Federal lawmakers looking for solutions to our nation’s immigration problems ought to look behind the scenes at the lives of immigrants and honestly evaluate their contributions to the communities in which they work, spend their paychecks and send their children to school.
A couple of credible snapshots of immigrants’ lives are available. One of the snapshots is from the Aug. 7 raids on Mississippi poultry plants, in which federal officials arrested 680 undocumented workers. A second snapshot emerges right here in Nebraska, where one year ago, federal enforcers stormed a tomato greenhouse and several other businesses in O’Neill. A total of 130 workers were detained. The raid included the arrest of a man who was arranging workers for the greenhouse, a potato facility and other businesses. Juan Pablo Sanchez Delgado obtained IDs, housing and jobs for the undocumented workers he provided for those businesses, but he skimmed the workers’ pay and charged large fees to cash their paychecks at his grocery store.
Federal agents labeled Delgado a human trafficker and claimed he earned $6 million with his setup.
It’s not unusual that a character like Delgado would emerge after the O’Neill raids. When businesses employ undocumented workers, there usually is someone profiting from the workers’ need to stay in the shadows. If they had legal status they could stand up for themselves, but because they must keep a low profile, they’re paid low wages while performing undesirable or dangerous work, such as handling chemicals without skin or respiratory protection, or repeatedly lifting objects so heavy their backs, legs and arms eventually give out.
And then someone else — just as desperately in need — takes their place. Undocumented immigrants aren’t the only losers, however.
In Mississippi, many of the raided plants still are closed because of the labor shortage. Some O’Neill businesses are closed, except that the greenhouse has filled its vacancies with migrant laborers with temporary work visas. They’re getting the work done, but they aren’t a part of the community like the previous workers.
Some O’Neill residents say they’ve moved on. The raid is in their rearview mirror. But the potato facility still is closed. School enrollment is down 20 students. And the workers with temporary visas are not shopping locally. Their goal is to send some of their earnings to families back home.
Criminalizing undocumented labor isn’t working. Businesses driven by the bottom line always will be motivated to employ people willing to work for very little. Also, the Delgados of the world always want their talents for a slice of the action.
Raids like those in O’Neill and Mississippi undermine long-standing communities in which immigrants contribute to their churches, schools, neighborhoods and business districts. Lawmakers should help secure our borders, but long term, immigration reform needs to lift people out of the shadows. When newcomers can put down roots and become members of their communities, everyone wins.