Labor movement wants path to citizenship for illegal workers

Congress has been debating over the last six months how to respond to a flood of illegal immigration. It estimated that there are 11.5 to 12 million illegal immigrants in the United States, a number that’s growing by more than half a million a year. About 7.2 million of them are employed, accounting for nearly 5 percent of the U.S. civilian workforce.

A variety of proposals are on the table. Some would toughen up the border, criminalize illegal immigrants and crack down on businesses that employ them. Others would grant amnesty to illegal immigrants now in the country and permit new immigrants to enter under “guest worker” programs, which assume the workers would return to their home countries.

The labor movement has entered the debate, mostly opposing the get-tough proposals and insisting on a path to citizenship and equal rights for immigrants who are here now.

Twenty years ago, the AFL-CIO supported fines on employers who hired illegal immigrants, but the union federation changed its stance in 2000, arguing equal parts solidarity and self-interest.

The solidarity argument says workers are workers the world over and are stronger when they stick together. The self-interest argument says that these workers are here already, and allowing employers to exploit them drives down wages for other workers.

“The broken immigration system has allowed employers to create an underclass of workers, which has effectively reduced standards for all workers,” says the AFL-CIO Executive Council in a March 2006 statement.

Illegal immigrants arriving in such large numbers are putting downward pressure on wages in occupations that don’t require higher education or English proficiency.

Last month, based on Census Bureau population surveys, the Pew Hispanic Center published an extensive estimate of the size and characteristics of the illegal immigrant population. Illegal immigrants are more prominent in some industries than others. They make up 24 percent of farmworkers, 21 percent of domestic servants, 17 percent of janitors, 12 percent of food preparation workers, and 14 percent of construction workers.

And within construction, some crafts have more illegal immigrants than others. Illegal immigrants make up 29 percent of roofers, 29 percent of drywall installers, 22 percent of painters and 21 percent of cement masons.

Most of those industries also have union workers, meaning those unions can’t ignore illegal immigration, but have to respond in some way. In construction, unions have tried to organize newcomers, but with limited success.

“The building trades are rather sensitive about the immigration issue, particularly on the West Coast,” said Bob Shiprack, executive secretary of the Oregon State Building and Construction Trades Council.

“We’ve got a lot of illegal aliens doing construction work here, and it has impacted us,” Shiprack said. “We obviously attempt to organize them, but their numbers simply overwhelm us, and they’re not that skilled. That’s the problem, and they don’t speak the language, so it’s pretty tough to get into apprenticeship schools.”

Illegal immigrants are concentrated most heavily in residential construction, whereas unions dominate commercial and industrial construction. But building trades union reps say there are cases where non-union contractors with crews of illegal immigrants compete with union contractors.

J. Luis Mendoza, himself a U.S.-born son of illegal immigrant parents, got his start as a carpenter in non-union residential construction and found his way to the union — and a job as an organizer with the Pacific Northwest Regional Council of Carpenters.

“Right now at the Benson Tower [construction project], you’ve got the Hispanic guys working there, doing the same type of work that the Anglo guys are doing, and they’re getting six bucks less. That’s a problem. Our contractors can’t compete with companies like this.”

Mendoza said contractors avoid government attention by paying workers in cash, and often exploit them, failing to pay them on time or at all.

“My job is to visit non-union projects and talk to some of the hands,” Mendoza said. “So I see it every single day. They’re working here illegally, so they’ve got no choice. The worker can’t sue the contractor, because there’s no paper record that shows that the guy actually worked for him.”

In Oregon, such unscrupulous contractors usually aren’t in the same league as union signatory contractors — yet.

But John Kirkpatrick, a business representative of Painters and Allied Trades District Council 5, saw the Houston, Texas, Painters and Drywall Finishers local where he was a member decimated by competition from low-wage, non-union, contractors using illegal immigrant labor.

“When I left there in the ’70s, the union had 2,000 members. When I went back 10 years later, that local had 200 members in it. There were no union drywall contractors in the entire city of Houston. And a big part of that was the flood of immigrants from Mexico that overtook the construction industry in the space of 10 years. The unions didn’t respond quickly enough,” Kirkpatrick said.

“Here, it’s been slower. I think a lot of us have realized you’d better do what you can to organize the guys as they come up and get them to appreciate the standard of living you can have if you organize in the union.

“We’ve got to embrace them and make allies of the new workers coming in,” he said.

