Lessons of Lou Dobbs's 'illegals'Jennifer Gordon in The Guardian, October 19, 2010
Former CNN host Lou Dobbs, who has frequently warned Americans about an "invasion of illegal aliens" imperilling their jobs and wages, turns out to have relied on undocumented labour for years to maintain his show horses and multimillion dollar homes. I interviewed five such workers who laboured on his properties for my recent exposé published in the Nation. While my findings certainly revealed Dobbs's hypocrisy, the more important lesson is that the get-tough approach to immigration reform – favoured by Dobbs and his allies – is dangerous for immigrant and American workers alike.
The experiences these workers related to me demonstrate powerfully how a punitive approach to the immigration crisis threatens the very concept of labour rights in America. Working in an underground economy meant they were constantly living in fear of apprehension by the immigration enforcement system.
The prospect of being stopped by the police and incarcerated because they lacked legal immigration status was so terrifying that the workers who cared for Dobbs's showjumping horses did not even dare to drive a car, even though the stable where they worked was in rural Vermont. Many of the workers who cared for these horses, and for the grounds of Dobbs's estate, were also extremely apprehensive about travelling back home to visit the loved ones they supported with their hard-earned wages. One Mexican stable worker, who had come to the US when he was only 18 years old, told me he had not seen his mother or siblings at all since he came to the US to find work six years ago.
Living in the shadows like this makes it extremely difficult for undocumented workers to speak up for the rights to which all workers are legally entitled in America, or to protest unfair wages or working conditions.
The undocumented workers who cared for Dobbs's horses in Florida put in days that were typically 12 hours long, but they were not paid overtime, as required under Florida labour laws. Nor were the workers who cared for the grounds of the former CNN host's estate paid overtime, although they often worked far more than the 40 hours per week at which overtime pay is legally supposed to kick in, under federal labour law.
Yet, these workers were so afraid of possible job loss or deportation that they asked me not to use the names of their employers, the contractors Dobbs hired for the upkeep of his properties. In fact, the workers I interviewed didn't even want their own names to be used in my article detailing their pay and working conditions. Although some of these workers complained that "the pay was bad", they felt stuck because they lacked legal status. As one worker put it, if he had papers, he would "find better work"; but at present, his "situation with immigration is bad", so he had no other options.
The shadow of fear that America's estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants are forced to work under imposes a terrible toll, not just on their own wages and working conditions, but those of all workers in America, particularly in the low-wage sectors like landscaping, housekeeping and farming, where the undocumented are prevalent. If undocumented workers could leave bad jobs, and protest terrible working conditions, employers might be forced to offer higher wages, and improve working conditions. For this reason, a path to legalisation for America's millions of undocumented workers would have benefits for all workers in those sectors, according to a recent Centre for American Progress report, Raising the Floor for American Workers: The Economic Benefits of Comprehensive Immigration Reform.
As Fordham Law School professor Jennifer Gordon has compellingly argued, an even more long-term strategy for protecting workers' rights, which anticipates the influx of future migrant workers, is also required. At the heart of any immigration reform package truly grounded in the concept of labour rights, there must be incentives for migrant workers who speak out on labour violations, Gordon argues.
Ultimately, such immigration reforms to protect workers' rights might mean that Lou Dobbs would have to pay a bit more for the care of his show horses and the grounds of his estate. But having made a lucrative career sowing fear and confusion about the relationship between immigration and workers' rights, the multimillionaire former TV host can well afford it