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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 “come, work, and leave” (but never become a fully integrated member of society) model appeals to many Republicans who worry that working class voters of color are not likely to become loyal Republican voters.  But of course, this is a self-fulfilling prophecy.  If the GOP remains a party hostile to voters who are working class and, for the most part, are considered “minorities,” then those voters will tend to be hostile to the GOP.

This brings us right back to the controversy that the  Washington Times highlighted on Tuesday.  If unions cannot support a temporary worker or “guest worker” program and business cannot support a commission to determine future levels of immigration, then we’re at an impasse, right?

Not so fast.  There are two factors that put the U.S. Chamber of Commerce vs. AFL-CIO public argument into context. 1) Both the Chamber and the AFL-CIO have bigger fish to fry and don’t really believe the immigration reform debate is going to get very far this year.  That labor has a new unified position and has been pushing for immigration reform (along with the pro-immigrant, faith, youth, progressive, and civil rights groups in the fight) has gotten the Chamber’s attention and they want to be in on the negotiations if any bill does move forward.  But the Chamber’s members are much more concerned about keeping their businesses afloat in this economic climate than they are about future labor shortages with unemployment so high.  The AFL-CIO is also more concerned with unemployed people already in America than with the mechanism to determine future legal immigration once the economy starts growing.  So the pressure is off both organizations and they can afford to risk immigration reform blowing up in order to be seen as standing up strongly against each other.

And that is what this is all about: political posturing on other issues, specifically the health care reform debate and, to a lesser extent (because it looks less likely to get a full debate this year), the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA).  Anything a labor union is saying about the U.S. Chamber of Commerce or another business trade association is really about the health care reform debate and/or EFCA.  And anything the Chamber or business groups are saying about labor unions right now is about EFCA and/or health care reform.  These folks can’t be in the same room – or the same newspaper article – with each other and the animosity between labor and business on these issues is spilling over into the immigration reform debate.

But anything that gets the AFL-CIO and the U.S. Chamber more engaged in the immigration debate could be good news for the pro-reform side.  To the extent that these two organizations get engaged, then they think a bill and a serious debate on immigration is a possibility.  The pro-immigrant groups and their labor union allies that are fully engaged are calling the question by continuing to push, organize, agitate, and march and are forcing the immigration issue onto the table.  Neither the AFL-CIO nor the U.S. Chamber can hold back the movement that has developed in the last decade to fight for comprehensive immigration reform and neither organization wants to be on the sidelines if the debate happens.

I think two advocates from business and labor who were quoted in the  Washington Times story, get it about right.  Tamar Jacoby, who was an author, policy and political expert at a conservative think-tank before starting a business immigration group,  ImmigrationWorksUSA, said we’ll need a flexible program, not a one-size fits all program: