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A Love-Hate Thing on Illegal Immigration Issue

April 03, 2002|Patt Morrison

Let's play the Supreme Court game. Who wants to be chief justice? There's your game piece, the one with the gold stripes. OK now, who wants to be Clarence Thomas? Sandra Day O'Connor? David Souter?

First case: Who do you side with, a California company that illegally fired an employee for exercising his right to hand out union cards at work, or the worker himself, a Mexican man who used a friend's birth certificate to get his job illegally?

Bzzzzt--wrong! Read my briefs--the company trumps the worker.

The Beltway Nine are spending a lot of time on California cases. By autumn, they will decide whether California's three-strikes law is "cruel and unusual" when it locks up ex-cons for decades for outrages like filching seven videotapes from Kmart, an offense that will make the 43-year-old man in question eligible for parole when he is 87. (He should have saved himself the trouble and waited for the Kmart bankruptcy sale.)

The busy, busy court just wrapped up that California union-card case: Hoffman Plastic Compounds vs. National Labor Relations Board. Against the wishes of the Bush administration, the justices took the case.

Five to four, they decided last week that the worker's offense of illegally using a friend's Texas birth certificate to get hired "by criminal fraud" was greater than the company's offense of violating federal labor practices by firing him for handing out union cards.

So instead of having to fork over $67,000 for three years' back pay to the man, the company can instead lay out a few hundred on printing up and posting a notice to its employees about their rights. Imagine.

Perhaps they're already on the phone to Erwin Chemerinsky about that "cruel and unusual" part.

"Hoffman Plastic Compounds of Paramount, Calif."--baby boomer that I am, I think of Dustin Hoffman in "The Graduate" and the magic word whispered to the young man on his way up: "plastics."

That was the 1960s, and Hoffman Plastic looks like the 1960s, the high-five days of the Cold War. Its building is painted gray-white and trimmed in blue, like a ship, or a jet.

Paramount's foundries and refineries and metal-plating shops were the white-hot heart of the industrial cities that were the assembly line for the Jet Age, the Space Age, the race to the moon, for American know-how and American can-do.

Now the trailer park across the street advertises new homes for $59,999, se habla espanol. The few words I caught squawking through the shop loudspeaker at Hoffman were in Spanish.

A couple of miles away is a Home Depot, the kind of place where men who speak Spanish wait for casual day-laboring jobs. No questions are asked, no answers are volunteered, and the only papers that change hands in their transactions are $20 bills. Just another business day in California, home of probably half of the nation's 7 million or 8 million or 11 million illegal immigrants.

It's California's Prohibition, and it's gone on for decades. Illegal immigration makes us righteous and crafty. Gotta stop those hordes--unless stopping them means no more 99-cent romaine and $200-a-week nannies. It's illegal, it's immoral, it's a tax drain, or it's necessary, it's healthy, it invigorates the economy--for every study there's an equal and opposite study, so take your pick.

At the same time that businesses rolled out the bienvenidos mat for bargain-

basement workers, labor leaders--including Cesar Chavez--agonized over illegal immigration:

How to keep union ranks strong when the next truck north brings men willing to work longer and cheaper?

Before Sept. 11, President Bush, trying to mend broken GOP fences, flirted with the idea of amnesty--

"regularization"--for illegal immigrants and hated the idea of the Supreme Court taking this case.

An anti-illegal-immigration group agreed, because the ruling could make hiring illegal workers more attractive.

Within 48 hours of the ruling, a Brooklyn immigrants group called Make the Road by Walking said a Manhattan meat market it's battling over wage issues warned it --erroneously--that "any demonstration by your organization on behalf of [the worker] will be in violation of federal law, and my client will pursue direct action against your organization."

To my nonlegal mind, all this sounds like letting one wrongdoer off the hook because he didn't know his victim had already broken the law.

It's too much for me. I have to turn to a great legal mind, my grandmother, who ruled in the case of Morrison Brother vs. Morrison Sister, "Two wrongs don't make a right."


Patt Morrison's columns appear Mondays and Wednesdays. Her e-mail address is

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