Labor Federations Announce Support For Immigration Reform … With Conditions

By Diego Graglia, FI2W web editor

Two major labor federations have announced they will support immigration reform –albeit with some conditions– providing a boost to President Obama’s plan to address this thorny issue.

Labor unions want an immigration system that works for Americas workers. (Photo: Change to Win)

Unions want "an immigration system that works for America's workers." (Photo: Change to Win)

Leaders of the A.F.L.-C.I.O. and of rival federation Change to Win told The New York Times they will support an immigration reform plan that includes a path to legalization for millions of undocumented immigrants, but they will oppose any expansion of guest worker programs that bring immigrants temporarily into the country.

“The accord could give President Obama significant support among unions as he revisits the stormy issue in the midst of the recession,” reporters Julia Preston and Steven Greenhouse wrote.

Later on Tuesday, the labor leaders announced a “unity framework” composed of five main points:

  1. The creation of an independent commission to allocate employment visas based on real market needs and not on “political compromise.”
  2. A secure and effective worker authorization mechanism.
  3. “Rational operational control” of the border.
  4. “Adjustment of status for the current undocumented population.”
  5. Improvement of the existing temporary worker programs, but not “a new ‘indentured’ or ‘guest worker’ initiative.”

Support from the powerful labor organizations —Change to Win includes the Teamsters, the Service Employees International Union, food and commercial workers and farmworkers— can be important in pushing an immigration reform bill through Congress. President Obama and White House aides have recently said they intend to start introducing a comprehensive reform initiative as soon as next month — and the controversial issue has been getting more attention in the last couple of weeks.

As we wrote Monday, in these dire economic times, the debate over immigration reform seems likely to be framed as a labor supply-and-demand issue. In response to the federations’ announcement, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce said it cannot agree to a reform that does not include a significant guest-worker program.

“If the unions think they’re going to push a bill through without the support of the business community, they’re crazy,” said Randel Johnson, the chamber’s vice president of labor, immigration and employee benefits. “There’s only going to be one shot at immigration reform. As part of the trade-off for legalization, we need to expand the temporary worker program.”

[The New York Times]

Pro-immigrant advocates are getting ready for the debate with a new argument, NPR’s Jennifer Ludden reports: “…they argue an immigration overhaul is, in fact, vital to economic recovery. Simon Rosenberg, of the Democratic think-tank NDN, says legalizing immigrants would go a long way toward ending unfair competition for low-wage American workers.”

“The people who are not playing on an even playing field are the undocumented, because they can be paid less than you. They can be given less benefits. They can be forced to work 60, 70 hours by unscrupulous employers,” he says.

Supporting this position, the Immigration Policy Center on Monday released a review of studies on the matter that suggests, “(l)egalizing undocumented workers would improve wages and working conditions for all workers, and increase tax revenues for cash-strapped federal, state, and local governments.”

Moreover, comprehensive immigration reform that includes a path to legalization for undocumented workers would pay for itself through the increased tax revenue it generates, in contrast to the failed and costly enforcement-only policies that have been pursued thus far.

Newly legalized workers would be able to move into higher-paying jobs, pay more in taxes, and spend more on goods and services—all of which would increase the already-substantial economic benefits of immigration for the United States.

Diana Furchtgott-Roth, a former chief economist at the U.S. Department of Labor, wrote last week that “(e)conomic recovery will happen more quickly if both high- and low-skill immigrants are permitted to enter the United States and work legally.” An El Diario/La Prensa editorial said Tuesday, “The legalization of undocumented immigrants is a desperately-needed economic boost waiting to happen.”

Of course, the argument is not likely to win over many conservatives who want to see decreased levels of immigration. “Labor Sells Out American Workers, Yet Again,” was how the Center for Immigration Studies put it on its blog.

CIS’ Mark Krikorian wrote:

Last time, the AFL-CIO didn’t back the Bush-McCain-Kennedy amnesty because it expanded the various indentured-worker visas, while the SEIU figured amnesty for its illegal-alien members (and importing even more in the future) was the main goal and they’d worry about the rest later.

With an increased Democratic margin in Congress and with the Great Helmsman in the White House, the unions seem to have decided to give the finger to the rope-sellers at the Chamber of Commerce by proposing a phony commission to decide future levels of “temporary” worker admissions.

Pro-reform advocates welcomed the news as a sign that the coalition that supports new immigration laws is expanding. Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, said in a statement,

Labor realizes, as do the faith, business and immigrant communities, that the sooner we get immigrants into the system, on the books, protected by labor laws and paying their full-share of taxes, the better it is for all workers in the labor force and all employers who want to play by the rules.

Comprehensive immigration reform will reduce illegal immigration, ensure that workers are here legally, punish unscrupulous employers who undercut their honest competitors, and will restore fairness to the labor market. The goal is to establish a level playing field for all workers, lift wages, restore tax fairness, and eliminate the unfair advantage for employers playing fast and loose with the law.

AboutDiego Graglia
Diego Graglia is a bilingual multimedia journalist who has worked at major media outlets in the U.S. and Latin America. He is currently the editor-in-chief at Expansion, Meixco’s leading business magazine.