscal, social, and political problems caused by mass immigration. Thus the answer: a meta-policy that combines low immigration and no-nonsense enforcement with an enthusiastic embrace of lawfully admitted newcomers. In other words, a pro-immigrant policy of low immigration–fewer immigrants but a warmer welcome.”

Many immigration advocates argue that the Wal-Mart bust did nothing to aid immigration policy; the workers now face deportation. Brian McLaughlin, president of the New York City Central Labor Council is quoted in the Sunday New York Post as saying, “What this does is to underscore the need to review immigration policy. They should have a road to citizenship, but instead the lives of these workers will be destroyed.”

Whatever the answer, most agree that policy changes are needed. Wal-Mart claims that besides not knowing the workers were undocumented, it will now begin an internal probe for illegal immigrants. In the meantime, company’s like Wal-Mart shouldnÕt be able to get away with just ignoring immigration law as it stands. An editorial in the Capitol Times writes:

“Last week’s raid on Wal-Mart put the spotlight on this company’s pattern of abusing not just labor laws, but the trust of the American people. This country allows corporations great flexibility when it comes to maintaining retail operations. But it does make some very basic demands with regard to treatment of workers and the role that stores play in the communities where they are located. Many firms struggle to meet their responsibilities. Wal-Mart, it seems, struggles to avoid and undermine them.”