The Time for Immigration Reform is Now

Immigration ReformAbout two years ago our company, Emerald Packaging, which manufactures plastic packaging for food, suffered a silent raid by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Like thousands of companies over the last few years, ICE came without notice and asked for copies of our I-9s, the forms employees must fill out detailing their right to work in the United States, including proof of legal status. ICE takes the forms and checks social security numbers (SSN) and work visa status, and anyone whose name does not match the declared SSN or whose work visa has lapsed must be terminated. Companies themselves face penalties for such technicalities as putting the necessary employee information in the wrong box on the form, a common error since the I-9 is a complicated document. Worse, they can be charged with criminal penalties if they have knowingly hired illegal aliens.

Memories of this moment flood back into my brain as Congress muddles through a conversation about  immigration reform again.  The audit, which took three weeks, left scars on our company, the employees caught up in the fracas, and my soul.  We lost 18 people out of a staff of 200.  They were some of our longest tenured people, the best machinists and operators, friends.  Productivity fell and costs zoomed.  Those effected lost good paying jobs, and in some cases lost homes and suffered depression and anxiety. I felt so helpless to protect them, so angry at the financial impact on our business, that I sought grief counseling. It did not work.

We really had no idea if we had illegals on staff. For many years no system existed to check legal status. The government now provides the E-Verify system which matches social security numbers but the law disallows checking the status of current employees. Among our 210 factory employees who produce the plastic packaging we make, we have a mix of Asians, Hispanics and a smattering of Anglos and African-Americans, the two former groups including many recent immigrants. Some had immigrated years ago, bought homes, raised families, paid taxes and contributed mightily to the building of our company.

Take Miguel G. He had worked with us for over 20 years, maintaining and troubleshooting some of the toughest machines in our company, those that make plastic retail packaging that wrap lettuce, hold carrots or protect celery. Miguel was a model employee, never written-up, at work every day, able to handle his machines without help from our overworked maintenance department. He was also a strong leader, willing to speak his mind when he felt the company wasn’t treating people fairly or managers were playing favorites, as can happen. He made over $18 an hour and had full benefits, including medical coverage for his family and a pension program.

So off went the I-9s on which the fate of Miguel and others rested. Word of the raid spread through the factory and within 48 hours and nine employees immediately came forward and identified themselves as illegal aliens. Because the law says we cannot knowingly employ such people, we had to let them go on the spot. Over the following weeks, while ICE audited our documents, a steady trickle of employees came forward and confessed. By the time ICE came back and told us that 18 of our employees were not eligible to work in the United States, 17 had outed themselves, including Miguel. Fortunately, I suppose, ICE found the company had done nothing wrong and we were not fined. In our favor was the fact that most of the jobs affected paid well and offered full benefits, so the government could not find that we had hired illegals to keep our labor costs low.

I was devastated, as were many in the company. Most of those caught had worked with us for over 10 years, some for as much as 15 or 20 years. Overnight we lost their experience. Of course we replaced them, but in many cases their replacements did not measure up.  Either they did not have their predecessors drive or the same commitment. It’s not like we had a huge pool to draw from. As a company that prints on plastic and produces sophisticated packaging there just are not people with the skills living in the San Francisco Bay Area anymore.  Probably not the entire country either.

Without Miguel bag department productivity fell, about 4% during the three months after he left. Other departments suffered too. The head of our ink department, a young man named Sergio, who had worked with us for over 15 years, ended up out the door despite living in the country since childhood. Sergio earned well over $20 an hour and was a magician, finding unique and subtle ways to save money. The next fiscal quarter after we lost him our ink costs rose 10%. His replacement just did not have the inventiveness. During the next two years the loss of Sergio cost the company over $600,000, money that could have been invested in equipment that would create new jobs.

