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Immigration Reform: House Of Labor Marches With Immigrants

The complicated relationship between the forces fighting for immigration reform and the labor movement have been on display this week and will be on display this weekend.

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At the same time, immigration reform is a big issue for America’s employers.  They have been at the table and pushing their allies in the Republican Party to overhaul our immigration system so that they can hire immigrant workers legally.  When the economy is growing, and with an older, more educated workforce, immigration – at the high end and the low end of the pay scale – augments the nation’s domestic workforce. And for agriculture, immigration is absolutely essential to keeping businesses open or keeping them open in this country (for a good look at how immigration functions I the dairy industry in Wisconsin,  see this piece from Capitol News Connection this week).

When I worked in the immigration advocacy world, we were able to bring key labor leaders and key business leaders into an alliance with the pro-immigrant national and grassroots groups (and their faith, youth, and civil rights allies) to forge a formidable coalition in favor of reform.  On several occasions,  Thomas Donohue, the President and CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and  John Sweeney, then President of the AFL-CIO, stood together at press conferences on immigration (the two of them, though bitter enemies on a lot of policy issues, had a charming Irish rapport with each other on immigration).

So if business – and especially the U.S. Chamber of Commerce – and labor – especially the AFL-CIO – can’t work together to push the Democrats and Republicans to pass immigration reform, it’s a big deal.  A closer examination of what is really going on between business and labor – and the AFL-CIO and U.S. Chamber in particular – reveals that this problem is more about political posturing over other issues right now than about an intractable roadblock to reforming the immigration system.  Both groups have an interest in an immigration system that works for employers, workers, and the American people.

The Business – Labor Flare Up

On Tuesday, the  Washington Times ran with the somewhat hopeful (from their editorial point of view) headline: “Temporary foreign workers threaten immigration deal.”  This was followed later in the day by a  Huffington Post article by Jeffrey Kaye with the headline: “Business/Labor Blowout Imperils Immigration Reform.”  The Washington Times story started out:

Sen. Lindsey Graham walked out of his immigration meeting with President Obama last week and said the president needs to pressure labor unions to accept a temporary-worker program as part of any bill.

Less than a day later, the AFL-CIO said that was a no-go.

Among all the other potential pitfalls, the divide over how to handle the future flow of foreign workers, which has bedeviled the immigration issue for years, once again threatens to halt any progress on immigration reform.

“By taking this position, the AFL-CIO ends any realistic chance of legislation this year,” U.S. Chamber of Commerce Senior Vice President Randel K. Johnson said this weekend, only deepening the rift between businesses and unions.

Johnson’s statement, which was posted on the  Chamber Post blog, is pretty tough, but couched as an invitation to the AFL-CIO to return to the negotiating table.  At issue is how – and how many – people will be allowed to come legally to the United States as immigrants in the future.  And how that supply of visas adjusts, if at all, over time.  This question has been at the heart of the immigration reform debate for a decade or so and most people, most pundits, and most politicians think the main controversy is about something else.

Almost all of the attention in the press and politics is paid to the issue of what happens to the immigrants already in the U.S. illegally.  One side says if any of those “illegal immigrants” get to stay legally, it is “amnesty.”  The other side says the idea of driving out 10-12 million “undocumented immigrants” is a fantasy and we should therefore legalize some or all of them and get them in the system through some sort of screening process.  This is the fight most people think of when they think of the “controversial” issue of immigration reform.