by Skyler Wu, Del Norte High School
While California boasts the largest economy of any state, it also exploits the most workers of any state (National Human Trafficking Hotline). The $180-billion undocumented labor industry (PRI), a significant chunk of California’s economy, keeps operating costs and consumer prices low with a trend of subminimum-wage compensation, substandard conditions, and threats of deportation (New York Times). Now a new employer—the California government itself—may soon begin exploiting undocumented workers if Senator Ricardo Lara’s SB-174 bill is passed. This bill attempts to be more inclusive of undocumented immigrants by making them, “regardless of citizenship or immigration status, eligible to hold an appointed civil office” (Lara). However, I oppose this bill because it unintentionally institutionalizes exploitation when enacted in conjunction with federal law, which prohibits the compensation of undocumented immigrants for their labor. This failure will become clear upon closer inspection of the bill’s exploitative nature, its lack of solvency, and the existence of a better solution.
SB-174 exploits undocumented immigrants by reaping the benefits of their labor upon appointment to office without ensuring compensation for their services. In an interview with the Sacramento Bee, Lara’s office states, “Each board or commission would have to analyze federal law to determine if the appointee can be compensated for the work based on their individual immigration status.” However, under Federal Government Code 1324(A), “it is unlawful for a person or other entity—to hire, or to recruit or refer for a fee, for employment in the United States an alien knowing the alien is an unauthorized alien.” Thus, federal law may very well prohibit undocumented immigrants from being compensated for their services in appointed positions, many of which otherwise pay 6-figure salaries, while the lowest-paying position falls at $35,000 per year (CalHR). Are we seriously expecting undocumented appointees to give up their jobs and families’ livelihoods to work full-time government jobs for free? We cannot just appoint them ostensibly for inclusion without considering their financial well-being. Such an economic arrangement would qualify as a dictionary case of exploitation: taking unfair advantage of someone because of a certain vulnerability (in this case, benefiting from someone’s uncompensated labor because of their tenuous immigration status) (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). If this bill were passed, the California government would join the ranks of thousands of exploitative employers in our state who wrongfully benefit from uncompensated labor.
SB-174 not only exploits undocumented immigrants but also fails to solve the lack of diverse perspectives in California’s law-making machinery. Our great state needs the voices of the undocumented; as Lara asserts, “Their voices should matter when it comes to policies.” But how many can really afford to accept full-time, unpaid civil appointments, especially when considering their obligations to feed their families? It would seem that only the ultra-wealthy could, but would such individuals really represent the diverse voices of the undocumented? While the bill markets itself as infusing diverse perspectives into our legislature, in reality, it looks more like a disingenuous attempt by politicians at appearing more “progressive” and “inclusive.”
If California genuinely cares about the representation of its unrepresented, it ought to pursue a better solution that ensures these individuals’ eligibility for compensation in appointed office. Thus, I propose that the California government advocate for E2 and E3 legal work visas for undocumented immigrants whose knowledge and expertise in appointed office would make them “priority workers” and “persons of exceptional ability”—the conditions for the E-series visas (US State Department). These visas would allow the (now documented) appointees with unique insights to receive fair compensation for their services. Unlike SB-174, this initiative not only protects immigrant appointees from economic exploitation but also incorporates their underrepresented voices into our state’s “hundreds of boards and commissions” (Lara).
As philosopher Immanuel Kant postulates, we ought to treat people as “ends in themselves” and not as “means to an end” (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). In other words, we need to respect others as dignified beings and not take advantage of them for our own agendas. In this case of SB-174, we cannot treat undocumented immigrants and their ineligibility for compensation as merely a means of achieving the ends of free labor and a better-informed California. Nor can we mask our state’s widespread economic exploitation of undocumented workers by further exploiting their vulnerabilities under SB-174 and its superficial slogans of “inclusion” and “diversity.” We need to treat undocumented immigrants as ends in themselves—enacting sincere legislation that ensures they are rightfully compensated for their labor and knowledge just like anybody else.
As a Californian, I applaud Senator Lara for recognizing the existence of a legitimate problem in our state’s lack of undocumented voices in government. But, because of the bill’s lack of compensation and the resultant possibility of institutionalized exploitation, my conscience prevents me from supporting SB-174.
“8 U.S. Code § 1324a – Unlawful Employment of Aliens.” LII / Legal Information Institute, Legal Information Institute, www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/8/1324a.
“California’s Undocumented Workers Help the Economy Grow – but May Pay the Cost.” Public Radio International, PRI, www.pri.org/stories/2017-03-06/californias-undocumented-workers-help-grow-economy-theres-cost.
“Employment-Based Immigrant Visas.” U.S. Department of State, U.S. Department of State, www.travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/us-visas/immigrate/employment-based-immigrant-visas.html.
“Exempt Employee Salaries.” California Department of Human Resources (CalHR), www.calhr.ca.gov/state-hr-professionals/Pages/exempt-employee-salaries.aspx.
Johnson, Robert, and Adam Cureton. “Kant’s Moral Philosophy.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Stanford University, 7 July 2016, www.plato.stanford.edu/entries/kant-moral/.
“Labor Trafficking.” National Human Trafficking Hotline, www.humantraffickinghotline.org/type-trafficking/labor-trafficking.
Lara, Ricardo. “SB-174 Bill Text.” California Legislative Information, California State Legislature, www.leginfo.legislature.ca.gov/faces/billTextClient.xhtml?bill_id=201720180SB174.
Luna, Taryn. “Undocumented Immigrants Could Serve on California Boards under New Bill.” The Sacramento Bee, The Sacramento Bee, www.sacbee.com/latest-news/article210184089.html.
“Senator Lara Introduces Bill to Allow All Californians to Serve on Boards and Commissions — Regardless of Immigration Status.” Senator Ricardo Lara, 1 May 2018, www.sd33.senate.ca.gov/news/2018-05-01-senator-lara-introduces-bill-allow-all-californians-serve-boards-and-commissions.
“Employers Exploit Unauthorized Immigrants to Keep Wages Low” The New York Times, The New York Times, www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2015/09/03/is-immigration-really-a-problem-in-the-us/employers-exploit-unauthorized-immigrants-to-keep-wages-low.
Zwolinski, Matt, and Alan Wertheimer. “Exploitation.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Stanford University, 16 Aug. 2016, www.plato.stanford.edu/entries/exploitation/.