Within the produce trade, the immigration issue has played as an agricultural issue, with the focus being labor for harvest. Yet, almost certainly, just as important a stake in the immigration battle is the need for labor by the farmer’s customers.
Restaurants and retail stores are obviously dependent on low cost immigrant labor. And now, a headline in The Oregonian, Immigration Raid Pushes Oregon Into Thick of Fight, that tells of a raid on a Fresh Del Monte facility in North Portland reminds us that processors also are often in a vulnerable position:
A federal raid on a large North Portland food processing plant Tuesday ended in the arrests of 167 workers, intensifying Oregon’s immigration debate, tearing apart families, unnerving employers and sparking new calls for U.S. leaders to rewrite the nation’s immigration laws.
An estimated 160 federal agents swept into Fresh Del Monte Produce Inc. and the firm that supplied its workers, American Staffing Resources, arresting three managers and locking up most of the arrested workers in a federal detention facility, where they face possible deportation.
The action was part of a six-month criminal investigation into the North Carolina-based employment agency, which U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement accuses of conspiring with Fresh Del Monte to hire and employ undocumented workers. Federal authorities allege that nine out of 10 employees hired by the staffing company used Social Security numbers that were fictitious or belonged to other people. …
On a given day, about 600 employees work at the Fresh Del Monte plant in Portland in two separate shifts. They cut fruits and vegetables for grocers, restaurants and other retailers.
They were recruited and hired by American Staffing Resources, owned by North Carolina-based Staffco Management Group Inc., mostly to work for the state’s minimum wage, $7.80 an hour. …
The criminal case began shortly after Christmas, when immigration agents, operating on tips from the public, sent an informant to apply for work at Fresh Del Monte’s plant on North Rivergate Boulevard.
The informant told a produce manager that he was born in Mexico and had no legal documentation to work in the United States. The manager pointed him to the nearby office of American Staffing Resources, according to a federal search warrant affidavit. There, wearing an audio recording device, the informant began gathering information that culminated in Tuesday’s arrests.
In the early months of this year, according to the affidavit, managers told the informant he could find phony identification on the streets of Woodburn. One manager eventually sold the informant a Social Security card, the government alleges.
A joint investigation by immigration and Social Security Administration agents found that during one stretch last year, American Staffing Resources had employed 596 workers. Only 48 of them had valid Social Security numbers, according to the affidavit.
Obviously the situation is bad. If the numbers are correct and only 48 out of 596 workers had valid social security cards, it is hard to believe that the staffing agency was doing all it could to make sure its employees are legal.
Fresh Del Monte issued a statement:
Fresh Del Monte Produce Inc. takes its obligation to comply with U.S. immigration law very seriously. In response to reports that have appeared in various electronic and print media, Fresh Del Monte confirms that on Tuesday, June 12, 2007, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (“ICE”) personnel visited Fresh Del Monte’s Portland, Oregon facility. Fresh Del Monte has been advised that it is not a current target of the investigation.
Fresh Del Monte has, and will, continue to cooperate with ICE in its investigation. Fresh Del Monte retained American Staffing Resources to provide a contingent labor force at the Portland facility. Fresh Del Monte does not employ this labor force. Fresh Del Monte is committed to complying with all laws and regulations.
We have no reason to doubt Fresh Del Monte, but the suspicion is always strong in these situations that the whole reason companies outsource their labor supply is because there is no easy way to avoid messes like this.
The Oregonian article goes on to give a quote:
Jim Ludwick, president of Oregonians for Immigration Reform, said the number of Fresh Del Monte workers alleged to have fake documents shows how poorly the United States enforces its immigration laws.
“This is what happens when companies are not held responsible for their hiring actions,” Ludwick said, adding that an endless supply of illegal workers helps companies such as Fresh Del Monte “keep wages low and working conditions poor.”
Yet Ludwick is almost certainly wrong. If this “arrangement” didn’t exist and if these employees were not available, the option is unlikely to be that Fresh Del Monte would bite the bullet, hire its own labor force directly and pay a bit more.
The most likely outcome is the plant would close and product would have to be brought in from somewhere else. If hiring illegals was actually stopped across the whole country, the product would have to be brought in from Mexico. And, very possibly, the very nature of the kinds of products we use would have to change to conform to a new labor situation. For example, a lot of the jarred products sold in produce departments are cut in China and imported from there.
The fact that this plant was unlikely to just “pay higher wages” due to less hiring of illegals seemed to be sensed by the mayor:
MAYOR CRITICIZES ACTION
Potter expressed anger that families were swept up in the arrests, saying the raid stemmed from a failure of Bush and Congress to craft reforms that are fair and workable for employees and business.
“I certainly understand why federal officials executed criminal warrants against three individuals who stole and sold Social Security numbers,” Potter said in a statement. “But to go after local workers who are here to support their families while filling the demands of local businesses for their labor is bad policy.”
He noted that no Portland police officers helped in the raid.
Yet, despite his economic realism, that last note, implying that Portland police would never do such a thing, also explains why Americans are so unhappy with this issue. Americans expect their police forces to enforce the law. This implies that Portland has been winking at situations like this to gain economic advantage.
If government officials are going to just ignore laws they don’t like, then how can those who want enforcement ever think they gain something by getting stronger laws?