Monday, June 26, 2006

Immigration policy and racism

….Is it related?


Much is in the news these days about illegal immigration.  The emphasis is always on the “illegal” part of the equation.  And much is in the news about our southern border. 


Illegal immigration from the south almost always implies people who are not white.  This may not be stated, but it is certainly the implication.  But statements are made about language, about having immigrants learning English, regardless of where they are from. 


One thing that “seems” to be true is that employers are hiring people, either not caring or not checking if they are illegal. 


I know that when a company is interviewing a person for a job, there are a number of personal questions that are not allowed to be asked.  This begs the question:  Can an employer ask where a person is born?  Can they ask if and when the person was naturalized (to be a citizen of the US?)?  Apparently they can ask for certain documentation.


What about people who fit the general superficial description of an immigrant, but are legal citizens, perhaps even born here?  Do they have to constantly carry their birth certificates?  Most of the rest of us don’t have to do that.


We became acquainted with a couple with Hispanic last names because our children were friends.  They told us that the reason they were self-employed is that they faced so much apparent racism when they were looking for work.  I found myself assuming that they had come from Mexico at some point, even though they spoke English with the same accent as the rest of us.  Well, my assumptions were wrong.  They told me that they had come from Colorado where their people had a strong Spanish influence, and their ancestors had been there for 400 years. 


Will there be a backlash against people who appear to be immigrants, appear to be non-white, or people have accents? 


A young man I know, who is an immigrant, naturalized citizen, who speaks with a middle-American accent, has been having problems finding work.  He is clean-cut, well-spoken, outgoing, hard working, and has excellent recommendations, etc.  He gets called to come and find out about a job, but when he gets to some of these interviews, they’ve sometimes taken one look at him and said that the job has been filled.  Or they say that they will call back, and they don’t.  He is beginning to suspect racism.  His last name sounds “white,” which is why, he suspects, that he gets called for the interviews.  We are not talking great jobs here, but rather, part time work to make ends meet. 


He says that when he talks to his white friends, they deny that racism could possibly be a part of the equation.  And, of course, he doesn’t really know the real reason why he isn’t finding work.  Are whites still in denial that racism still exists?  This young man has also noticed that “all” of the cleaning people he sees anywhere are not white. 


What should people of faith do to influence the current public policy and climate?  What would you say to this young man?


  1. I know a little bit about some of these issues, Proclaiming.

    In a couple of temporary assignments in which I worked for temporarary agencies (before I accepted my current "day job"), I completed the employer's verification portion of many I-9 forms. Completion of this form is a mandatory requirement of the Department of Homeland Security. Workers must show original documentation that proves both identity and eligibility to work in the U.S. The list of acceptable documents is extensive but also exclusive. Employers who do not perform this verification are in violation of the law. And one fact is particularly pertinent to your questions here: an employer is supposed to verify identity/eligibility ONLY for employed individuals. I won't say it never happens, but they're not *supposed* to use the I-9 as a screening tool for applicants.

    In general, nothing about these most of these documents indicates a person's birth country. Here in Texas, I did a few non-citizen I-9 verifications. If their documents (one of which can be a birth certificate) are on the acceptable list, it's a valid document to use. Most people choose to show their Social Security cards as eligibility documents, which eliminates the need to show anything else except an additional identity document (usually a driver's license is shown). The employer is not legally permitted to require additional documentation of identity or eligibility (which would include birth country for naturalized US citizens). Again, I'm not going to say it never happens, but it's not supposed to.

    It's a lot more subjective when it comes to applicants being told a job is filled because the employer doesn't want to hire someone of non-US origin. It's the same phenomenon as overweight or conventinally unattractive job applicants face. It's subtle and wrong, but it happens. Not only is racism still alive and well, but so is prejudice in general. I agree with his observation about custodial positions in many companies. Here in Texas, that kind of work and low-paying food service positions are often where people who are not fluent in English or who have a criminal background find their only employment possibilities.

    I know of one of my temp agencies' client companies that is so ridiculous about what employees they will and won't accept for temp assignments that the saying went, "XYZ Inc. accepts only candidates who wear gold panties." Translated, this meant female, white, young, pretty, reasonably intelligent, and sadly, even inferior skills would be OK as long as she could learn fairly quickly. In short, how she looked was far more important than if she could go in and immediately do the job. That's who "fit into" that "culture." Sadly, the agency went out of their way to court more business from the company, even while cursing the way they chewed up and spit out their best qualified (but older or plain-looking) candidates.

    My opinion is that people of faith who make or influence hiring decisions should go out of their way to be sure they don't do things like this. It's tough in the current climate. The only exception I see in this, here in Texas, is in the large number of jobs that require people who are fluently bilingual. It used to be that they could get away with paying the same or even lower than for English-only jobs. Not anymore. Slowly but surely, as employers are realizing they must have Spanish-fluent employees, such employees have come to negotiate better terms of employment. I applaud them. But for employers with the "luxury" of hiring at least in part based on candidates' looks, I don't see things changing a lot for another ten years or so. Once most of us baby boomers are retired, though, watch out. Employers will be more and more color-blind, and it will be an employee's market. Long time to wait, though. :(

  2. The young man was turned down for a grocery store bagger job last winter, after the store had called and told him to come in. He was back at his apartment so fast that the roommate assumed that the car hadn't started.

    Now if I had been there, I would have told the roommate to call the store and ask about the job. And then, if the story was fishy, I would have called the local newspaper. I'm a pot-stirrer.

    It is a tough thing as this young man has no income at the moment. And he just found out that he is on the dean's list at his private university.

    Just wait until he is looking for a real job. There the job market is mostly word of mouth.


And what do you think?