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September 16, 2003

Immigrant Rights Help US Workers

With the Immigrant Workers Freedom Rides coming, we all need to fight one of the premiere fallacies promoted by the anti-immigrant Right, namely that rights for immigrants threaten the jobs of native-born workers.

The reality is exactly the opposite.

Wrong Turn by the AFL-CIO: Not that the fallacy hasn't won converts in the past. In 1986, such sentiments drove passage of the Simpson-Mazzoli Bill which enacted the present "employer sanctions" which required IDs to get a job and threatened financial penalties against companies hiring undocumented immigrants. And the AFL-CIO among other labor advocates supported that law.

The AFL-CIO was wrong. And they've since admitted it.

During the 1990s, they slowly moved away from that position, opposing Prop 187 in California and increasing outreach to immigrant communities.

2000 Resolution: In February 2000, the AFL-CIO Executive Council passed a resolution calling for a new immigration policy. Here is what it said in part:

We strongly believe employer sanctions, as a nationwide policy applied to all workplaces, has failed and should be eliminated. It should be replaced with an alternative policy to reduce undocumented immigration and prevent employer abuse. Any new policy must meet the following principles: 1) it must seek to prevent employer discrimination against people who look or sound foreign; 2) it must allow workers to pursue legal remedies, including supporting a union, regardless of immigration status; and 3) it must avoid unfairly targeting immigrant workers of a particular nationality...

Therefore, the AFL-CIO calls for the enactment of whistleblower protections providing protected immigration status for undocumented workers who report violations of worker protection laws or cooperate with federal agencies during investigations of employment, labor and discrimination violations. Such workers should be accorded full remedies, including reinstatement and back pay. Further, undocumented workers who exercise their rights to organize and bargain collectively should also be provided protected immigration status.

Millions of hard-working people who make enormous contributions to their communities and workplace are denied basic human rights because of their undocumented status. Many of these men and women are the parents of children who are birthright U.S. citizens. The AFL-CIO supports a new amnesty program that would allow these members of local communities to adjust their status to permanent resident and become eligible for naturalization.

Check out this full page of documents from the AFL-CIO on the need to protect immigrant workers.

Why Employer Sanctions Hurt Workers: Employer sanctions as they currently operate just create a split workforce and an excuse by employers to fire undocumented immigrants whenever a union organizer shows up. It doesn't help native workers-- in fact, it gives the employer an incentive to hire instead immigrant workers with legitimate-looking documents that they know are probably fake. And those workers, unable to stand up for their rights, can be pressured to accept lower and lower wages, thereby lowering wages in whatever industry they enter-- hurting all workers.

But the blame is not the immigrant workers, but the laws that prevent them from fighting back easily. Where native born workers and immigrant workers have stood together and fought together, refusing to back down and fighting the employer bringing in the INS, they've won wage increases for all workers. Most notable in that regard is the Justice for Janitors campaign, which has raised janitor wages throughout an industry with a high level of immigration.

No Zero-Sum Game: Economics is not a zero-sum game, either with immigration or trade. The only losses come when workers anywhere are forced to accept low wages due to government repression of their rights. If immigrant workers make low wages due to exploitation, that means that wages will be lowered for all workers. And it also means they have less income to buy local goods and services-- further hurting the economy and other workers who otherwise might benefit from their labor and income.

The same principle operates in trade as well. Government crackdowns on labor rights in China drive down wages there, drive jobs overseas to China, and lower the purchasing power of Chinese workers who can't buy goods made by American workers.

The answer to both immigration and trade is not walls against people or traded goods, but promoting labor rights in the US and abroad. As long as every worker can stand up for their rights, get the full value of their work in a decent wage, we will all benefit.

That is the key lesson we should celebrate with the Immigrant Worker Freedom Ride.

Posted by Nathan at September 16, 2003 08:04 PM