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Labor Fights for Immigrants | The Nation

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Labor Fights for Immigrants

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The AFL-CIO officially opposes the expansion of existing contract labor programs, calling instead for labor protections within those that already exist. But Wilhelm, who heads the federation's immigration committee, says, "I don't think it's possible to have labor protections for contract workers. To think the law will protect people whose right to stay in the country ends with their job is not living in the real world."

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David Bacon
David Bacon is author of Illegal People—How Globalization Creates Migration and Criminalizes Immigrants, and the...

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The agriculture industry has pushed hard for expansion of its existing H2-A guestworker program. At the end of the last Congressional session, a legalization program for undocumented farm laborers was proposed. In exchange, growers wouldn't have to prove there was a labor shortage before recruiting guestworkers, and wage and housing requirements would be relaxed. The compromise was supported by farmworker unions, which reasoned that a big increase in guestworkers was unlikely given the glut of minimum-wage farm labor, and that some expansion of the program was likely to pass in any case. At the last minute the GOP right wing, opposing any amnesty at all, killed the proposal. But guestworker expansion in agriculture is sure to resurface in Congress soon.

"We're going to have a big fight this year," Eliseo Medina predicts. "The Republicans think a stolen presidency gives them a free hand, and Gramm's new bracero program is going to be front and center on their agenda. I think they'll introduce a comprehensive bill. Even nursing home employers want guestworkers now."

While fighting guestworker schemes, labor is preparing to introduce its own program. "We're going to put forward a comprehensive agenda, which will include legalization, repeal of employer sanctions and workplace protections regardless of legal status," Medina says. At the Oakland march, the new president of the Laborers union, Terence O'Sullivan (also a member of the AFL-CIO immigration committee), announced support for five general proposals, including a broad legalization program, repeal of employer sanctions, opposition to contract labor and protection for the right to organize. A fifth point, especially important to Asian-American immigrants, calls for increased ability to reunite families in the United States.

Illinois Congressman Luis Gutierrez introduced one bill at the end of January to end discrimination against Central American and Haitian refugees, and another at the beginning of February to expand legalization opportunities for immigrants who arrived before that month. No bill repealing sanctions or containing the AFL-CIO's other program points has yet been introduced. Despite Republican control of both the White House and Congress, however, labor strategists believe real reform is possible, although they caution that it will not likely happen this year, or maybe even next. "But there is a coalition out there that can win," Medina emphasizes. "We need immigrant communities to unite. We have to strengthen labor support, and we need churches, especially the Catholic Church, which has historically been the most active. Even some sectors of business will support us. For them, sanctions have failed--they fear a new bracero program and don't have the resources to take advantage of one."

Wilhelm says, "We're going to go to all members of Congress and ask them to sign on. If we can get the Democrats, and part of the Republicans, we can make a great law. If not, this will be our opportunity to punish those who oppose it." He compares the immigrant vote to that of African-Americans: "The Democratic Party can rely on the votes of African-Americans today because some people in it supported the African-American freedom movement. Those who didn't are still paying the price. It's going to be the same with the votes of immigrants."

Making immigration a civil rights issue won't be easy, however. Many civil rights groups opposed the H1-B tradeoff, pointing out that increasing the number of contract labor visas makes it more difficult to open up high-tech jobs for engineers of color. In Los Angeles, the wave of immigrants now changing its political landscape and fueling organizing drives among janitors and hotel workers actually displaced an earlier generation of African-American workers in those same industries. "Today, hotels and janitorial contractors no longer hire African-Americans," Wilhelm says. "The work force should fairly reflect the community. It's not responsible to support the rights of immigrant workers and not support people who've paid their dues, and I don't mean union dues."

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