The undocumented workers who built Silicon Valley

The undocumented workers who built Silicon Valley


Originally published by The Washington Post

President Trump has repeatedly promised to close the borders to stop undocumented migrants from taking American jobs, so far with only minimal success. Which shouldn’t be surprising. For a half-century, the government has been unable to stanch the flow of illegal migrants working for American companies because it continuously misdiagnoses the problem. Unless the government either holds employers responsible or grants undocumented workers legal rights, there will continue to be undocumented immigrants streaming across the border, no matter how harsh enforcement efforts are.

When we think of undocumented workers, we tend to think of farmworkers or those doing menial service jobs like hotel housekeeping. And yet undocumented workers have been foundational to the rise of our most vaunted hub of innovative capitalism: Silicon Valley.

If any industry should be automated, it would be the high-tech world of electronics. In 1984 the iconic Apple even touted its “Highly Automated Macintosh Manufacturing Facility,” bragging that “A Machine Builds Machines.” Yet Apple’s factory, like all the other electronic factories, was shockingly old-fashioned. There were more robots in Detroit’s auto factories than in Silicon Valley. The flexibility of electronics production in Silicon Valley, despite all the technical wizardry, came from workers not machines.

And while these companies employed many high-skilled, highly paid engineers, Silicon Valley became the tech hub of the world thanks to a very different set of workers. Unlike the postwar industries that created a middle class from union wages, electronics expanded in the 1970s and ’80s through low-cost, often subcontracted, often undocumented labor. Instead of self-aware robots or high-dollar professionals, it was women of color, mostly immigrants — hunched over tables with magnifying glasses, assembling parts sometimes on a factory line, sometimes on a kitchen table — who did the necessary but toxic work of semiconductor manufacturing. Many of the undocumented workers were from Mexico, while many of the documented ones were from there and Vietnam.

Consider Ampex, a leading audio manufacturer, whose 1980s assembly room looked like most in Silicon Valley: all women, and mostly women of color. Automation was not an option because the products changed too quickly to recoup the investment in machinery.

The tools these women used were hardly futuristic. In fact, they were one of the most ancient tools in existence — their fingernails. The women grew their nails long on each hand so that they could more easily maneuver the components onto the circuit boards. Tongs were an option, but fingernails worked better.

The high-end audio at Ampex was made possible by low-end subcontracting. In Quonset huts, temporary workers dropped off and collected subcontracted chemical processing that was too dangerous to be done by regular Ampex employees. The front and back doors of the huts were open, some lazily turning fans were on the ceiling, but otherwise there was no ventilation.

The workers stoked fires beneath vats of chemicals, some of which boiled. In the vats, the subcontracted workers dipped metals and printed circuits, which temps collected and returned to Ampex.

And this wasn’t even the bottom rung of the electronics industry. The bottom-rung of the electronics industry was not in a small factory or a Quonset hut, but a kitchen.

Investigators found that somewhere between 10 and 30 percent of electronics firms subcontracted to “home workers.” Like garment workers taking in sewing in the 1880s, electronics workers in the 1980s could assemble parts in their kitchen. A mother and her children gathered around a kitchen table assembling components for seven cents apiece. These little shops put together the boards used by big companies like Ampex.

The catch: the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) believed that as much as 25 percent of the Silicon Valley workforce (~200,000 people) was undocumented — which meant this thriving industry was routinely breaking the law. The INS tasked John Senko, an 18-year veteran, with opening the agency’s first office in San Jose and eliminating illegal migrant labor in Silicon Valley. Early raids yielded undocumented workers making between $5.50 and $7.50 an hour ($13.60 and $18.55 in 2018 dollars), which, in the lingering recession of the early 1980s, was good money. Americans out of work might not have wanted to be migrant farmworkers, but they did want factory jobs.

The INS encouraged the large companies to cooperate by offering them lenience for giving up their “illegal aliens.” At Circuit Assembly Corporation in San Jose, the INS asked for the names of its noncitizen employees. Of the 250 names, the company suspected that “20 or 30 of them could be using forged papers.” The actual number was 187.

But in a pattern that would repeat itself, and would reinforce the wrong incentive structures, the company received no sanctions or penalties because it cooperated. It replaced those employees with what Senko dubbed “legal workers,” while deporting the rest. The INS moved onto the next company.

This pattern, however, allowed companies to return to hiring undocumented workers once the heat was off. Papers were easy to forge, and employers had no reason to check them too closely. Senko and the INS were understaffed, growing to only a few dozen employees. And there was no real risk to breaking the law without any potential penalty for the company.

In addition to doing nothing to stanch the flow of undocumented workers, by targeting employees, not employers, the INS provoked a fierce backlash. Senko raided not just workplaces but neighborhoods. In Menlo Park, just near Stanford, INS agent blocked the streets, removed “Hispanic males” from cars and from homes, checking them for proof of citizenship. In Santa Cruz, the INS went door to door checking Hispanic citizenship.

These harsh tactics prompted pushback from local governments. In San Jose, officials fought against INS in the name of defending “chicano citizens” against harassment, passing a resolution against “the unwarranted disruption of the business community.” In December 1985, San Francisco declared itself a “sanctuary” and directed its police and officials not to assist the INS in finding “law-abiding” but “undocumented” migrants.

This resistance forced INS agents to enforce the law more selectively. But reducing these broad sweeps actually exacerbated the root problem. It gave Silicon Valley corporations even more power over their undocumented workforce.

Businesses could selectively check green cards against an INS database, or simply hand over troublemakers. This power made it impossible for unions to organize the electronics factories. The spokesman for the International Association of Machinists explained that whenever they tried to organize, the company “threatened to have anyone who joined the union deported.”

So long as undocumented workers remained cheaper and willing to work in worse conditions than American employees, and the risk of employing undocumented labor was nonexistent, enforcement was doomed to fail.

For John Senko, his time in San Jose was “the worst three years of my life.” He came to believe that if he was actually successful in deporting undocumented workers from Silicon Valley “we’d have a revolution.” He preferred, he said, businesses to cooperate rather than to have to raid them, but that missed the point.

“This economy,” former INS head Leonel Castillo told a newspaper in 1985, “was built on the assumption and reality of a heavy influx of illegal labor.” Castillo was not just referring to the electronics industry but the entire economy of the American West.

And that basic reality remains the same today: countless American businesses in a wide variety of industries thrive solely because they can rely on undocumented employees who will work for less in harsher conditions. If we want to reduce competition for American workers from undocumented foreign workers, we must either truly hold employers accountable (which has never been done) or extend workplace rights to noncitizens. Our current system of punishing the undocumented themselves simply won’t stop the problem — no matter how harsh President Trump’s tactics. When some workers count and others don’t, employers will choose the workers that can work cheaper and more dangerously, which, in turn, makes the rest of our work, citizens or not, more precarious.

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