LABOR TURNS OUT FOR AMNESTY
By David Bacon
LOS ANGELES (6/12/00) -- Immigration amnesty for people crossing
the border without papers is hardly a new idea in California. In fact, the
first one came with San Francisco's earthquake and fire of 1906, which
destroyed the records keeping track of immigrants brought from China to
work on the railroads.
"A hundred years ago my grandfather and his brother crossed the
Mexican border into California illegally, buried in a hay cart," Katie Quan
remembers her parents telling her. They had to sneak in, because after the
rails were laid, the door to further immigration from China was slammed
shut. "The Chinese Exclusion Act, passed in 1882, brings bitter memories
for Chinese Americans to this day, because it barred Chinese, and only
Chinese, from entering the U.S."
When the fire burned down San Francisco's City Hall, it destroyed
the immigration records of the city's Chinese residents. The whole
community became undocumented. And when everyone was undocumented, anyone
could say they had arrived legally and had their papers go up in flames.
Quan's grandfather became a legal resident as a result. Other immigrants
brought relatives from China, claiming they were "paper sons," whose
documents had perished in the fire.
"That is the way a very high percentage of Chinese Americans came
to the U.S., including my mother's family," Quan says.
Quan, a former garment union leader, now works at the Center for
Labor Research and Education at UC Berkeley. She recalled her family's
history in one of a series of hearings held to gather support for the
AFL-CIO's recent proposal that the country needs a new amnesty.
As the hearings, which started in March, moved across the U.S. from
New York to Atlanta, Chicago, Silicon Valley, Portland, Salinas and Fresno,
the crowds turning out to back the demand swelled. Amnesty has immense
support among immigrants, a fact impossible to ignore last Saturday in Los
Angeles when over 16,000 people poured into the LA Sports Arena, chanting
"Que queremos? Amnistia, sin condiciones!" - "What do we want?
Unconditional amnesty!" Thousands more gathered outside, unable to get in
through the doors.
The last immigration amnesty was contained in the Immigration
Reform and Control Act, passed in 1986. It allowed about three million
people, who came before January 1, 1982, to gain legal status. But those
who've arrived without documents since then have been trapped in the same
illegal status the law fixed for those who came before.
The Urban Institute estimates there were as many as 5 million
undocumented people in the U.S. just before that amnesty. Afterwards, it
dropped to 2-3 million. But by 1992, it was rising again to 2.7-3.7
million. Today most estimates place the number around 6 million, but no
one really knows. Fear of deportation makes undocumented people hesitant
to be counted.
Neither sending the National Guard to patrol the high metal fence
in Tijuana, nor beefed-up raids in immigrant communities, have been able to
halt this flow of people. Nor has anti-immigrant legislation, from
California's Proposition 187 to the immigration reform acts passed in 1986
California's experience is no different from western Europe and
Japan. And when the AFL-CIO changed its position on immigration this
February, it recognized that continued immigration reflects a new world
reality. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that over 80
million people today live outside their countries of origin, with the U.S.
home to only a small percentage. Because of growing economic inequality on
a global scale, people increasingly leave and seek survival elsewhere when
they cannot feed their families at home.
The AFL-CIO's reversal in position has shifted the political
climate around immigration in Washington DC dramatically. Suddenly a
handful of immigration bills have been introduced, ostensibly intended to
legalize at least some people. Just a year ago, even discussion of limited
amnesty was considered laughable among beltway lobbyists.
"It's really obvious that the change by the labor movement has made
a whole new discussion possible," says Victor Narro, a staff attorney at
the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights in Los Angeles. "Now we have a
labor movement that's on the side of immigrants, rather than one bent on
trying to stop immigration, as we had in 1986." At that time, the AFL-CIO
argued against immigration amnesty, and for employer sanctions, that
section of the law which makes it illegal for undocumented immigrants to
When the AFL-CIO announced at its October convention here that the
old attitude needed to be changed, it set up a hearing process to advise
immigrant workers of their rights, to gather testimony about how
immigration law has undermined those rights, and to forge a new
labor/community/religious coalition to change the law. In addition to
unions, the LA hearing was sponsored by ten churches and community
organizations, from the Hermandad Mexicana Nacional (the National Mexican
Brotherhood) to the Catholic Archdiocese, each kicking in at least $2500 to
help pay for the huge event, and bringing busloads of people to fill the
"Labor can open some doors," says Miguel Contreras, secretary of
the Los Angeles County Labor Federation, "but we need community allies and
a grassroots base. We have to build a rank-and-file movement for amnesty,
and this huge turnout shows not only that it can be done, but that
politicians who want the Latino vote had better take note."
