How Reagan Started a Workers’ Civil War and How Biden Can Finally End It

In 1986, my father Grant Lee was one of the first million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. who received amnesty under President Reagan’s Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA). Having adopted as his first name the surname of the great Union Army general, my father firmly believed in the American Dream and he was sure that his days of being separated from his family, traveling from state to state to toil in restaurants, were about to end.

But IRCA, passed on a bipartisan basis, proved to be a wolf in sheep’s clothing. While it ended up granting amnesty to undocumented immigrants in the country at the time, it also included a provision that criminalized undocumented immigrants for working. Unlike what its name suggests, the employers’ sanctions provision did not punish employers, but instead punished undocumented workers for working, creating an underclass of labor and dividing the working class in the process.

“The principal quid pro quo for the one-time amnesty provision was the other major element of IRCA,” Yale Law Professor Michael Wishnie explains in his essay Prohibiting the Employment of Unauthorized Immigrants: The Experiment Fails. “The AFL-CIO and NAACP supported employer sanctions, as did a variety of anti-immigrant and nativist organizations. Business groups, Latino organizations, and civil liberties groups, including the ACLU, U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and National Council of La Raza, opposed employer sanctions. But even opponents of employer sanctions recognized that the prohibition on employment might be a reasonable price to pay for the IRCA amnesty provision, which led to the eventual legalization of three million people.”

Grant Lee spent his entire life in the restaurant industry, working his way up at times to be a restaurant manager. Within a decade of receiving his papers, he witnessed another influx of undocumented immigrants who, because they lacked the right to work under IRCA, restaurants were quick to hire. And this new underclass of super-exploitable workers meant that many recently legalized immigrants, like my father, and American-born workers were forced to accept similar sweatshop conditions for fear of not having a job or being fired.

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Category: Restaurant News

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