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A New Year's Message Of Compassion: Moral Arguments Are Part And Parcel Of Our Immigration Debate

by Robert Gittelson

Through the magic of the internet, many people that have read some of my articles on the subject of comprehensive immigration reform have responded back to me, either directly or through the "blogosphere". It had been an eye opening experience, rewarding at times, and alarming at others. I mention this because I have a sincere desire to further the reform debate, and I feel that in order to be able to do so with sufficient credibility, I ought to establish how I have come to advocate for my pro-positions on immigration reform.

Because I am in the apparel business, and also because my wife is an immigration attorney, many of the negative comments that I have received are from people that assume that I am in the illegal sweatshop business, and that my wife helps me to get away with it. While that sounds like the perfect crime, it distracts from the facts, and marginalizes my point of view, which is "informed".

Yes, the apparel business has a well earned reputation for exploiting immigrant workers. No doubt, to some degree I am sure that abuses are still prevalent in my industry, although workplace enforcement of labor laws had cleaned that up significantly in the almost 30 years that I have been in the industry. In point of fact, I now rarely manufacture in my home state of California, and to the best of my knowledge, my domestic manufacturing is done with 100% legal workers.

I can tell you that there are many, many manufacturing facilities in California that do employ illegal immigrants. They have to employ them to survive, and they don't, for the most part, exploit them. It might surprise some readers to learn that the factories that employ these workers almost always pay their illegal workers the same wages that they pay the legal ones, because "technically', they don't know who the illegal workers are, since the illegal workers supply the companies that employ them with all of the ID legally required, (which is another reason to incorporate Real ID into the comprehensive immigration reform agenda - since factory owners are not in the business of verifying the authenticity of their worker's identification). Furthermore, minimum wage employees are not profitable workers for these factories. They don't make enough! Unless a worker earns a minimum of $9 - $10 per hour, (except when they are just starting out, or in training), they are not actually productive enough for the factory to be able to compete for their market share.

These are not easy jobs. The worker's have to work hard to earn $9 an hour, especially when they are, as is most often the case, working on piecework, (a set amount per completed task). By the way, the factories also are very careful to pay overtime when their employees work additional hours, again, not because they are nice guys, (although many of them are), but because their records are often audited.

The point is that these workers work hard, but they are very grateful for the opportunity to work and earn $9 per hour. How do I know that, other then by the fact that I've worked with these people for almost 30 years? Well, perhaps it is because I've seen the working conditions that they are escaping from.

I've come by my belief system honestly, because I've been all over the world, and I mean that quite literally. I've seen firsthand how these exploited workers are treated by some factory owners in third world countries. I've seen the heartbreaking sight of children working in factories for 20 rupees per day, (about $1 at that time - now they earn over $2 per day). Sometimes, if the factory needs to ship an important order, they lock the factory doors until the goods are completed. I can tell you horror story after horror story, but the bottom line for me is that I have an extreme sensitivity to this issue. I can never condone working with factories that exploit workers, and so I don't.

The working conditions in Mexico and Central America are marginally better then in the Far East, and that is possibly one of the only positive side effects of NAFTA. I used to travel to Mexico and the Far East quite often, to meet with the factory owners, and to check on my production. A few years ago, the owner of a large plant that I worked with in Mexico City was kidnapped with his son in front of his factory, despite the presence of several armed guards manning the gate to his facility. They held them for 4 months, but luckily they were released after his family negotiated and paid the $3,000,000 ransom. Not long after that a good friend and schoolmate of my brother was kidnapped and killed in Pakistan, another country that I used to visit frequently. His name was Daniel Pearl, and he was a journalist. The bottom line is that I no longer travel to these countries. However, I feel a very strong personal empathy for the exploited workers in the third world, and I feel it is my moral duty to do what I can to help improve the quality of their lives. Perhaps there is little that I can do to help the workers in third work countries, but I must do what I can to help them once they're here.

I've written several articles or essays that document "laundry list after laundry list" of specific economic reasons why it is a fiscal imperative for our country to pass comprehensive immigration reform. However, I believe that it is equally important for us to comprehend as a nation, that which I myself have personally come to understand; it is a moral imperative for us to pass comprehensive immigration reform. Financial concerns show us why we should pass this much needed reform, but compassion, forgiveness, and understanding show us why we must.

About The Author

Robert Gittelson has been a garment manufacturer in the Los Angeles area for over 25 years. His wife, Patricia Gittelson, is an immigration attorney with offices in Van Nuys and Oxnard, California. Robert also works closely with Patricia on the administrative side of her immigration practice. Throughout his career, Mr. Gittelson has developed practical, first hand experience in dealing with the immigration issues that are challenging our country today.

The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinion of ILW.COM.

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