American Apparel is in the process of firing all of its undocumented workers, under pressure from the Department of Homeland Security -- a move that will cause as much real harm to Los Angeles as it will imaginary good. Taking away as many as 1,800 jobs that pay $10 to $12 an hour plus benefits will probably drive those workers into an underground economy or into sweatshops, maybe into crime, maybe homelessness. They and their children will be more susceptible to poverty and hunger and more likely to require public assistance.
There are those who believe that Los Angeles will benefit because those jobs will now go to American citizens. Certainly that is possible. Joblessness in California is at 12.2%, a 70-year high and far past the national average of 9.7%, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And between August 2008 and August of this year, Los Angeles lost more jobs than any other U.S. city. Citizens of every race and ethnicity, desperate for employment, are now frequenting day- labor sites in downtown L.A. and Hollywood, according to the Wall Street Journal; some have turned to farm work and labor in the fields. But even if American Apparel replaces its lost workers with U.S. citizens, it's just a shell game; one problem is solved while another is created.
President Obama vowed to redirect immigration enforcement away from the workplace actions of the Bush administration -- which often involved Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers storming in and rounding up employees -- and to put the pressure on employers instead. And he has kept that promise. However, it would make more sense for the government to use its strained resources to nab abusive employers -- it is a sure bet that not too far from the American Apparel building downtown, where the company provided decent wages, reasonable benefits and even a masseuse to rub tired shoulders, workers are toiling in sweatshops.
Unlike some who call for a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants, as we do, we also believe in enforcement -- in the workplace, at the border and where appropriate. Without it, the problem of illegal immigration is unsolvable. But we're troubled by the idea of enforcement without a comprehensive immigration policy -- a guest-worker program and regulations tailored to the country's labor needs as well as access to citizenship.
American Apparel, which could lose as much as a fourth of its workforce, is only one of hundreds of companies across the country whose hiring records are being audited by ICE. But without comprehensive immigration reform, it's hard to see what good will come of throwing undocumented workers out of their jobs.