Fast forward two years. Six of the 18 who we had to let go are back. They achieved legal status through various means. One received his work permit through hardship status, thanks to illness of a child. Another was already in route to a green card when she was let go. She returned six weeks later. Two achieved status through another family member. Amazingly Sergio turned out to be a citizen — that’s right, a citizen from birth — whose status had been mixed up thanks to the movement of his family back and forth across the border and improper record keeping by our government.  But it took him two years to rectify the problem.  His wife, overcome with anxiety, ended up on medication to help her cope.

Most of the remainder, I think, found other jobs. I know two returned to Mexico, including Miguel. He simply decided he hated living in the United States. He told me he could not understand a country that persecuted hardworking, tax paying individuals, which wanted Mexican labor but pretended otherwise. He was tired of looking over his shoulder all the time and wondering if he would be deported, say if he was pulled over by a police officer while driving; without a driver’s license the likelihood he’d be shipped back to Mexico was high. So he took his family, including three American-born children, and left.  My company and our country lost a very productive man.

Why didn’t at least the six who gained status do so earlier? If you have not had experience with ICE you might not understand. Many Hispanics, especially Mexicans, do not trust the system. They are routinely gamed by huckster lawyers who ask for money up-front then never do anything. The client, taken for the ride, does not feel they can sue the attorney because they are without status. Then there is the system itself, which can take two absolutely identical cases and make completely opposite rulings, leading to a green card for one person and deportation for another. Many do not want to take the risk. Cost is another barrier. Getting status can run well over $20,000.

We helped some former employees find reputable lawyers who saw their cases through successfully. Everyone who gained status to work — we made sure they were legal by using the E-Verify to check their papers — was given their seniority back and any annual pay increases they may have missed. We did not let those we had hired to replace them go.  In some cases, like the ink department where Sergio has taken the reins again, we simply made the former manager his assistant. Ink costs have fallen 7% in the months after his return.

I cannot help but wonder how many of those others we had to let go could have achieved status. Think about it. Six of 18 did, or 30%. It is a small sample pool, but what if 30% of those supposedly illegally in our country could become legal but they simply are too afraid, uninformed, bilked by lawyers or trapped in the immigration system waiting for a ruling that sometimes can take years? If so, over 3 million people could be legalized today. How can we not stop and help them find their path to status? Especially if they have lived here peaceably, paid taxes bought homes and raised children.

Madness, really. As the grandson of Irish immigrants who fled poverty and civil war during the 1920s, I cannot wonder what might have become of them under today’s system. My paternal grandfather had some education, not much, worked as a laborer but sent his children to college and one of them, my father, started a successful business and has contributed to society through extensive charitable activities. What if the country had been denied his success?

Moreover, contrary to those who bleat about Mexicans taking jobs from Americans, usually they are doing things Anglos do not want. Factory work, even when it pays well and offers benefits, just is not attractive. They don’t like the dust, noise, or the working hours, like graveyard shift. They no longer want physical work. They don’t have the skills. Sad to say but most Anglos would rather collect unemployment or work at Home Depot than set foot in a factory. We know this because very few apply. When they are offered a job, they usually refuse because they have to start on the night shift.  Meanwhile those that want the jobs are being forced out.

The irony, of course, is that this policy of silent raids has taken off under a Democratic president, one who says he favors immigration reform. Under the Obama Administration, ICE I-9 audits have gone stratospheric. Since 2009 over 9000 raids have been conducted, with more than 300,000 people losing jobs. No other period in our history comes close. I wonder how many of those people could have been or were actually legal, maybe even citizens like Sergio? Perhaps the government should spend time finding out whether people have cases to stay in the United States rather than spending dollars to deport.

But that’s up to Congress, one dominated by Republicans hostile to reform. The Senate passed a good bill. It would create more slots for people who attained engineering degrees and the like to stay here. It would provide a path towards green cards and maybe citizenship for people like Miguel. But the House has so far baulked and instead mumbled on about doing something piecemeal.

