With the renewed possibility that President Barack Obama and the United States Congress will finally address comprehensive immigration reform, as well as local efforts to put an end to wage theft for undocumented workers, there may finally be hope for the millions of people living — and working — in the shadows.
Despite the efforts of U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Florida) to jump-start the long-dormant effort at national immigration reform, it will likely take some time before anything happens in Washington, D.C. However, the Palm Beach County Commission this week approved a $100,000 contract with the Legal Aid Society to handle local cases of wage theft.
While the problem of wage theft is not exclusively the domain of illegal immigrants, it is an issue that particularly targets migrant workers, day laborers and other transient employees — exactly the type of jobs often filled by those in the shadows, on the fringes of society, such as illegal immigrants. While there’s no easy way to bring justice to the victims of this unfair practice, employing the services of the Legal Aid Society, which exists to protect the indigent in legal matters, is a practical solution that county officials hope will yield quick results.
The issue of wage theft was brought to the county’s attention two years ago by the community organization People Engaged in Active Community Efforts (PEACE). Wage theft is particularly ugly because it involves vulnerable groups, often agricultural workers, watching powerlessly as their wages are stolen. When a worker is not on the books, it’s easy for the employer to take advantage of the situation because Uncle Sam has no idea what is going on. Unfortunately, there are many unscrupulous individuals who have no problem with not just making money off of other people’s labor, but then not paying the promised wages.
Think about it: You work all day under the hot sun, in a poor and sometimes dangerous work environment, and then don’t receive what’s due you. But because of your circumstance, you’re powerless to demand your rights. Or imagine being called in on a weekend or holiday, only to learn you’re not getting paid for that work either. Those are just some of the forms of wage theft, and they are more common than you might think.
When we look back to the time of slavery in the pre-Civil War era, it’s hard to imagine how slave owners can treat other humans so savagely. But that was more than a century ago — another time, another culture. Or maybe not. What’s even more difficult to fathom is that similar practices are taking place right now — and in our own back yard, for that matter. The fact that someone in the 21st century is capable of that, or the fact that it’s even allowed to continue on a widespread basis, is appalling. Unfortunately, there isn’t enough public outrage over such unjust practices.
Locally and nationally, it’s time to help undocumented individuals come out from the shadows. Not only will it help those individuals and their families, but comprehensive immigration reform would have a positive impact on all of society, especially the economy. More important, we need to continue our progress into the 21st century, and that means removing these reminders of our ugly past.