|BERKELEY, CA (2/21/00) -- This month, the AFL-CIO took a big step back
towards its progressive roots, embracing the immigrants whose energy and
radicalism have contributed to its best traditions. The federation's
executive council voted to call for the repeal of employer sanctions, for a
new amnesty for the undocumented, and for a broad new program to educate
immigrant workers about their rights.
The vote, reversing a nativist position held since the cold war, was a
victory for racial equality and inclusion. It reinforces the idea that all
workers need to be organized in a larger social movement - that unions are
more than just an exclusive club for a privileged few.
In 1986, the AFL-CIO strongly supported employer sanctions - that section of
the Immigration Reform and Control Act which makes it illegal for
undocumented workers to hold a job. Critics predicted that sanctions would
cause discrimination against any worker who looked or sounded foreign, and
give employers a big weapon to stop immigrants from organizing unions.
Those predictions were right.
But sanctions also violated one of the most basic human rights of all
workers -- the right to a job. Economic rights are human rights. In a
world where workers must sell their labor power to survive, where welfare
and social benefits are stripped away in the name of the work ethic, denying
immigrants the right to work denies their right to live and support their
Sanctions are more than a racist aberration. For a century immigration law
has been used to lower the price of immigrant labor in the U.S. Sanctions
made that labor even more vulnerable, and thus cheaper. It was a sweatshop
subsidy to U.S. employers.
The AFL-CIO's resolution now starts labor moving in a different direction,
in which immigration law must be used to protect the human rights of
migrants and their families, not to undermine them.
>From the beginning, many labor and immigrant-rights activists opposed the
federation's support for sanctions. In the years since 1986 their patient
work convinced the garment, electrical and service employees unions and the
California Labor Federation to call for their repeal.
Their efforts were reinforced by demographic change. Immigration has
transformed the workforce, not just in the west but in industries throughout
the country. Coalitions between immigrant communities and unions have
become the bedrock of strikes and organizing drives. And as a result, over
the last decade immigrants have become vocal and active members, and
important leaders, of many unions.
Last year a movement began in labor's activist base, seeking to change the
AFL-CIO position on immigration. It spread from the Alameda County Central
Labor Council to councils and unions throughout the country, and its
resolution was finally debated on the floor of the Los Angeles convention.
In one of labor's best moments, leaders like John Wilhelm, president of the
Hotel and Restaurant Employees, admitted their 1986 mistake and called for
its correction. "Immigrants have the right," he said, "to ask us - which
side are we on?"
The resolution finally adopted by the executive council had its roots in
that debate. Its final version preserved the two essential elements of the
original resolution - repealing sanctions and a new amnesty. But some of
the original goals still need labor support, including an end to the Clinton
program of enforcing immigration law in the workplace. Thousands of
immigrant workers have been fired as a result of that program, their labor
rights have been denied, and federal agencies from the Department of Labor
to Social Security have been turned into immigration agents.
The AFL-CIO plans a series of town hall meetings this spring to highlight
these abuses of immigration law enforcement.
In the most recent, disturbing development, however, the INS now proposes
using private security firms to sift through thousands of personnel records
in whole industries, searching for the undocumented. A new series of
widespread raids are clearly being considered.
These inhuman programs are a threat to all workers, and need to be halted,
even if labor must take on administration policy in an election year.
Meanwhile, the INS enforcement budget needs to be cut, and funds redirected
towards protecting workers' rights and reducing the scandalous 2-year wait
for citizenship applicants.
Clearly removing sanctions is only a step towards reordering an immigration
policy that the AFL-CIO now says is "broken and needs to be fixed." One
step towards fixing that policy is the proposal for a new immigration
amnesty. But the experience of the 1986 amnesty must be reexamined.
According to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, over 80 people in the
world live outside their countries of origin. Clearly, the migration of
people is a worldwide phenomenon which will not stop so long as division of
the world into rich and poor countries exists.
Following the amnesty of 1986, which legalized over 3 million people,
immigrants continued to come to the U.S. Those coming after the cutoff date
faced the same denial of legal status that the amnesty fixed for those who
came before. Rather than repeating this experience endlessly, with its
attendant human suffering and discrimination, new ways of looking at amnesty
should be considered. Already proposals are being made for an amnesty
without a cutoff date. Others propose a North American visa, which would
allow workers the same freedom of movement across NAFTA borders which the
treaty guaranteed to capital and commodities.
Employers, currently facing a tight job market, are also making proposals
for amnesty. But their proposals, including S 1814 and 1815, link legal
status to employment. They would return immigrants to the bracero program
of the 40s and 50s, as contract laborers reduced to a state of indentured
servitude. "We remember the bracero program here," says Mexican Senator
Rosalbina Garabito, "and it's not a good memory. Our people were treated
Workers, whether immigrant or native-born, must be free to work and move
about as they please, to join unions and to exercise their labor rights.
The same freedom must be accorded to their families.
People will continue to come to the U.S. from Mexico, Central America, the
Caribbean and the Pacific Rim because the huge gulf in the standard of
living drives them from their homes to survive. During the debate over
NAFTA, some voices in Mexico called for economic development in sending
communities that would offer their residents a future. NAFTA failed to
include any such goals, and in fact, neoliberal economic reforms in Mexico
only contributed to the impoverishment of those same communities.
"This is a binational problem that the U.S. is dealing with unilaterally,"
Garabito says. "There must be negotiations and reciprocity, where people in
both of our countries benefit. If we don't attack the economic root, the
problem will continue growing." One step in this direction would be U.S.
ratification of the International Labor Organization convention protecting
the rights of migrants and their families.
Trade, economic reforms and immigration are all linked. Now the AFL-CIO
needs to take the next step and oppose administration policy which creates
the poverty forcing people north, as well as defending the rights of
immigrants once they're here. Those in Mexico fighting the reforms, from
electrical workers trying to stop privatization to university students on
strike against tuition increases, need the support of workers on the other
side of their northern border. The poverty-creating measures they oppose
originate as much in Washington and Wall Street as they do in Mexico City.