Exactly 33 years ago, President Reagan signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA). Congress had wrangled for six years before finally agreeing to an amnesty for nearly 3 million illegal aliens in exchange for the first-ever ban on the employment of illegal aliens in the future.
One of the reasons it took so long to reach agreement was the fear among Democrats and ethnic pressure groups such as the National Council of La Raza that the ban on hiring illegal aliens (known as “employer sanctions”) would lead to employent discrimination against anyone who “looked or sounded foreign,” making it more difficult for legal immigrants, and even native-born Hispanic Americans, to get hired.
As a result, IRCA contained a variety of provisions aimed at preventing such discrimination. Almost half of the president’s signing statement related to the bill’s anti-discrimination provisions. The bill even mandated the creation of an office within the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division specifically assigned with punishing employers that discriminated against job-seekers who were (or were thought to be) immigrants. That body originally gloried in the name of Office of Special Counsel for Immigration-Related Unfair Employment Practices (now just the Immigrant and Employee Rights Section).
Claims of discrimination against legal immigrants were central to the strategy of amnesty supporters seeking to welsh on the 1986 deal once they got what they wanted. Less than three years after the bill was signed—once everyone who was going to get amnesty got it—the ACLU and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF), joined soon after by La Raza, began crying “employment discrimination!” in an attempt to repeal employer sanctions.
As a result, Senators Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) announced they would introduce legislation to again permit employers to hire illegal aliens because of the discrimination that a La Raza report (authored by the woman who would go on to become the Obama Administration’s Stephen Miller) described as “a civil rights disaster”.
Ginned-Up Discrimination Claims
So, have legal immigrants been turned away by employers? Has “no immigrants need apply” been the result of the ban on hiring illegal aliens?
Well, the Justice Department office mentioned above certainly has been busy over the years. But as a look at its work shows, almost all cases it has pursued have been against employers who asked people they had already hired for more credible documents than those offered, usually asking to see a green card or other DHS document, even though other documents are supposed to be accepted as well.
But to repeat: the process of verifying a worker’s eligibility happens only after the person has been hired—this obviously wouldn’t be happening if employers were reluctant to hire legal immigrants.
A better yardstick for measuring actual discrimination in employment is found in the lawsuits filed by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. And these tell a story that is completely different from the narrative Democrats are peddling.
As Jason Richwine has shown in a recent Center for Immigration Studies report, it is Americans who are discriminated against in employment, and immigrants who are given preferential treatment by employers. Richwine wrote that his examination of EEOC lawsuits “paints a disturbing picture of how low-skill American workers—typically black, but sometimes white as well—are systematically passed over for manual labor jobs in favor of Hispanics, who are usually foreign-born in the regions where these cases predominate.”
This discrimination in favor of immigrants wasn’t subtle, or imputed from “disparate impact” hokum. In many cases, Americans were weeded out by requiring applicants to speak Spanish, even though it had no relevance to the work. One staffing agency in Tennessee would announce—in English—that no more positions were available, and when the Americans left, hired the Hispanic immigrants. At an agricultural employer in Georgia, a manager discharged a group of 80 workers by actually announcing, “all you Americans are fired.”
As Richwine wrote, “Immigration has clearly damaged the employment prospects of certain natives who—contrary to ‘jobs Americans won’t do’ messaging—show up to perform the same manual labor that immigrants perform.”
Perverse Discrimination Against Americans
Perhaps, one may say, immigrants are denied employment as well, but don’t seek the assistance of the EEOC. On the contrary, there were plenty of complaints filed by Hispanics, the majority likely to be immigrants—it’s just that none of them related to denial of employment or replacement by Americans. The subjects of the complaints were all about working conditions, more evidence that immigrants are preferred by employers as a way of cutting costs.
With the honorable exception of BuzzFeed (you read that right), this pervasive discrimination against American workers has gone unnoticed by the media. If less-skilled white Americans are discriminated against in favor of immigrants, exposing it would be seen as serving “white privilege” and “punching down.” When, more commonly, African Americans are the ones losing out to immigrants, reporters look away to avoid the cognitive dissonance caused by having to choose between two certified victim groups.
Remember that effort led by Orrin Hatch to break the IRCA bargain and enable employers to hire illegal aliens again? It was stopped by Coretta Scott King, who in 1991 organized black leaders to sign an open letter defending employer sanctions. That letter warned that “the elimination of employer sanctions will cause another problem—the revival of the pre-1986 discrimination against black and brown U.S. and documented workers, in favor of cheap labor—the undocumented workers.”
Due to King’s efforts, employer sanctions survived, at least on paper. But even if it had been enforced, the cruel irony is that the admission of literally tens of millions of legal foreign workers since then has brought about the very discrimination against marginalized Americans that she feared.