This past weekend here in Austin we were handed a perfect object lesson of the nature of illegal immigration and immigration enforcement courtesy of gun-toting INS agents looking to make an example and score some PR points for Governor Petty and President Bush.
Early Saturday morning java junkies at the Texas French Bread near the University of Texas were shocked when INS agents charged into the building with their guns drawn, heading for the kitchens in search of illegal aliens. They emerged a few minutes later with five people who were dragged away in handcuffs. Of those five, four were deported immediately without even so much as a hearing under the fast-track deportation provisions of the Secure Borders Act. One had the number of a lawyer and is still in the country and will presumably enjoy some limited measure of due process before being given the boot.
What makes the case interesting is the details of who the immigrants were and their actual social and economic status. If you believe the portrait of immigration painted by the scaremongers - by the Rep. James Sensenbrenners of the world - you'd expect these illegals to be borderline criminals, working unskilled jobs for below market wages, paying no taxes, stealing free health care and sending all their money home to their families in Mexico. You'd also expect the employer to be a modern Simon Lagree, stealing from willing Americans to cut costs, taking advantage of the vulnerability of the illegal workers and exploiting them every way that he can. Of course, nothing could be farther from the truth.
All five of these workers were hired on the basis of what appeared to be legitimate work visas and social security cards. The employer had no idea that they were illegals and no reason to question them based on their documentation. It was not a matter of turning a blind eye. He had specifically checked their papers and they seemed legitimate.
Rather than being paid slave wages they were being paid the same wage as his other employees. The lowest paid was receiving $9.50 an hour and the highest paid was working as a store manager, a salaried job paying about $30,000 a year. Taxes were being withheld from their paychecks, including Social Security and Medicare. It's quite likely that some of them even had health insurance.
All five of the workers had been with the company for several years. One of them had worked for Texas French Bread for over a decade. All of them had families with children living here in the United States, entirely in the open and not part of some sort of underground conspiracy. They all appear to have been functional English speakers.
In the aftermath of the raid, the bakery has had trouble finding skilled workers to replace the deported immigrants, and the owner has had to work in the kitchen until replacements can be found.
So what we're talking about here are not some day-laborer vagrants you can pick up at Home Depot. They're solid, lower and lower-middle income skilled workers. They're fully contributing members of the community, earning wages, paying taxes, spending money and taking nothing from the government or society which they haven't earned. In short, they're just like the rest of us, but for one difference - that armed men were able to legally come and take them from their homes and jobs and send them to Mexico with no notice, minimal evidence and none of the legal protections the rest of us enjoy.
Texas French Bread owner Murph Wilcott expressed the his own dismay and the concerns of the community when he commented:
“These people paid taxes. They worked like crazy. The people that they took away hadn't done anything wrong…It's violent what they did. They came and raped my business.”
He raises the point that's often overlooked in the debate over illegal immigration. The truth is that most of these illegal immigrants don't come here to cause trouble or commit crimes or take advantage of the system. Most of them come here, get jobs and work just like any other American. As was the case with the five taken in this raid, they were indistinguishable from their native co-workers, just workers filling a need and supporting their families.
Many other illegals fall into this same category of working under forged papers and bogus Social Security Numbers, and it raises an interesting question. The nativist crowd moan and rant about illegals taking social and medical services without paying into the system in any way. But these workers and others like them paid into all of our various tax-based programs and would likely never receive services of value equal to their contribution to those systems. They'd certainly never see any of the money they paid into social security again, which raises the interesting issue of how much the floundering social security system depends on the contributions of illegals who will never draw benefits from it, because the payments go to a number that doesn't really exist. A quick calculation suggests that even if only half of the illegal immigrants pay taxes, they basically donate $7.5 billion a year to the system to help underwrite everyone else's costs. Can Social Security afford to lose that money.
While we're considering implications, imagine what might have happened under some of the draconian new laws being considered in the Congress. Murph Wilcott, who was just hiring the best workers he could find and paying them a fair wage, would face the real possibility of jail time even though he checked the workers documents as well as he could. Nativists are pushing for using measures against employers as the hammer to drive immigrants out of jobs and out of the country, so they're advocating zero tolerance and harsh penalties. Jail time hardly seems fair for someone who's just trying to run a small business and satisfy his customers.
By the way, Texas French Bread makes a damned fine baguette, excellent croissants and has branched out into sandwiches, lunch fare and gourmet coffee. They're a nice homegrown alternative to the chain coffee and pastry franchises. If you live in Austin stop by and show your support and fill your tummy.