ON IMMIGRATION, THE AFL-CIO GETS IT RIGHT
The following is an oped piece that appeared in the San Francisco
Chronicle on March 27, 2000.
By David Bacon
This year the AFL-CIO took a big step towards embracing the
immigrants who have contributed to its best traditions. It called
new amnesty for the undocumented, for repeal of employer sanctions (the
U.S. law making it illegal for an undocumented worker to hold a job), and
for educating immigrants about their rights.
The AFL-CIO recognizes a new world reality. The UN High
Commissioner for Refugees estimates that over 80 million people live
outside their countries of origin -- the U.S. is home to only a small
percentage. Growing economic inequality on a global scale, between
and poor countries, causes this migration. When people cannot
feed their families at home, they will leave and seek survival elsewhere,
come what may.
Economic survival has become difficult because of the structural
adjustment and trade policies imposed by wealthier countries and
international financial institutions, such as the International Monetary
Fund and World Bank. It is shortsighted, if not hypocritical, for
to promote these policies on the one hand, and then ignore their
consequences on the other. The migration of people will not stop
underlying economic causes forcing people from their homes are eliminated.
NAFTA and free trade have freed the movement of capital and goods,
while the people they've displaced become illegal and hunted.
have a right to freedom of movement.
It is clear that building walls along the border and militarizing
it cannot halt this flow of people. Nor can draconian anti-immigrant
legislation, whether California's Proposition 187 or the 1986 Immigration
Reform and Control Act. The AFL-CIO recognizes this fact.
U.S. immigration policies have, however, undermined the rights and
wellbeing of people once they are here. Thousands of workers have
fired from their jobs as a result of employer sanctions. It's ironic
our current political climate removes welfare and social benefits in the
name of the work ethic, and then punishes the undocumented for the crime
The enforcement of current immigration policies hasn't benefited
native-born workers either. The more undocumented workers fear
their jobs as a result of INS actions, the more employers have been able
impose lower wages and worse conditions. INS enforcement has
the ability of immigrant workers to organize unions to improve those same
conditions, hurting immigrant and native-born workers alike. Making
immigrants vulnerable has been, in effect, a giant sweatshop subsidy.
It is a tribute to the courage and anger of immigrant workers that
thousands have defied those risks to successfully organize unions,
the same path to economic advancement generations chose before them.
Supporters of current policy blame immigrants for the relative
decline in income for U.S. workers since the 1970s. But the real,
structural causes for declining wages have nothing to do with immigration.
They include the impact of plant closures and industrial restructuring
(costing the jobs of millions of unskilled workers), the growth of
service-sector, minimum-wage jobs (including contract and temporary
employment), and steep obstacles facing workers who organize unions.
Industries which hire immigrant workers to keep wages down will not
voluntarily raise salaries if immigrants are somehow replaced with the
native-born. Workers will have to struggle to increase living
just as they have always done. Their unity and cooperation is an
advantage, which the AFL-CIO is right to try to protect.
The undocumented will not simply disappear tomorrow, nor should
they. They are productive members of our communities, enrich our
and are part of our hope for the future. Our country needs to build
human community in which people do not live in fear, or suffer from
discrimination. Using immigration policy to keep millions of
vulnerable and illegal undermines respect for the law. Our laws
protect the human rights of migrants, not undermine them.
Following the 1986 amnesty, which legalized over 3 million people,
immigrants continued coming. Those arriving after the cutoff date
the same denial of legal status that amnesty "fixed" for those
Critics say the amnesty resulted in greater immigration of
undocumented people. But immigration was taking place long before
and exists in other countries with no such programs. It is
imagine, 18 years after the original cutoff date, that the millions of
people currently in the U.S. without documents arrived here thinking that
all they had to do was wait to have their status normalized.
Rather than repeating this experience endlessly, new ways of
looking at amnesty should be considered. Immigrants should be able
normalize their status after establishing roots in the U.S. The
residence visas should be expanded. Those wanting to work in the
maintain permanent residence in their countries of origin should be
to do so.
Employers facing a tight job market are also making proposals for
amnesty. But their proposals, S 1814 and 1815, link legal status to
employment. They would return immigrants to the bracero program of
1940s, as contract laborers reduced to indentured servitude.
the bracero program here," says Mexican Senator Rosalbina Garabito,
it's not a good memory. Our people were treated like animals."
Whether immigrant or native-born, workers must be free to work and
move about as they please, to join unions and to exercise their labor
rights. All people in this country must be guaranteed basic human
The AFL-CIO is right.
david bacon - labornet email
1631 channing way
berkeley, ca 94703