Labor campaigns for immigration overhaul

Few topics are as touchy and divisive as immigration, and opportunities to reform U.S. immigration policy are rare. That’s why, with President Obama and a group of U.S. senators proposing a package of reforms with bipartisan appeal, U.S. labor leaders are campaigning to make sure the reforms benefit workers, not just employers.

In mid-February, the national AFL-CIO held events with local labor leaders in 14 cities to promote labor’s standards for reform. On Feb. 19, Service Employees International Union (SEIU) announced a $250,000 nationwide Spanish language radio ad — the first in what it said would be a multi-week media and field campaign to win congressional enactment of immigration reform that includes a pathway to citizenship. And on Feb. 21, the AFL-CIO and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce jointly announced agreement on a set of common principles for immigration reform.

Immigration has big impacts on labor markets. Industries with lots of immigrant workers can see wages fall, and the downward pressure is worse in the case of illegal immigrants, since their tenuous status leaves them more open to exploitation. The latest U.S. Census Bureau estimate is 40 million foreign-born residents out of a total U.S. population of 312 million. And 28.5 percent of the immigrants — 11.1 million — were unauthorized, having either entered illegally or overstayed visas. While the foreign-born are 12.8 percent of the overall population, immigrants make up 42 percent of the 1.6 million workers in farming, fishing, and forestry; 31 percent of the 8 million in building and grounds cleaning and maintenance; 23 percent of the 9.6 million in construction; 22 percent of the 4 million in computer and math occupations; 22 percent of the 11.1 million in manufacturing; and 20 percent of the 11.3 million food preparation and serving.

Re-establishing control over immigration is key to the compromise package being discussed in Washington, DC. The package would include further increases in border control, and increased enforcement against employers who hire undocumented workers (while also making it easier for them to verify eligibility for employment). It would also include a process whereby the estimated 11.1 million illegal immigrants now in the United States could become legal permanent residents and ultimately attain the full rights of U.S. citizenship. And it would include a more efficient and sensible system for bringing in future immigrants to work.

The union position on these details is spelled out in an August 2009 joint statement of principles by the AFL-CIO and Change To Win union federations. That statement outlines five key pieces:

  1. An independent commission to assess and manage future immigration, based on labor market shortages that are determined on the basis of actual need;
  2. A secure and effective worker authorization mechanism;
  3. Rational operational control of the border;
  4. Adjustment of status for the current undocumented population; and
  5. Improvement, not expansion, of temporary worker programs.

Bearing those principles in mind, labor leaders met with representatives of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in January and February to discuss how to fix immigration in a way that benefits both workers and employers, with a focus on less-skilled occupations. “American workers should have a first crack at available jobs,” said U.S. Chamber of Commerce President Thomas Donohue and AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka in their Feb. 21 joint statement. But in instances when employers are not able to fill job openings with American workers, they said, businesses should be able to hire foreign workers while fully protecting the wages and working conditions of U.S. and immigrant workers. “Among other things, this requires a new kind of worker visa program that does not keep all workers in a permanent temporary status, provides labor mobility in a way that still gives American workers a first shot at available jobs, and that automatically adjusts as the American economy expands and contracts.”

On Feb. 19, the Oregon AFL-CIO held a press conference outside the U.S. immigration office in Northwest Portland. As a show of unity, Oregon AFL-CIO president Tom Chamberlain stood alongside Francisco Lopez of the immigrant rights group CAUSA, Brenda Mendoza of the farmworker advocacy group PCUN, and Hugo Nicolas, who was brought by his parents from Mexico to the United States at age 11. Chamberlain said the Oregon labor movement has spent the last 18 months building relationships with immigrants rights organizations.

“Immigration reform is a family issue, it’s a workers issue, and it’s an American issue,” Chamberlain said. “We are not a nation that treats people as second class citizens. We’re not a nation that allows an immigration policy that allows for the exploitation of workers. That’s not what this country’s about.”

On March 5, the Oregon AFL-CIO Executive Board will consider a resolution calling on Congress to pass “common-sense immigration reform” reflecting the AFL-CIO and Change to Win federation joint principles, and committing the Oregon AFL-CIO to communicate that position to Oregon’s congressional delegation.

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