Ellis IslandI don’t understand this. Anything that keeps American companies productive, increases innovation here by making room for those who earn degrees not popular with current citizens — try and find an Anglo industrial engineer — and breaks the hold corrupt lawyers have over the immigration system cannot be wrong. We need hard workers. We need that next generation that will go to college and start the companies of the future. The question Congress must answer is whether we recognize that? If not, do we begin mass deportations of the Miguel’s, Sergio’s and countless others who have helped build the United States? Let’s hope someday they get the answer right.

19 thoughts on “The Time for Immigration Reform is Now

  1. Rick Pastor says:

    Kevin,

    As the grandson of Spanish immigrants it is refreshing to see a succesfull business person take the humanistic position on this issue. The emotional toll our disfunctional immigration laws take on hard working families can be devistating. These hard working people are not only our employees but our friends as well and should be treated as such. I have known Sergio for many years and I was elated to hear of his new citizenship status!It’s time our friends were able to come out from the shadows and take their rightful place free of fear.
    Thanks for the great piece, keep them coming!
    Rick Pastor

  2. Robert Bateman says:

    This is compelling stuff. Immigrants have long been the backbone of this country’s industry at all levels. How such dysfunctional policies can have evolved and be enforced, beggars belief.

    One comment: the situation of immigrants being the only competent people seeking industrial jobs that is reported in the Bay Area and maybe other high income cities seems to be a lot different from that in non urban and less prosperous areas even in California. In Oroville, while immigrants are important and a disproportionate number advance, most of our long term employees are non immigrant and have the positive attitude you describe as being typical of immigrants at Emerald. The same was true in Morristown, Tennessee when I worked there, and I think this is common over much of the country.

    As far as manufacturing is concerned, not only is the treatment of immigrants a travesty but also the lack of encouragement and support given to all Americans to learn the necessary skills is short sighted. There remains a tradition of apprenticeships in some parts of the country, particularly the mid West, and the Community College infrastructure lends itself well, but getting a program going in somewhere like Butte County involves starting more or less from scratch.

    We need a serious policy towards developing a modern manufacturing workforce. Ceasing to destroy teams of hard working skillful immigrants is a part but maybe it would be easier to achieve changes in this area if the need to build up and not squander manufacturing skills overall was given a higher priority.

  3. Steve Walker says:

    Great article Kevin. Could not agree with you more. If you ever find a way have voices in favor of immigration reform heard (perhaps CEOs in favor), please be sure to let me know how and when I can help.

  4. Samar Dudin says:

    This article is written by a businessman who speaks like an advocate for workers rights , it’s refreshing to hear that capitalism has a heart after all ?!! The issue you fused Kevin is another face of the injustice perpetuated by the US government that interferes in every single third world economy as it pleases and has affected the whole world ! to perpetuate the injustice against immigrant workers who flee their homes due to post colonial regimes and a painful economic in immigrant workers is a violation of human rights … The US government speaks of high humane ideals But in practice they make life hell for people like Miguel . So my question is : how can businessmen with social responsibility organize to stop this violation ? Is organizing still possible to advocate for immigrant workers rights ? What would Caesar Chavez say today if he witnessed these violations ?

    • Cesar Rodriguez, Spain says:

      Quote”This article is written by a businessman who speaks like an advocate for workers rights , it’s refreshing to hear that capitalism has a heart after all ?!!” End Quote
      Samar, Kevin is no “rara avis”. He is just logical and protects his interests and those of the Company he manages (probably the company he or his family created). Adam Smith’s invisible hand works here protecting workers interests. I, for instance, have 50 employees in Spain and I fight for none of them to leave (in a country with 26% unemployment and lots of opportunities to find cheaper replacements). 11 years ago I had to let most people go to turn the Company around. In the past 10 years, little by little, I managed to hire many people back which is the most rewarding experience of a business man.
      You have given the firts right answer to your own question, but more need to follow you, Samar: more workers need to admire the Kevin’s of this planet (and we are millions) and thank them for being good people, for being smart and protecting their workers, for risking their wealth, for having the stamina every morning to keep improving their companies after so many years, for putting up with all the government regulations, for willing to sacrifice themselves, and for ocupying their very important position in the society. Kevin deserves recognition. Use him. Praise him. Make him the example for millions of businessmen around the globe. Some polititians will hear you and follow suit.

