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What the Government Should Be Verifying: Jobs, Safety, and Training

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In America, we desperately need to address the hardships everyday people increasingly face. As Rep. Lamar Smith points out, unemployment rates in the U.S. have reached nearly 10%. Those who do have jobs increasingly face lower wages, longer hours, and less protections at the work site.

To address the challenges U.S. workers and the unemployed are facing, Washington has an unprecedented opportunity to invest in job creation, workplace safety, and training opportunities that would usher those excluded from the workforce into meaningful employment.

To raise the floor for struggling and working families, we need policies that grow our economy, ensure job security, and offer new opportunities. We don't need more scapegoating.

Unfortunately, politicians like Smith have become more practiced in political pandering than in real solutions. The man who would have himself seen as the champion for the unemployed is more accurately the cheerleader for the Arizonification of America.

As part of Smith's crusade, he's combined Arizona's immigration and Wisconsin's Scott Walker labor policies into a bill to make use of e-verify (the federal employment eligibility on-line database) mandatory for all employers, whether they have one employee or one hundred thousand.

Because of its high error rates and negative impact on state revenues, the system was essentially banned in Illinois. However, Arizona became a leader in its implementation in 2008 as part of that state's anti-immigrant hysteria. The e-verify debate is just one more example that when politicians take aim at immigrants, the country ends up shooting itself in the foot. In the past four years Arizona's economy plummeted from being the 14th poorest state in 2007 to the 2nd poorest state and the third weakest economy in the nation today. Instead of growing the economy, policies that Smith supports in Arizona like SB 1070 would most likely shrink the economy by upwards of $48 billion according to some estimates. Three years after the implementation of mandatory e-verify in the state, one in five Arizonans live in poverty.

Worse about Smith's proposal today is that it not only is a false solution, it's a canard that takes aim at real tested and proven solutions: workers centers. This proposal would require unions and workers centers to use e-verify, as if they were employers. Doing so not only misclassifies what worker centers and union halls are, it would have a devastating effect on the ability of these organizations to work effectively with low-wage U.S.-born and immigrant communities.

For more than two decades, cities have seen worker centers as community institutions that bring neighbors together and play a key role in local economies. They play a crucial role in supporting workers in maintaining standards and holding accountable exploitative employers and in integrating immigrants into civic life. They are often the only recourse when an employer refuses to pay minimum wage and overtime or subjects workers to abominable health and safety conditions. By enforcing labor laws and bringing communities together, worker centers are a boon for all of us while Smith's demagoguery is increasingly a bust.

The crucial role of workers centers is what led to a partnership I'm proud of between the National Day Laborer Organizing Network and the AFL-CIO in 2006. Together we are committed to promoting policies that raise the floor for all workers, providing all workers with a voice on the job, and preventing divide and conquer efforts of unscrupulous employers to pit us against each other.

When I came to this country after escaping the war in my native El Salvador, it was a worker center where I was able to learn and practice English and begin to understand my rights and responsibilities in my new home.

Rep. Jan Schakowsky described workers centers in 2006 as institutions that

... Give a voice and power to people who often lack both. They are gateway organizations that meet immigrant workers where they are and provide them with a wealth of information and training. In all too many cases, these centers are the only 'port in the storm' for low-wage immigrant workers seeking to understand U.S. labor and immigration laws, file back wage claims, and organize against recalcitrant employers.

The Representative from Illinois goes on to say that bills like Smith's "don't just jeopardize the lives of some immigrants, they are attacks on all our communities."

At a time when the need for solutions is so serious, the continued waste of our legislators' time and our country's resources on criminalizing migrants is itself near criminal. We must accept that immigrants, undocumented or otherwise, are not responsible for the economic crisis. In fact, workers who were displaced from our home countries and forced to migrate share the same corporate causes as U.S. workers facing unemployment today.

The anti-immigrant rhetoric is being used to undermine the rights of all workers. Undocumented workers did not steal pensions. That was Enron. Undocumented workers have not laid off hundreds of thousands. That was Ford Motors. Undocumented workers did not bail out the banks without providing a penny of relief for homeowners, that was both political parties. It wasn't undocumented workers who bankrupted schools and hospitals. It is the reallocation of social funds to endless and expanding wars. It wasn't undocumented workers who didn't pay taxes last year. It was GE, Bank of America, Exxon Mobil and others.

The government should stop its immigrant witch hunt and start focusing on real solutions. What we need is verification of workplace safety and effective enforcement of wage and hour laws. Instead of sending us down Arizonifying rabbit-holes, Congress should be creating full employment programs, collecting corporate taxes, investing in proven community institutions like workers centers, and passing innovative bills that grow the economy like the POWER Act and the CARE Act.