Experts: New immigration policies aren’t ending practice of hiring undocumented workers

New immigration law enforcement policies are not ending the practice of hiring undocumented workers, according to an issue brief from Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy.

Credit: University

“Political Turpitude: The Negative Impact of Zero-Tolerance Immigration Policies on Irregular Labor Markets” was co-authored by Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera, a nonresident scholar in the Baker Institute’s Mexico Center and associate professor at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government, and Tony Payan, the Françoise and Edward Djerejian Fellow for Mexico Studies at the Baker Institute and director of the Mexico Center.

The brief explores the impact of zero-tolerance immigration law enforcement policies on labor markets that depend on immigrants, many of whom are undocumented, for their workforce. To understand this impact, the authors focused on the construction industry as an example of an economic sector that relies on migrant workers, both authorized and unauthorized.

“Labor markets have adjusted to the zero-tolerance immigration policy by reconfiguring their hiring processes to find the workers they need, but such workers are now supplied by labor brokers, a kind of middleman between legitimate employers and undocumented workers,” the authors wrote. “This in turn leaves workers, specifically undocumented migrants, extremely vulnerable to exploitation, abuse and even labor trafficking. This is an important consequence of immigration law enforcement today, one that further makes it evident that Congress must act to fix the immigration system, carefully considering the dynamics of America’s labor markets.”

On April 6, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions re-emphasized the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance policy on immigration by instructing all federal prosecutors to take swift action against all undocumented migrants who enter through the Southwest border. This directive came on the heels of increased efforts by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement to deport indiscriminately all individuals present in the country without proper documentation, the authors said.

Driving workers underground only complicates what should be a simple economic issue, the authors said. “Workers should be able to offer their labor, legally, to legitimate employers, under fair conditions and without having to go underground and face conditions of abuse and exploitation as they contribute to the vibrancy of the U.S. economy,” they wrote.

In addition to reviewing publicly available data, the authors conducted field research for this brief in Houston in May. The authors spoke with undocumented employees working in construction in Houston, a CEO of a construction company, a six-member construction company team and a labor broker. For privacy purposes and to assure the personal safety of the interviewees, the authors chose to keep all names anonymous.

The authors concluded, “Comprehensive immigration reform that would legalize the presence of these much-needed workers in times of economic expansion – through the increase of temporary working visas, for example – might be part of an appropriate solution. Zero-tolerance policies in general do not seem to be the most effective measures for the U.S. labor markets and the continued development of the U.S. economy, as well as for ensuring just compensation for a needed labor force.”

About Jeff Falk

Jeff Falk is director of national media relations in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.