Immigrants are People First, Before They are Workers 

by Britney Vongdara, The Opportunity Agenda

In recent weeks, our social media timelines have filled with videos depicting empty construction sites and agricultural fields across Florida. The latest anti-immigrant law signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis strengthens requirements and penalties for verifying the citizenship status of workers. As a result, many pro-immigrant supporters are asserting the popular argument that immigrants are beneficial to this country through their labor and economic contributions—doing work many of us wouldn’t sign up for. And while this is true, it is a problematic narrative. 

Immigrants have been forced to justify their existence and reasons for being in the United States for decades, often through their hard work. Politicians, on both sides, further perpetuate these narratives and use immigrants as political pawns without doing the work necessary to ensure their safety while they work. While we should absolutely celebrate and uplift the positive economic impact of immigration to our communities, the problem is that these sentiments haven’t translated into effective workplace safeguards and labor protections. You cannot thank immigrants for their labor without also doing what you can to guarantee their protection and fair compensation for their time. It turns the immigration process into a transactional event in which people must exchange their labor and their safety for a chance at survival in this country. 

We see that framing immigrants in this light is not effective at moving us toward a more inclusive and safer future, at least not long term. Equating immigrants with their labor and economic contributions further alienates and commodifies them into a product that can be sold. 

For example, in February the New York Times released an exposé on large household name companies that were illegally employing unaccompanied minors. They found that across the country, hundreds of migrant children were working grueling hours inside unsafe factories that were not fit for anyone, let alone a child. Similarly, in Michigan, migrant farmworkers filed a lawsuit against their employer for allegedly confiscating their passports, charging thousands of dollars in illegal fees, and threatening anyone who complained and cooperated with investigations, effectively barring them from protections provided under the federal temporary agricultural worker’s program. 

These are not isolated events but rather a prevalent pattern of large corporations capitalizing on dehumanizing narratives to exploit immigrant workers. They may support the idea that immigrants are hardworking and deserve opportunity in this country, but it’s crickets when it comes to actually supporting and respecting them through effective workplace policies and safeguards. Corporations and the U.S. government have the power to implement worker’s compensation for injuries, security for undocumented workers from fear of deportation, and accountability measures for supervisors, so they don’t take advantage of immigrant workers. It means paying people what they are owed and allowing them space to voice their concerns. 

There needs to be a humanizing shift to the narrative. Immigrants are people first, before they are workers. Our immigration legal systems require them to sacrifice safety and healthy working conditions, but it should be enough that they are human and deserving of basic human rights, in and out of the workplace. Not only does this allow corporations to do as they please and continually exploit their workers for their own financial gain, but it creates harmful workplace conditions for all workers in America. By protecting our most exploited workers, we can improve work conditions across the board for everyone. 

We also need to shift the narrative toward accountability and responsibility for those in power. The U.S. government can, and should, place the onus on corporations to prove the safety of their workplaces in order to keep their workers, rather than on immigrants to prove they are hardworking in order to be deserving of basic human rights. We must champion labor protections, demand protection of immigrants, and hold our leaders accountable, especially at the ballot box. Maybe then we’ll see legislators step up and stop placing the blame on immigrants who better reflect the values we believe should define this country than many corporations ever will. 

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