Portrait of a refugee


Refugees do not get a free ride, as many may imagine, after they arrive in the United States. Cash support lasts a few months. Somalian Barket Farah arrived in Portland, Maine, in 2015, after waiting six years at the sprawling Dadaab refugee camps in Kenya for his application to be approved. While at Dadaab, he learned English and worked with aid organizations. Catholic Charities in Portland quickly found him a job at Backyard Farms, a huge 23-acre hydroponic all-seasons tomato farm in Madison, several hours from Portland. Barket lives in a sparse apartment in nearby Skowhegan. He gets to work by a company shuttle, and sends money to his wife and children still in Dadaab. Like other refugees, he is repaying the federal government for his $1,700 airfare from Kenya to Portland. “We refugees have nothing, this is our only hope,” he told me.

Photojournalist Earl Dotter and I visited Barket in his apartment and at Backward Farms. Photo © Earl Dotter 2016

Widespread labor violations in Los Angeles’ garment industry

The Washington Post reports on sub-minimum wages paid to immigrant workers in the Los Angeles garment industry, which employs 45,000.

It writes, “While immigrants often face criticism for stealing jobs, they are the ones being increasingly undercut in America’s clothing industry, forced to accept wages below the legal minimum as retailers fight to pass on bargain prices to consumers. Federal regulators have uncovered a widespread practice of garment workers, most of them undocumented, being paid below the legal minimum wage, according to a recent Department of Labor report. Those findings were echoed in interviews with workers and workers activists here.

This recent report appears to be that published by the Department of Labor on December 22, called “Garment Industry’s Wage Violations Share Common Thread,” which in the follow short passage concisely states the problem. It is authored by David Weil, the administrator of the department’s Wage and Hour Division.

“The heart of the problem lies squarely with the pricing structure dictated by the retailers in this industry. The prices they pay for garments fail to support manufacturers’ ability to provide sewing contractors even the most basic worker protections – minimum wage and overtime. We have found many workers like Esperanza making $4 per hour or even less.

On average, contractors receive only 73 percent of the price they would need in order to support paying these workers the absolute minimum allowed by law. In one time study, the actual sewing fee paid to the contractor by the manufacturer was just $1.80, when, based upon our analysis, the fee should have been $4.67 to allow the person who sewed it to be paid the minimum wage. In some cases, retailers were paying $4 for a garment, when they would need to be paying manufacturers more than $10 to support paying workers legally. Any less than that, and someone is being cheated.

In conjunction with this study, we conducted 77 investigations of randomly selected garment shops in Los Angeles in 2015 and 2016, and uncovered violations in 85 percent of them. We found more than $1.3 million in unpaid wages due to workers and also assessed employers more than $65,000 in penalties. Since the shops were randomly selected, these results reveal the high underlying rate of noncompliance in the industry that results from the low prices driving the system.”

New Americans at work: Alfredo Quiñones-Hinojosa, MD

In 1987, Alfredo Quiñones-Hinojosa succeeded in his second try to slip from Mexico to the United Stares by jumping over a fence. He had no money and did not know English. He worked in the fields and otheimg_0055r manual labor until a near fatal work accident gave him a wake up call. He learned English and managed to get into University of California in Berkeley. In 1999 He gave the commencement address at his graduation from Harvard Medical School. Here is Earl Dotter’s photo of him outside his office at Johns Hopkins where he is a professor and neurosurgeon, focusing on cancer.

Dr. Q’s website is here.

Photo (C) Earl Dotter 2016



FAIR’s agenda for immigration in 2017

The Federation of American Immigration Reform, an immigration restriction-leaning organization, has published “Immigration Priorities for the 2017 Presidential Transition.”

Three noteworthy aspects of the report are that (1) the numerous actions recommended are almost all Executive Branch control of either illegal immigration or a few minor abuses of legal immigration, with no Congressional input (2) it makes glancing comment on the labor market, including employer practices, and (3) it is devoid of a new vision for immigration in the long run.

Reference to the labor market is scant. “We should encourage our own citizens to obtain the qualifications necessary to fill any labor shortages, not discourage them by flooding the market with foreign competitors who undercut wages.” And,” In 2013, only 7 percent of green cards issued were skills-based. In order to genuinely reform our immigration system, family-based immigration must be limited to spouses and unmarried minor children of green card holders.”

A more thoughtful approach to the labor market would show that the hour-glass profile of immigrant workers – lots of low-skilled, an increasing percentage of highly educated – fits for better or worse the polarization profile of the labor market, as laid out by prominent researchers such as David Autor of MIT.

What happens when immigrants leave farming?

A Washington Post article thrust into the spotlight the role of unauthorized workers in farming. About 70% of farmworkers are foreign born and of them about half are unauthorized. The Department of Agriculture looked into the impact of removing these workers; its documents are no longer available on the web, but here is a summary, found here:

In one report, modeling showed that more farm production would happen due to “temporary non-immigrant farmworkers”, but “a large reduction in the number of unauthorized workers in all economic sectors resulted in a long run relative reduction in output and exports for both agriculture and the broader economy. (The deleted report is “Immigration Policy and Its Possible Effects on U.S. Agriculture”)

In a second report, if farm wages rise, or unauthorized workers are no longer available — “case studies suggested a range of possible adjustment scenarios, including increased mechanization for crops such as baby leaf lettuce, Florida juice oranges, and raisin grapes. Production of other crops, such as apples and fresh strawberries, would likely rely increasingly on aids such as hydraulic platforms and conveyor belts to improve labor productivity. Crops that cannot readily be mechanized and face significant competition for export markets, or from imports, would likely see domestic production levels fall.

A 2011 report from the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which argues or less immigration, in fact a moratorium on immigration,

looks at the wage impact of removing unauthorized workers:

“Authorized workers are observed to be willing to accept wages that are 18% higher than unauthorized workers in the fruits, nuts, and vegetable sector and 22% higher in field crops and grains…• If unauthorized workers were replaced by authorized workers at the higher average wage rate authorized, workers currently earn, farms in the fruits, nuts, and vegetable sector would experience a total labor cost increase of 10%, and the increase for the field crops and grains sector would be 6%.”