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Who Would You Rather Have Working for You?

By Ruben Navarrette

SAN DIEGO -- It's the big lie of the immigration debate: Namely, that Americans would eagerly and gladly do the jobs being done by illegal immigrants if only wages were higher.

It started out as a rebuttal to President Bush's insistence that illegal immigrants "do jobs that Americans won't do.'' Anti-illegal immigrant crusaders responded that these are actually "jobs that Americans won't do ... for the wages offered.''

There are actually people out there who like to believe that there's some magical hourly or daily wage that an employer could offer at which a slew of Americans would leave their desk jobs and line up for a chance to do some of the hardest, dirtiest, and crummiest jobs our society has to offer. In many cases, there is no such wage.

Still, someone has to do these types of jobs. And when employers try to fill them with illegal immigrants, they get crossways with native-born workers who are suddenly eager to do the very jobs that they and their families have shunned for a generation.

A recently filed class-action lawsuit against Tyson Foods Inc. insists that the world's largest meat processing company has kept wages low by hiring illegal immigrants. The suit by former and current employees alleges that the company violated federal racketeering law, and that wages have dropped between 10 percent and 30 percent since the company began hiring large numbers of illegal immigrants. If the claim is successful, the alleged damages could exceed $150 million.

Tyson has been in the headlines before. In 2003, the company was acquitted in federal court of charges that it conspired to run an employee-recruitment initiative that resembled a smuggling operation. The government alleged that Tyson managers hired intermediaries to transport hundreds of illegal immigrants across the U.S.-Mexico border and place them in more than a dozen Tyson plants.

Meanwhile, two months ago federal immigration agents raided a number of Swift & Co. meatpacking plants and arrested hundreds of illegal immigrants, some of whom were charged with identity theft.

We're told that employers hire illegal immigrants because they're willing to work for less than American workers. But it's more complicated. The issue is also how immigrants, illegal or not, approach the very institution of work. While many native-born Americans have come to consider labor a nuisance -- especially if it is low-skilled, physical labor -- immigrants have tended to see work as an opportunity to get ahead in America and fulfill the promise that brought them here.

Think about your own immigrant parents or grandparents, and what they were willing to do for a dollar. Then think about what you would do.

Of course, employers shouldn't knowingly hire illegal immigrants, and those who do so should be punished. But, as I've come to realize over the years, the fact that employers are hiring illegal immigrants doesn't necessarily amount to exploitation. And, from what I gather, many employers resent the accusation.

I've heard from employers who say that, when they try to hire Americans, all they get are headaches and demands and complaints and demands and attitude and more demands. Once on the job, the employers say, many of these employees don't want to work; in fact, they spend their energy trying to find creative ways not to work and still get paid. Some quit after only a few weeks on the job -- but not before making the employer feel as if they're doing him a favor instead of the other way around. In some cases, even the low-skilled are demanding high salaries because they value their time as much as the high-skilled workers do.

This might include the workers at a construction firm in Denver that was recently the subject of a report by Tom Brokaw of NBC. In the segment, the owner of the firm complained that some of the American workers he hired for as much as $15 an hour would quit after only a few weeks on the job. What was the problem there? Certainly not the wages.

One employer told me that, when she hired the native-born, she got a barrage of questions: "How much does this job pay? What are the benefits? How much vacation time do I get?'' But when she hired immigrants, some of whom may have been illegal, she got only one question: "How much work can you give me?'' Now, which one would you rather have working for you?

I still don't condone the hiring of illegal immigrants, but I'm beginning to understand it.

ruben.navarrette@uniontrib.com

(c) 2007, The San Diego Union-Tribune


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