  5. Oscar M says:

    KK- After I read your blog, I reflected to the time ( 20 yrs ago) when I was in the process of getting my own green card ( it was pink) and your article hits home. I can barely fathom the thought to leave this country, my home, with my American born children. Even to this date, ever time I cross the border, to come home, I am always reminded of fact that my origins still get the hairy eyeball. I hope things will change in my lifetime. Well captured and enlightening

  6. M Brady says:

    Well said Kevin, Another example of confused citizens in the U.S. Want jobs and not those jobs! Don’t want manufacturing to go overseas and don’t want to work 3rd shift manufacturing! I think many students are being raised to think that ‘they will be taken care of’ and that does not include working in a environment that requires skilled labor or learning new skills. Maybe ‘we’ need to back to trade schools? and maybe we need to honor those that do the work for us!

  7. The Hindu says:

    The argument many make against providing more green cards to highly skilled foreign nationals is that doing so would harm the job prospects of Americans. What most fail to understand is that skilled scientists, engineers, doctors, researchers and professionals help create more jobs and innovations. Moreover, such individuals are typically hired as part of the normal recruitment process, complementing, not replacing, Americans. Over the years– history will ascertain this claim–immigrants have helped expand economic opportunities for others. The IT companies in the bay area are a living, thriving model of such a system resulting in a reverse brain drain in many ways in their countries of origin.

    The issue needs reckoning and the congressional gridlock on this subject needs to end. Wonderfully captured. Your story is riveting both from the business and humanitarian angle. Keep writing.

  8. John Fontana says:

    Kevin,
    Great piece! I do a monthly reflection program for the Woodstock Business Conference would you give me permission to use this piece for my June Topics? I will be at Santa Clara early in the week at a conference and then San Francisco any chance for a tour of EP?
    Keep writing!
    John Fontana

  9. Tom Hedlund says:

    Well done Kevin: As I read your blog my mind went to the internment process of the Japanese during WW2. One could say that at least we offered them shelter and housing rather than deportation but that would be ridiculous.

    I have returned from living in Mexico for the past 3.5 years and everywhere I went I found deportees who could find no work in Mexico or were settling for menial work and pay, many of them with families to support. You are in a positon to see and comment on the absurdity of the system. I encourage you to use your voice.

  10. Lars says:

    Wow, so I’m not the only one who thinks you should run for office! Your city needs a new mayor, why not you?

  11. Russell Greenhouse says:

    Kevin,
    Having been in your shoes I completely understand your frustration. If the employes have been with you for 20 years or had passed the I-9, they are paying taxes, get paid decent wages, get medical insurance and other benefits, contribute to the economy and put up with the high cost of living in CA. how can this be fair.

    And like you say getting an Anglo to work in a factory for $15-$20 an hour is nearly impossible. They would rather collect unemployment. What happened to working hard and showing up to work everyday on time….

    Nicely written and to the point! Keep it up.

  12. Damian Mullin says:

    Kevin – A very touching, insightful, thought-provoking and HIGHLY RATIONAL perspective. We need many, many more business leaders with your viewpoint making a case to political representatives at all levels.

    Damian Mullin
    Sales Director
    MUEHLSTEIN

  13. Steve Layton says:

    Excellent Kev. Happy you have found the time to enjoy writing a blog This is a timely and personal remembrance that really hits home now Keep it going. As the saying goes, “it is better to light one candle than just curse the darkness.” I’m with Ron, run for office.

  14. Jenne' says:

    FINALLY!!!!!! yeeeeeee—ha!

  15. Larry Moeller says:

    Nice, Kevin.

  16. Ron says:

    I see politics in your future. Ever thought of running? We would vote for you if you were able to keep your hand on the pulse of Emerald and straighten out the country at the same time. I have some time for volunteer work on your campaign.

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