May 18, 2007 Volume 108 Number 10

Major immigration reform possible

Major reform of U.S. immigration policy may soon be coming. As of press time, U.S. Senators Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) and John Kyl (R-Ariz.) were negotiating with the White House. If they hammer out an agreement, the Senate could debate and pass an immigration reform bill by Memorial Day, which would then go to the U.S. House of Representatives for approval. On the other hand, if they fail to come up with a bill the president will sign, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has said he will schedule as much as two weeks for the Senate to debate proposals, such as one the Senate approved last year when Congress was in Republican hands. That bill failed because it couldn’t be reconciled with an enforcement-only bill that passed the House.

If the two sides do reach a compromise, it will most likely include:

  • Increased border enforcement;
  • Quicker and easier ways for employers to verify employees’ legal status, but tougher penalties on employers who hire illegal immigrants;
  • A path to legal status for illegal immigrants who are now working in the United States; and
  • A guest worker program that would allow employers to bring in new immigrant workers.

Both labor and business interests are working intently behind the scenes to make sure any reform is one they can live with. Business, represented by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, wants a steady supply of immigrant workers. Labor, chiefly the AFL-CIO and several members of the Change to Win union federation, wants a policy that protects American workers — in part by ensuring immigrant workers have some kind of legal status and basic workers’ rights, so they can’t serve as super-exploited competitors to other workers.

U.S. population surpassed 300 million last year, and about 36 million of those are foreign-born. Of foreign-born U.S. residents, just over a third are naturalized U.S. citizens, a third are legal residents of some kind, and just under a third are illegal immigrants. Illegal immigrants number about 12 million, and make up about 5 percent of the U.S. workforce.

With the population of illegal immigrants growing about 500,000 a year, Congress is under tremendous pressure to do something. Most Americans say they don’t have a problem with legal immigration, and U.S. embassies issue about 400,000 legal permanent resident visas a year. But Americans say they are bothered by illegal immigration — in an early-April poll by the Los Angeles Times and Bloomberg News, 54 percent said they believe illegal immigration harms the economy.

For the union movement, immigration can be a touchy issue, said Bob Bussel, director and associate professor of the Labor Education and Research Center at the University of Oregon. Some unions, like the licensed construction trades, aren’t affected much by illegal immigration, but others, particularly Carpenters, Laborers, Sheet Metal Workers, and Painters, compete against contractors who pay workers in cash, under the table.

And how to respond to that has provoked fierce debate at membership meetings in recent months.

“At the rank-and-file level,” Bussel said, “there is real heat about it.” Union leaders, for their part, are trying to be pragmatic, Bussel said: “They’re saying, ‘these folks are working in our industries; if we don’t bring them in and build relationships, they’re going to undercut union standards.’”