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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.

A potentially uncomfortable moment on the stage was averted before the March For America rally for immigration reform on the National Mall in Washington this Sunday.  Andy Stern, the President of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), is among several key labor leaders – who are also key advocates for health care reform – who will be speaking at the rally.  Also scheduled to speak is Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-IL), who until Thursday,  was planning to vote against the Democrats’ health care overhaul.  Rep. Gutierrez was holding out for a commitment from the White House and Senate and House leaders that immigration reform would be given a serious chance and time on the legislative calendar this year and that the provisions in the health care bill that bar immigrants – legal and illegal – from obtaining affordable health insurance in many instances, would be lifted.  Rep. Gutierrez did not get everything he was hoping to get, but announced Thursday  he would support the health care reform bill.

There was significant movement on immigration reform this week, with Senator Schumer and Graham  outlining their pending immigration reform proposal, the President  expressing his support for it to move forward, and Majority Leader  Harry Reid (D-NV) and Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT) indicating they would help make the debate a reality.  This was enough to get Rep. Gutierrez – and the rest of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus – to stand with the Democrats and with SEIU and labor to support the health care bill.  And  labor has made it clear they support immigration reform moving forward, issuing a forceful joint statement signed by several union presidents.

The role that labor unions play in the immigration reform issue and the fact that Stern and other labor leaders are prominently featured on the program this Sunday are aspects of the immigration reform fight that are sometimes overlooked.  Two janitors in an office building I was in last night told my friend (who is more fluent in Spanish than I am) that their union, SEIU Local 32BJ in Washington, was strongly promoting the rally among the members.  They indicated that they and their families would be there on Sunday along with thousands of other union members and perhaps a hundred thousand other people.

Earlier in the week, the  Washington Times, Washington’s  very conservative paper, which is among the American newspapers most critical of health care reform, immigrants, immigration reform, unions, and Democrats, reported that immigration reform may be in trouble because of labor unionintransigence on provisions favored by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the (few) Republican lawmakers who publicly support immigration reform.

If indeed labor, or more specifically, the AFL-CIO, is unwilling to work in good faith to support immigration reform, that would be important because the role that the House of Labor has played in the recent history of immigration reform cannot be understated.  Most unions understand it is essential that we control illegal immigration, limit legal immigration, and give immigrants full labor rights if America’s workforce is to succeed.  You can’t fix the economy when an estimated 1 in 20 working people are undocumented and not governed by the same U.S. labor laws as the other 19 in 20 workers.  If employers have unlimited access to desperate workers who will work under most any conditions at most any price, employers will game the system to undercut the wages, working conditions, and benefits of the domestic workforce – as many employers are doing now.  So American workers have a big stake in a functioning, controlled, legal immigration system and labor unions have been at the forefront of fighting for reform for at least the past decade.  They have provided leadership, organizational support, and allied their considerable political muscle – especially influential over Democrats – to keep the immigration reform issue on the agenda.