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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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The enforcement mechanisms put in place by the 1986 law proved ineffective.  Businesses who were then (and still) required to make a good-faith check of a worker’s documentation (filling out the I-9 form) had a plausible way out: “the documents looked real to me and I’m no expert on document fraud.”  Furthermore, many businesses that were raided by the federal immigration authorities had a trump card: Republicans and some Democrats in Washington whose campaigns the business owners financed had telephones and could be called when the immigration cops showed up.  One famous incident from the late 1990s involved the  Vidalia onion growers of Georgia who called their Senator, Paul Coverdell, a Republican, when the Immigration and Naturalization Service showed up to take away their workers and therefore, their harvest and profits.  The Georgia congressional delegation squawked and eventually, big workplace raids subsided as the preferred INS tactic for showing the press and the American people that they were enforcing the law (they resumed with a vengeance later).

Since the late 1990s, there has been one big sea change in the immigration issue: the House of Labor came around to a more immigrant-friendly position.  Specifically, the AFL-CIO adopted a  new policy statement on immigration in late 1999 that called for legalization and an end to employer sanctions so that employers could not use immigration law – and the threat of detention or deportation – to exploit workers.

This was huge and set the stage for the immigration debate we continue to have today.  It came about after a lot of hard work by unions who represented large numbers of immigrants, Latinos, Asians, and other ethnicities with ties to the recently arrived.  This included the largest and fastest growing union within the AFL-CIO at the time, the Service Employee International Union (SEIU), but the United Farm Workers (UFW), United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), Laborers’ International Union of North America (LIUNA) and UNITE HERE (which were then two separate unions) were among the major proponents of the new policy stance within the AFL-CIO.

The Landscape Changes in 2000

So by late in 2000 (about the time I started paying attention to the immigration in earnest), we had a confluence of factors that sparked the modern immigration debate:

  1. The election of Vicente Fox as President of Mexico, a relatively pro-American, business-friendly, center-right candidate from the opposition party, which many saw as a watershed moving towards a genuine two-party democracy in Mexico;
  2. The appointment of George W. Bush as President of the United States, a pro- business and pro-immigration conservative, who was widely popular in his own party; and
  3. The AFL-CIO taking a stand for legalization and immigration reform.

The labor movement has had a substantial and leadership role in the immigration reform debate in recent years.  The  Immigrant Worker Freedom Ride in 2003 – organized in large part by allies in labor, especially UNITE HERE – turned out over 100,000 people in Flushing Meadows Park in Queens, NY and was the precursor in many ways for the mass rallies that exploded in 2006.

And Eliseo Medina, International Vice President of SEIU, is perhaps the senior Latino immigrant in the labor movement and is in many ways the Godfather – or  padrino – of the pro-immigration reform movement.  His credentials in the labor movement go back to the days of the grape picker’s strikes led by César Chávez of the UFW.  Medina’s wise counsel, political acumen, and steady, quiet mentorship has helped guide the growth and power of the pro-immigration reform movement.  Being a pro-immigrant, pro-reform, Mexican immigrant who works for one of the right-wing’s favorite boogey-men – SEIU – has made him a target.  But, in my experience, there is no one with more integrity or love for America’s working people and a person more dedicated to immigration reform than “Don Eliseo.”