Exploitation or Expulsion

Illegal immigrants in a double bind


Last Friday, Tzu Ming Yang and Jack Chang of Clarksville, a wealthy Baltimore suburb, pled guilty to charges of conspiracy to harbor illegal aliens and launder money. Meanwhile, Yang's wife Jui Fan Lee Yang copped to employing the illegals at Kawasaki, the trio's Baltimore sushi chain. The conspiracy charges could lead to sentences of up to 30 years in prison, and Chang and the Yangs will have to forfeit over a million dollars' worth of property.

The case was noted far beyond the boundaries of Baltimore. The Washington Post called it a sign that "Serious criminal charges once typically reserved for drug traffickers and organized-crime figures are increasingly being used to target businesses that employ illegal immigrants." That's one important angle to the story. Just as interesting, though, is what the case tells us about the bizarre double-bind our immigration laws create for alien workers. Situations like this one are what keep alive the cliché caught between a rock and a hard place.

According to the affidavit of Brian Smeltzer, a special agent with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the investigation began with an anonymous letter claiming Kawasaki "paid the illegal aliens low wages, no overtime, and took their tips; in return, Tzu Yang promised to file paperwork for the illegal aliens to obtain work visas." (Smeltzer does not say whether Yang followed through on his promise.) An attachment to Mrs. Yang's plea explained that the restaurants required the employees "to work more than forty hours a week and paid them in cash amounts substantially less than required by law." As many as three quarters of the employees were here illegally, housed by their employers in dirty, cramped conditions.

The bosses, meanwhile, spent their profits on luxury cars, which the affidavit lists in exhausting detail. They come off as capitalist villains straight out of central casting; you'd have to arrest Ebenezer Scrooge and C. Montgomery Burns to find such unattractive defendants.

Yet immigrant rights groups aren't very enthusiastic about this sort of worksite enforcement. It's not hard to see why: Liberated from their taskmasters, the illegal aliens are being…deported. Two have already been sent home to El Salvador, while 13 others, Asian natives all, are "on electronic monitoring pending their removal," according to Marcia Murphy, a public affairs specialist at the U.S. Attorney's Office.

There's a whole genre of free-market literature that defends sweatshops and the like on the grounds that they're the best available option for their workers—jobs they've freely chosen because the immediate alternatives are all worse. I don't reject that argument outright, but I've never found it entirely satisfying either. That's partly because some of those sweatshop titans don't just give their charges low wages and long hours; they engage in direct coercion or fraud. It's one thing to choose a job because the other alternatives look worse. It's quite another to find yourself cheated out of your pay at the end of the day or, worse yet, held captive on a citrus farm with hundreds of other workers and threatened with death if you try to leave. (That last one's a real case in South Florida, where employers Ramiro, Juan, and José Ramos were convicted in 2002 of extortion and slavery.)

But there's another problem with the argument, a factor that's in play even with enterprises that deal with their workers honestly and nonviolently. Yes: Sometimes what look like lousy conditions to us are the best option an employee has, and if you shut down their workplace they'll be even worse off. But sometimes the only reason those conditions are the least bad choice available is because the other possibilities have been cut off by legal fiat.

I'm referring not just to illegal immigrants, who for obvious reasons have little recourse if they're defrauded or enslaved, but to guest workers, who come here only under a strict set of rules that prevent them from changing jobs, let alone striking out on their own. (As my colleague Tim Cavanaugh put it last week: "You could make the case that small business startups have been the single greatest national benefit of immigration. It's an idiocy worthy of, well, the United States government to make the promise of immigration dependant upon your ability to find a clock-punching job at an already-existing company.") This isn't free labor operating in an open marketplace. It's a workforce whose power and mobility has been limited by law.

There's no excuse for stealing from your workers or for forcibly keeping them on the job. But crackdowns on abusive employers will bring little justice if the result for their victims is a one-way ticket home. I ate at the Charles Street Kawasaki two or three times myself, before the immigration gendarmes rolled in, and I remember that the workers were friendly, helpful people. I even recall tipping a bit more than usual, not realizing my money would end up in someone else's pocket. If they were treated as poorly as the government says they were, then those workers certainly deserve a chance to be free of Kawasaki's clutches. Not to be sent back to Asia or Latin America, but to find a better job, openly and legally, at the Italian restaurant across the street.