As someone who appeared now and then on CNN’s Lou Dobbs Tonight, and who was, in fact, once singled out for blistering criticism in a monologue by the host, I have a pretty clear recollection of Dobbs’ shtick as relates to those who benefited from the labor of illegal immigrants.
To hear Dobbs tell it, employers were always the chief villains in this drama. He would assure his audience that if, for instance, dairy farmers in Central California were willing to pay a little more in wages, American teenagers would gladly close their laptops, put away their iPhones, and go milk cows. They’d also go pick peaches, tar roofs, clean horse stalls, pry the meat from crab shells, or do any of the dirty jobs that immigrants perform from one end of the fruited plain to the other.
It was all part of what Dobbs — filled with populist rage and flirting with class warfare — called the “war on the middle class” by the rich and powerful. The implication was that anyone who hired an illegal immigrant was naturally out to exploit them. After all, the reasoning went, why else hire them? In the world according to Dobbs, it was never the case that the employer meant well but simply couldn’t find an American worker to do a job. It was always that no self-respecting American worker would do these jobs for the wage that employers were paying.
Baloney. This is the kind of nonsense that is easy to spout from a comfortable chair and an air-conditioned television studio, far removed from strawberry fields and apple orchards. I always wondered why Dobbs went after those who benefit from illegal immigrant labor with such zeal — as opposed to say, immigrants themselves. Often times, Dobbs would say that immigrants were doing the rationale thing by seeking out gainful employment to provide for their families, and that he only wished they’d do it legally. But employers were always assumed to be acting in a deviate and deceitful way.
Now, in light of recent news, I think that Dobbs’ crusade against those greedy U.S. employers might have been a case of self-loathing. He certainly knew the subject matter of illegal immigrant labor much better than he let on to his viewers.
A recent report by The Nation, headlined “American Hypocrite,” claims that a year-long investigation found that illegal immigrants helped maintain Dobbs’ multi-million dollar estates in New Jersey and Florida and care for the expensive show horses used by his 22-year-old daughter, a champion equestrian. The article includes interviews with five undocumented workers, including some who actually met and had brief conversations with Dobbs — in Spanish, naturally.
There is no question that the workers were not authorized to work in the United States. That’s an established fact. The only question is whether Dobbs knew, or should have known, that the contractors he relied on to provide the labor he needed — a West Palm Beach landscaping company and a Vermont-based stable — hired illegal workers. Dobbs insists that he had no idea, and that he’s the victim here — of character assassination by his enemies.
And who are his enemies these days? They’re not who you might think. Since leaving CNN last year, Dobbs has expressed support for comprehensive immigration reform and earned a whole slew of critics from the restrictionist right. To the crowd that insists the country is being invaded by landscapers, cooks, and housekeepers, Dobbs is Benedict Arnold.
For my part, I go back and forth on how hard we should be on those people who employ illegal immigrants — or, in Dobbs’ case, rely on third-party contractors who do the dirty work so employers can keep their hands clean.
You’ll find employers who actively deceive authorities, mock our immigration laws, exploit their workers, and then, when they get caught, insult the intelligence of the rest of us by insisting that they know nothing. Those people should be punished harshly, much more so than they tend to be.
But you’ll also find employers who want to do the right thing but don’t have any way of knowing who is in the country legally and who isn’t. They’d like to offer jobs to American workers but they can’t get any takers — even though they’re paying decent wages, perhaps as much as $12 to $15 per hour. The immigration system is broken, and no one knows this better than U.S. employers. There are bad apples, for sure. But as a class, they never deserved the broad-brush indictment they got from the likes of Lou Dobbs.
What they did deserve is something that, ironically, Dobbs now expects the rest of us to give him: a little empathy, a fair hearing, and the benefit of the doubt.