Immigration Reform: House Of Labor Marches With Immigrants


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, reportedthat 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.

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.

That’s only controversial to a certain extent.  Most Americans think we won’t deport or drive out tens of millions of people.  Most polls I’ve seen indicate that the American people would like to get rid of the immigrants here illegally, but don’t think we will get rid of them.  That’s the main reason strong majorities of Republicans, Democrats, and Independents support legalization.  To most Americans, legalization is enforcement because it makes everyone play by the same rules, pay their full share of taxes, and have the same rights and responsibilities.

It’s Not About Repeating 1986

Be that as it may, the debate in Washington over immigration reform since before President Bush took office in 2001 has been about more than just legalizing undocumented workers in the U.S.  It has also been about how to treat the immigrants who have been waiting for visas in processing backlogs, how we treat future legal immigration, and enforcement of the whole system at the border and in the workplace.  Hence the name “comprehensive.”

The last major bipartisan immigration reform, the Immigration and Refugee Control Act of 1986 – signed and supported by President Reagan and crafted by Sen. Alan Simpson (R-WY) and Rep. Romano Mazzoli (D-KY) – dealt primarily with legalizing immigrants already here and enforcement against illegal immigration.  The Members of Congress at the time punted on the difficult issue of future immigration.  Labor was much less immigration- and immigrant-friendly in the 1980s (and throughout a lot of the history of the labor movement), which made the politics of determining who and how many immigrants could come in the future too sticky for Congress to resolve.  So they kicked that part of the immigration reform fight down the road.

This is one of the main reasons the 1986 immigration reform failed to fix the problem.  The reason the population of undocumented immigrants grows is because of the mismatch between the supply of legal immigration (visas) and the demand for legal immigration (from the economy and families in the U.S.).  If the supply does not fluctuate with demand, gaps open and the black market fills those gaps.  We do not have open immigration and not everyone can legally choose to live in the United States. You have to have a close family relationship or an employer ask the government for your visas for you in almost all circumstances and we have caps on the number of visas issued to countries and issued within categories of employment and family relationships.  Most people (and I am one of them), feel things should stay more or less that way, with the exception of a handful on the left, a few committed Libertarians, and the Wall Street Journal editorial page who really do want “open borders.”

Right now, the only way the caps and limits that govern the supply of legal immigration can be adjusted is through the political process – essentially requiring a vote on the floor of the House and Senate, which makes adjustments very difficult.  You practically need a sixty-vote majority to blow your own nose in the U.S. Senate these days, so making occasional or yearly – or decennial – adjustments to our levels of legal immigration to keep up with changes in our economy or society is next to impossible.  We don’t make changes to our immigration system very often and when we do, it is usually only after a long, emotional fight.

So the demand for legal immigration was rising in the 1980s and continued to rise through the 1990s and most of the 2000s.  Legalizing many of the immigrants already here as of 1986 didn’t change that much.  There was still a sizable gap between the supply of immigration visas and the demand for legal immigration. Which meant the population of immigrants grew and a very lucrative black market in human smuggling, false documents, and labor recruiting flourished.  Enforcement, especially at the border, has skyrocketed and so have deportations (almost 400,000 last year).  But the market forces of supply and demand for immigration have proven more powerful than the enforcement mechanisms we put in place because the mechanisms that regulate legal immigration are static, with capped visa numbers, a bureaucracy that is notoriously inefficient, and a legal system made more rigid over time.

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.”

Labor’s involvement in immigration has not always been smooth.  Some unions and locals still flirt with the anti-immigration side and the rift between the AFL-CIO and the Change to Win coalition has been difficult and made united advocacy difficult at times for the House of Labor.

The biggest sticking point has been over temporary workers or “guest workers.”  America’s experiments with “guest worker” programs have been huge failures – as they have been almost everywhere in the world.  The Bracero program brought Mexican labor to the U.S. during and after World War II to fill farm labor shortages, but the workers were poorly paid, poorly treated, had few rights, and were essentially indentured to their employers. Current temporary visa programs aren’t much better.  The central problem is that employees are tied to an employer and their ability to make money in this country is at the whim of the boss.  In an industry like agriculture where working conditions are brutal, this has severe consequences for the ability of workers to fight for their rights, organize, and stand up for themselves.

During 2006 and 2007, the inclusion of a temporary worker program for future immigrants split the House of Labor in two.  Some unions, especially in the AFL-CIO, were unwilling to support any legislation that contained temporary worker provisions.  In the 2006 version of immigration reform, crafted by Senator Kennedy and Senator McCain, workers would have been admitted under the temporary worker program but were free to change jobs and after a certain number of years in the U.S., they could apply for permanent legal status on their own – without their employer having to apply for them.  The number of visas issued per year would have fluctuated with growth or contraction of the economy.  These caveats to traditional “guest worker” programs were enough to keep many of the Change to Win unions in the pro-immigration reform movement and fighting to pass a bill.

Labor Unity

In 2009, the AFL-CIO and the unions in the Change to Win coalition developed a new approach and joined together to support a new unified labor position on immigration.  This unity statement, adopted in April 2009, rejected traditional “guest worker” programs, but called for a mechanism to determine how many visas would be issued in the future for workers:

The system for allocating employment visas—both temporary and permanent—should be depoliticized and placed in the hands of an independent commission that can assess labor market needs on an ongoing basis and—based on a methodology approved by Congress—determine the number of foreign workers to be admitted for employment purposes, based on labor market needs.

The goal is to have a process, but not the one we have now.  The commission would be more flexible than having the level of immigration set through Congressional action (or inaction) – with all the dysfunctional, partisan, and sound-bite driven politics that implies.

But the U.S. Chamber of Commerce hates the commission idea and wants the labor unions to support a “guest worker” program.  And it is all about politics.  Business leaders worry that a commission could be dominated by the unions and may not be as flexible or generous with visas as business wants.  The Chamber prefers a temporary visa program that supplies workers to employers in large numbers if the employers say they want them.  Furthermore, they prefer the workers be temporary so that they do not have the full labor rights of citizens and so the whole idea is more palatable to Republican lawmakers who don’t want a lot of future citizens to get the vote someday.

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:

The hardest piece to figure out is future visas.  I think there’s a recognition we need workers in a variety of fields, I would argue at the top and bottom of the economy. The question is how do you make sure employers try to hire Americans first and that you have a flexible flow.

Josh Bernstein, who worked in immigration advocacy before joining SEIU as Director of Immigration, told the Washington Times:

The vast majority of those in labor and the vast majority of those in business really desire to come up with a solution, a comprehensive solution, for immigration reform, because it’s good for the economy, and that’s good for all of us.

That sounds like two sides that can come up with a deal when and if they want really to.

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