Immigration Reform: Rights, Not Raids

When the Obama administration reiterated recently that it will make an
immigration reform proposal this year, hopes rose among millions of
immigrant families for the "change we can believe in." That was followed
by a new immigration position embraced by both the AFL-CIO and the
Change to Win unions, rejecting the expansion of guest worker programs,
which some unions had supported.

As it prepares a reform package, the administration should look
seriously at why the deals created over the past several years failed,
and consider alternatives. Beltway groups are again proposing employment
visas for future (post-recession, presumably) labor shortages and
continued imprisonment of the undocumented in detention centers, which
they deem "necessary in some cases." Most disturbing, after years of the
Bush raids, is the continued emphasis on enforcement against workers.

We need a reality check.

For more than two decades it has been a crime for an undocumented worker
to hold a job in the United States. To enforce the prohibition, agents
conduct immigration raids, of the kind we saw at meatpacking plants in
the past few years.

Today, some suggest "softer," or more politically palatable,
enforcement--a giant database of Social Security numbers (E-Verify).
Employers would be able to hire only those whose numbers "verify" their
legal immigration status. Workers without such "work authorization"
would have to be fired.

Whether hard or soft, these measures all enforce a provision of
immigration law on the books since 1986--employer sanctions--which makes
it illegal for an employer to hire a worker with no legal immigration
status. In reality, the law makes it a crime for an undocumented worker
to have a job.

"Attempting to discourage workers from coming by arresting them for
working without authorization, or trying to prevent them from finding
work, is doomed to fail. To reduce the pressure that causes undocumented
migration, we need to change our trade and economic policies so they
don't produce poverty in countries like Mexico."

The rationale has always been that this will dry up jobs for the
undocumented and discourage them from coming. Those of us who served on
a United Food and Commercial Workers commission that studied Immigration
and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids at Swift meatpacking plants across
the country learned that the law has had disastrous effects on all
workers. Instead of reinforcing or tweaking employer sanctions, we would
be much better off if we ended them.

Raids and workplace enforcement have left severe emotional scars on
families. Workers were mocked. Children were separated from their
parents and left without word at schools or daycare. Increased
enforcement has poisoned communities, spawning scores of state and local
anti-immigrant laws and ordinances that target workers and their

Employer sanctions have failed to reduce undocumented migration because
NAFTA and globalization create huge migration pressure. Since 1994 more
than 6 million Mexicans have come to the United States. Ismael Rojas,
who arrived without papers, says, "You can either abandon your children
to make money to take care of them, or you can stay with your children
and watch them live in misery. Poverty makes us leave our families."

Attempting to discourage workers from coming by arresting them for
working without authorization, or trying to prevent them from finding
work, is doomed to fail. To reduce the pressure that causes undocumented
migration, we need to change our trade and economic policies so they
don't produce poverty in countries like Mexico.

Ken Georgetti, president of the Canadian Labour Congress, and AFL-CIO
president John Sweeney wrote to President Obama and Canadian Prime
Minister Harper, reminding them that "the failure of neoliberal policies
to create decent jobs in the Mexican economy under NAFTA has meant that
many displaced workers and new entrants have been forced into a
desperate search to find employment elsewhere." The new joint position
of the AFL-CIO and Change to Win federations recognizes that "an
essential component of the long term solution is a fair trade and
globalization model that uplifts all workers."

Continued support for work authorization and employer sanctions
contradicts this understanding. Even with a legalization program,
millions of people will remain without papers. For them, work without
"authorization" will still be a crime. And while employer sanctions have
little effect on migration, they will continue to make workers
vulnerable to employer pressure.

When undocumented workers are fired for protesting low wages and bad
conditions, employer sanctions bar them from receiving unemployment or
disability benefits, although the workers have paid for them. It's much
harder for them to find another job. An E-Verify database to deny them
work will make this problem much worse.

Workplace enforcement also increases discrimination. Four years after
sanctions began, the Government Accountability Office reported that
346,000 US employers applied immigration-verification requirements only
to job applicants with a "foreign" accent or appearance. Another 430,000
only hired US-born applicants.

Despite these obstacles, immigrant workers, including the undocumented,
have asserted their labor rights, organized unions and won better
conditions. But employer sanctions have made this harder and riskier.
When raids and document verification terrorized immigrants at
Smithfield's huge packinghouse in Tar Heel, North Carolina, it became
harder for black and white workers to organize as well. Using Social
Security numbers to verify immigration status makes the firing and
blacklisting of union activists all but inevitable. Citizens and
permanent residents feel this impact because in our diverse workplaces,
immigrant and native-born workers work together.

Low wages for undocumented workers will rise only if those workers can
organize. The Employee Free Choice Act would make organizing easier for
all workers. But "work authorization" will rob millions of immigrant
workers of their ability to use the process that act would establish.

The alternative to employer sanctions is enforcing the right to
organize, minimum wage, overtime and other worker protection laws.
Eliminating sanctions will not change the requirement that people
immigrate here legally. ICE will still have the power to enforce
immigration law. And if a fair legalization program were passed at the
same time sanctions were eliminated, many undocumented workers already
here would normalize their status. A more generous policy for issuing
residence and family-unification visas would allow families to cross the
border legally, without the indentured servitude of guest-worker

Immigrant rights plus jobs programs that require employers to hire from
communities with high unemployment can reduce competition and fear.
Together they would strengthen unions, raise incomes, contribute to the
nation's economic recovery and bring the people of our country together.
Employer sanctions will continue to tear us apart.

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