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Capitalizing On The Refugee Crisis

Oct 14, 2022 Ricardo Gomez
While publicly marketing their support of refugees, major companies are among the largest donors behind the right-wing pro-deportation agenda.
The Refugee Crisis
A Haitian family crosses from Mexico to the United States in Yuma, Ariz. (AP Photo/Eugene Garcia)

Major companies are publicly positioning themselves as supporters of refugees by joining The Tent Partnership For Refugees, a nonprofit whose big corporate members work to improve the livelihoods of refugees by “integrating refugees into supply chains.”

However, these same companies are bankrolling GOP politicians who are raising campaign money off of their public abuse of immigrants — while mistreating their workers and expressly tying the worth of refugees to their labor productivity.

This situation reveals how companies leverage the nonprofit industry and social justice rhetoric to foster a progressive public image while turning the refugee crisis into for-profit schemes and supporting anti-immigrant politicians.

For example, in late September, the private equity giant Blackstone Group announced it had just joined the Tent Partnership, with its CEO Steve Schwarzman noting in a press release, “At Blackstone, we believe diverse teams make stronger companies. Our unique platform has already supported nearly 500 jobs for refugees globally, bringing valuable talent into our portfolio’s workforces.”

Schwarzman, however, is one of the largest individual donors to the pro-deportation GOP, delivering $20 million to their House and Senate super PACs this election cycle.

Blackstone isn’t the only Tent Partnership member with financial ties to anti-immigrant politicians. Of the 260 companies that are part of the Tent Group, nearly 40 are also donors to the Republican Governors Association (RGA), which elects GOP governors. The RGA  recently launched a Facebook ad campaign that asked, “Where should GOP governors send Biden’s buses of illegal immigrants?”

In the 2020 and 2022 election cycles alone, Tent Partnership companies like Uber, Lyft, Microsoft, Pfizer, DoorDash, and the United Parcel Service (UPS) donated more than $14 million dollars to the RGA, according to data from Political MoneyLine.

“The Minute A Refugee Gets A Job Is The Minute They Stop Being A Refugee”

In 2016, Chobani food brand CEO Hamdi Ulukaya launched the Tent Partnership for Refugees to tackle the refugee crisis through employment. According to the nonprofit’s mission statement, Ulukaya is known for saying that “the minute a refugee gets a job is the minute they stop being a refugee.”

While minimizing the distressing journeys of those seeking refuge, such a view “welcomes” displaced people only to facilitate the gains of corporations.

According to a commentary written for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation, the Tent Partnership conceives of refugees primarily in terms of their labor value, rather than their humanitarian need: “We’ve seen time and again that businesses create opportunities for refugees to contribute economically and become productive members of their host communities when they take steps to hire refugees, integrate them into their supply chains, invest in refugee entrepreneurs, and deliver goods and services to refugee customers,” wrote the group’s executive director.

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Part of the organization’s disconcerting reasoning is that refugees make for better workers. In an analysis of the Venezuelan refugee crisis, the Tent Partnership wrote that refugee labor “is good for business,” adding: “Refugees are some of the most highly motivated and loyal employees, and research shows that they have higher retention rates than non-refugee employees.”

According to historian of immigration A. Naomi Paik at the University of Illinois, the deportability and criminalization of migrants is a central way that big businesses take advantage of immigrants, migrants, and refugees. Because “deportability functions as a tool of labor discipline,” Paik writes in her book Bans, Walls, Raids, Sanctuary, “migrant labor is made all the more exploitable, and migrant workers more disposable, through racist targeting.”

These conditions embolden corporations and the state to treat migrant workers as basic commodities in a supply chain and, in turn, justify their exploitation.

Labor Violations Undermine Any “Commitment” To Refugees and Immigrants

The RGA uses the millions it gets from Tent Partnership members and other corporations to actively shape GOP governors’ anti-immigrant agenda. The association recently formed the American Governors’ Border Strike Force, which will increase the criminalization of people at the U.S. southern border by ensuring that “every state is a border state” with coordinated policing and security. But donating to anti-immigrant groups like RGA isn’t the only way Tent Partnership members are undermining the organization’s ostensible commitment to amend how “refugees often face increased barriers to work — and are more vulnerable to forced labor.”

Some of the most well-known Partnership members, for example, have a history of labor and human rights violations.

Take Blackstone, a firm with massive real estate interests. In 2019, the chairs of United Nations Working Groups housing, human rights, and transnational corporations accused company CEO Schwarzman of contributing to the global housing crisis. In a letter written directly to Schwarzman, the U.N. officials described how Blackstone’s aggressive profiteering in largely working class neighborhoods across the globe is having “deleterious effects on the right to housing,” causing mass evictions and displacement.

Meanwhile, Amazon, one of the Tent Partnership’s newest and largest members, is the technological backbone behind the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency’s deportation machine. Amazon profits from its massive software contracts with ICE and its co-ownership of some of the most brutal airline infrastructure used to detain and deport immigrants.

Other Tent Partnership members have their own questionable track records. Amy’s, the nation’s biggest producer of organic and vegetarian frozen meals, brands itself as a socially conscious company committed to “doing well by doing good.” At the same time, the company has paid more than $100,000 in Occupational Safety and Health Administration violations in recent years for grueling working conditions, while leading an aggressive union-busting campaign against its largely Latina and low-income workers.

Taco Bell and Burger King, meanwhile, are currently pushing to stall and kill recent labor reforms won by half a million fast food workers, including many Latinas and recent immigrants, in California.

Shipping giant UPS refuses to install air conditioning in its delivery trucks as workers have been facing mounting numbers of severe heat-related injuries. The company also recently settled with the Justice Department to resolve allegations of immigration-related discrimination.

Starbucks is among the most prominent corporations facing a groundswell of worker organizing and is leading aggressive anti-union campaigns to stop the push.

Finally, ridesharing firms Uber and Lyft attempt to lure people of color and recent immigrants to drive for them with false promises of high pay, while as many as 20 percent of drivers reportedly make zero dollars after expenses.

It’s likely that these Tent Partnership members believe that positive PR can help overshadow how they use their power to suppress the rights of workers. For these companies, the refugee crisis simply presents a good marketing opportunity. As the Tent Partnership notes on its website, “Brands can ‘do good’ by making positive contributions in the lives of refugees, and ‘do well,’ by attracting consumer support at the same time.”

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