What Nail Salons Can Teach Us About Immigration Enforcement

by Reihan Salam

Back in May, Sarah Maslin Nir of the New York Times published an extraordinary two-part series on nail salons in New York city, and the extent to which salon owners exploited their low-wage immigrant workers. Nir’s reporting was widely celebrated at the time, and a number of commentators, myself included, discussed her findings at length. More recently, Jim Epstein of Reason has gone over Nir’s findings with a fine-toothed comb, and he has found her reporting wanting. Without belaboring the point, it seems that Nir and her colleagues mistranslated and misinterpreted advertisements in various ethnic newspapers, and at least some of her interviewees claim to have been either selectively quoted to misleading effect or misquoted outright. Epstein’s reporting has prompted Margaret Sullivan, the Times’ public editor, to publish a lengthy discussion of Nir’s generalizations about the salon industry. Sullivan writes that Nir’s “findings, and the language used to express them, should have been dialed back — in some instances substantially.” The column is as close to a rebuke of Nir and her editors as we’re likely to see.

There is much to be learned from Sullivan’s exchanges with Nir’s editors, who refused to address Epstein’s criticisms on the grounds that Reason reports “from a biased point of view.” Several paragraphs later, Sullivan writes that Nir “had admirable intentions in speaking for underpaid or abused workers,” and one imagines Nir’s editors felt the same way. To be clear, it seems that the Times does not object to biased points of view as such. Rather, they object to what they take to be the wrong bias. As an opinion journalist, I’d say that’s fair enough. But it helps to have at least some degree of self-awareness.

Epstein has pulled off an impressive feat. His reporting does, however, speak to one of the policy issues that separate libertarians from conservatives. One of Epstein’s complaints about Nir’s series is that it has prompted nail salons to stop hiring unauthorized immigrants. Since the series was published, Epstein reports that “many owners say they’ll hire only legal workers who’ve completed an occupational licensing program because they’re afraid of getting in trouble.” He offers a detailed look at why many nail salons are so vulnerable to more aggressive efforts to enforce labor laws:

Nail salons generally don’t keep incomplete records because they’re trying to hide that they’re underpaying their employees. They keep incomplete records partially as a concession to their employees, who know that if all their income was carefully recorded, they could become ineligible for government benefits.

“They fear they might lose their Medicaid or food stamps,” says Aiming Feng, an accountant and business consultant who works with both nail shops and their workers. 

That is, according to Epstein’s reporting, which resonates with my experience, nail salons have been systematically violating immigration laws so that their immigrant workers, including unauthorized immigrant workers, would be in a better position to fraudulently claim safety net benefits.

Remarkably, Epstein goes on to report that elected officials in New York state are fighting to protect employers who hire unauthorized workers:

Before the Times series ran, the government mostly looked the other way and allowed salon owners to hire who they wanted. Business owners are required to fill out a federal I-9 form to verify that their employees have a legal right to work in the U.S., but the government rarely came by to check.

Assemblyman Ron Kim (D-District 40), who represents Flushing, Queens, where many nail salon workers reside, says he has received assurances from state officials that they’re not penalizing nail salon owners who hire undocumented workers. But there’s so much confusion, many nail salon owners have stopped hiring undocumented workers anyway as a precaution.

“If a worker is undocumented, they now feel uncomfortable using them on the floor,” says Kim.

In other words, in New York city, an elected official can openly state not just that he wants the government to look the other way when employers hire unauthorized workers, but that employers should feel confident that state officials will do just that. Though I’m sure Epstein and I disagree quite strongly about immigration policy, his reporting helps prove an important and often neglected point: merely enforcing labor laws that are already on the books would make it much harder for unauthorized immigrants to find work. Since immigrants, whether authorized or unauthorized, generally settle in the U.S. in search of paid employment, rigorous enforcement of existing labor laws is likely in to make unauthorized immigration much less attractive in itself, and it might encourage at least some unauthorized immigrants to return home of their own volition. The fact the government mostly looks the other way and allows low-wage employers to hire the unauthorized, in New York city’s nail salons and throughout America’s low-wage employment sector, is part of why our unauthorized immigrant population is so large, and why it continues to grow. This notion that the U.S. is powerless to substantially reduce unauthorized immigration is specious, as becomes clear when the officials charged with enforcing labor laws merely seem​ as though they might actually do their jobs. 

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