Unions Support the Obama Immigration Initiative

There are millions of undocumented workers in the United States who are being taken advantage of and driving down wages for other workers. The comprehensive immigration reform (CIR) addresses the legal status of these workers in the United States and helps protect all workers from exploitive practices.

Immigration reform could:

  • Allow some illegal immigrants to lawfully stay in the country
  • Create a commission that monitors labor shortages
  • Improve the system for employment-related visas, which permits non-citizens to legally enter the country and work in temporary and seasonal jobs
  • Improve border security
  • Create a new system to help employers confirm a job applicant can be legally hired

The last reform law, the Immigration Reform and Control Act, passed in 1986. More recent reform efforts have failed.

What Does CIR Mean to Citizens?

American citizens would benefit in several ways from immigration reform.

As baby boomers retire, our workforce is shrinking. At the same time, retirees are receiving taxpayer-funded benefits such as Social Security and Medicare. Immigrants who are working legally would pay taxes and help fund these services.

Despite a recent rise in unemployment, labor shortages still occur in some industries and some regions. These shortages can drive up the price of products and services. If immigration reform can help prevent labor shortages, it may help consumers save money.

Finally, a better employment verification system will discourage employers from hiring undocumented workers who work for lower wages or are willing to work in unsafe conditions. This should result in higher wages, particularly for unskilled workers, and safer working conditions.

Previous CIR Attempts

Past attempts at immigration reform failed for many reasons, but a big obstacle was the labor unions. In the past, union leaders feared CIR would include "guest-worker programs." These programs allow non-citizens to work in the United States. Guest workers don't belong to unions or participate in collective bargaining, and unions fear these workers could be exploited.

For example, under the Bracero Program (which ran from 1942 to 1964), millions of Mexican workers worked in the American farming industry. The growers, who were largely unregulated by the federal government, abused these workers. Because of this, unions rejected most reform proposals that included guest-worker programs.

New Position of Labor Unions

In April, several labor unions (including the AFL-CIO, United Farm Workers, Service Employees International Union and Change to Win Immigration Task Force) announced their support for improving, rather than expanding, guest-worker programs. With this announcement, organized labor removed a major stumbling block to CIR.

"The American public wants fundamental reform of policies that have benefited the few at the expense of the majority," said SEIU Executive Vice President Eliseo Medina. "Immigration reform is no exception."

Current Legislative CIR Attempt

Also in April, the U.S. Senate held a hearing on immigration reform. Several witnesses testified, including former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan.

Greenspan called for an increase in quotas in all employment-based visa categories. He also addressed the issue of unskilled guest workers.

There is evidence, he said, that Americans without a high-school diploma earn less money when unskilled illegal immigrants are also hired. Illegal immigrants are also an expense to local and state governments. However, Greenspan said, the cost of illegal immigrants is relatively small, and the economic benefits outweigh those costs.

The SEIU's Medina also testified. "The current broken system has given rise to a three-tier caste worker system in America: Citizens, guest workers and undocumented workers," Medina said, "This system depresses wages for all workers because, unfortunately, too many employers seek out the cheapest, most vulnerable workers."

Medina stressed the importance of creating an independent commission to help manage the future flow of legal immigrant labor when labor shortages occur. Until now, Congress has set quotas that have little correlation to the supply and demand for labor.

Wade Henderson, President and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, represented the views of many African Americans. He testified in support of reform in general and the union plan in particular.

"Strong majorities of African Americans believe that they can work together with immigrant communities on common goals. [These include] expanding access to health care and education, reducing crime, and improving wages, work benefits, and job opportunities," he said. "African Americans understand that it is inherently wrong to divide people along the lines of race or ethnicity or national origin."

Next Steps?

The Senate hearing is the beginning of a long process. If immigration reform is to become a reality, congressional leaders will have to persuade members of both the House and the Senate that voters would approve of the union framework.

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