It’s estimated that 13 percent of the illegal immigrants in the United States are from Asia, 6 percent are from Europe and Canada, and 3 percent are from Africa. About 22 percent are from Central and South America. The majority — 56 percent — are from Mexico.

Immigration from Mexico is driven not by desperation, but by opportunity. Mexico is poorer than the United States, but richer than most countries. In 2005, it ranked 53 on the most widely used quality of life measurement, the United Nations Index of Human Development. That places it in the top third of the 177 nations ranked. But Mexico’s nearness to the United States (ranked #10), and the fact that the 2,000-mile border is possible to cross undetected, plus the reality that entrants can find work once they arrive, have produced enormous migration.

“What is driving those brother and sister workers from Mexico?” asks Oregon AFL-CIO President Tom Chamberlain. “People aren’t leaving their homes and families and the place they know just to go on vacation.”

Chamberlain thinks the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) is contributing to the migration, a treaty he says was written by and for U.S. and Mexican business elites — and against the workers of both countries. NAFTA, which took effect in 1994, made conditions worse for Mexico’s poor, Chamberlain said. Mexico’s protections for its farmers fell away under NAFTA, and as more corn and other agricultural commodities came in from the United States, more and more Mexican farmers were pushed off the land, and headed north, sometimes to work on U.S. farms. There was illegal immigration from Mexico before NAFTA, but it rose after.

What to do about it now has the attention of Congress, which has debated overlapping and conflicting proposals: Stop unauthorized entrants at the border; deport illegal immigrants; crack down on employers; invite more immigrants to come legally as guest workers; give illegal immigrants a way to legalize their status.

In December, a bill passed the House which was opposed by unions. House Resolution 4437, titled the Border Protection, Antiterrorism, and Illegal Immigration Control Act, is most often referred to as the Sensenbrenner bill, after its sponsor, Republican James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin.

The bill calls for increased efforts to prevent unauthorized border crossings, makes unauthorized presence in the U.S. a crime, and sets mandatory minimum sentences for aliens convicted of reentry after removal. It also improves procedures for employers to verify that a worker is allowed to work in the United States, and increases fines for employing illegal immigrants.

“It doesn’t solve the problem at hand,” argued Sonia Ramirez, immigration lobbyist for the national AFL-CIO. “All it does is throw money at enforcement efforts that we know don’t work.”

It passed the House Dec. 16 by 239-182 on mostly party lines, with most Republicans in favor and most Democrats opposed. The bill would not have passed without some support from Democrats: 36 Democrats voted for it, including one Oregon Democrat, Congressman Peter DeFazio.

DeFazio told the Labor Press he didn’t agree with everything in the Sensenbrenner bill, but the key for him was that it establishes “a meaningful way for employers to determine whether or not the person they’re considering hiring is here legally” and increased penalties for employers who hire illegal immigrants.

“I don’t believe there’s a huge labor shortage in this country,” DeFazio said.

“People need to remember that the Wall Street Journal advocates open borders because they want to drive down the cost of labor and bust organized labor in the United States.”

The Senate Judiciary Committee has debated several proposals, but no bills have gone to the floor of the Senate. The Senate is taking a much different approach. One proposal, similar to that articulated by President Bush, would create a “guest worker” program to allow more immigrants to come legally: They would have to be sponsored by an employer.

An alternative guest worker plan passed the Judiciary Committee 12-6, but was prevented from going to the Senate floor for a vote. The bill had a mechanism to ensure that jobs are first offered to American workers; an annual cap on the number of workers admitted; prevailing wage protections; a prohibition on treating those on three-year temporary visas as independent contractors; a prohibition on hiring temporary workers in the midst of a labor dispute; immediate visa portability so that workers can vote with their feet and change jobs; and a mechanism for immigrant workers to apply for permanent residence without having to rely on an employer.

Those provisions enabled it to win support from two big unions that have large numbers of immigrant workers: Service Employees International Union, which represents janitors, and UNITE HERE, which represents hotel and textile workers. The bill was still opposed by most labor organizations, however, including the Teamsters, United Food and Commercial Workers and the AFL-CIO.

“We need an immigration policy that provides a real path to citizenship for all workers already here,” said AFL-CIO President John Sweeney in an April 4 press statement. “We should recognize immigrant workers as full members of society — as permanent residents with full rights and full mobility that employers may not exploit."

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