"We really need amnesty," says Mateo Cruz, a day laborer who
marched into the sports arena with 2000 other workers from LA's
streetcorners, mobilized by the Union of Day Laborers. "People hire us and
don't pay us. Three years ago I worked for 40 days cleaning restaurants
for a contractor, and when I finally told him I couldn't go on being put
off about my wages, he called the police and threatened to have me
deported. I was humiliated and handcuffed. Not having papers makes bosses
and police treat you really badly. I filed a complaint for my wages with
the Labor Commissioner, and after 2 years I'm still waiting. Many day
laborers won't even do that, because they're afraid that if they make
trouble they'll be picked up by the migra [Border Patrol]."
Inside the sports arena, a procession of workers recounted similar
experiences to a panel of union leaders. Maria Sanchez described the way
managers at the Palm Canyon Hotel in Palm Springs fired a number of workers
after they joined the Hotel and Restaurant Employees Union. When forced to
rehire them, the hotel suddenly decided to check their immigration status
and refused to put them back to work. The workers, both documented and
undocumented, responded by staying off the job until everyone was rehired.
"I lost my house and my car. I sold some of my possessions so I could
survive," Sanchez declared. "But we woke up. We gained self-confidence.
I know that I have value and that I have rights!"
Carmen, a seventeen-year old farmworker from the Central Valley,
broke down in tears as she stood before thousands of strangers, admitting
that her lack of legal status kept her from going to college. "We can't
even move [to a bigger house] because we don't have a Social Security
number to put down a deposit and turn on utilitiesEven if we could afford
a nice home, we can't rent one because we are undocumented.
"Our future depends on a new amnesty," she cried out.
Ofelia Parra, a worker in Washington state's apple-packing sheds,
described the mass termination of 700 undocumented workers in the midst of
a Teamsters Union organizing drive, at the demand of the Immigration and
Naturalization Service. The drive was broken. "We've had to accept jobs
at lower wages. I earned $7.51/hour at the packing plant, and now I earn
minimum wage," she said. "We contribute to this society just like the
people who have papers. We need an amnesty so we can work in peace and
organize to improve conditions."
In Los Angeles, in an election year, the demand for amnesty has
clear political repercussions. According to Fabian Nuņez, the county labor
federation's political director, one million of California's 1.1 newly
registered voters are Latino, and 44% of them are new immigrants. "Before
1986, a lot of these people were undocumented themselves, so they know what
amnesty means and how important it is," he explains. Politicians like
Assemblyman Gil Cedillo and past Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa were
not only partly elected with those votes, but are former immigrant rights
Contreras emphasizes that LA labor doesn't see immigration law in a
vacuum. "Amnesty is a means to an end -- the elimination of poverty and a
better redistribution of wealth. LA is a county in crisis. Fifty wealthy
families have assets of $60 billion, more than the wages of 2 million of
the city's lowest-paid workers, who are mostly immigrants. But in the
midst of this crisis, we also have a crisis of leadership. Elected
officials see amnesty as too controversial. This hearing is a signal to
them that amnesty is important to this community. It's a message to all of
It's also a message that puts the Clinton administration in
Washington into a quandary. It seeks to appear Latino-friendly on the one
hand, while not appearing to ease up on the immigration enforcement program
it's touted for seven years on the other. To at least partly solve this
problem, a meeting was convened in Washington in mid-April by Henry
Cisneros, past Secretary of Housing and Urban Development and mayor of San
Antonio, now CEO of the Spanish-language TV network Univision and a
Democratic Party heavyweight.
The meeting sought to craft a compromise short of a general amnesty
and the repeal of employer sanctions -- the bedrock AFL-CIO positions.
Instead, Cisneros joined Republican Jack Kemp in urging participants to
support lifting the cap on the recruitment of foreign high-tech workers.
In return, they predicted, pro-immigrant groups could get some limited
reforms. Those include extending to Haitians and other Central Americans
the liberal procedures Cubans and Nicaraguans have for getting asylum,
allowing late applicants for the last amnesty to receive one now, moving
the registry date for amnesty forward from the old one of January 1, 1982,
and removing a provision which forces undocumented workers to return to
their countries of origin, often separating their families for years, just
to apply for legal status.
The number of people eligible for legalization under these
proposals depends on the new registry date, but no one denies it would be
far short of the 6 million undocumented people currently in the country.
Some immigration activists, while acknowledging the importance of those
reforms, are wary of the deal, fearing it will cut short the effort to
achieve a broader amnesty.
In Silicon Valley, reservations were voiced for another reason.
The computer industry's scheme to recruit more foreign high-tech workers,
the H-1B visa category, is a form of contract labor tying workers'
immigration status to their employers. If a contract worker is fired, they
not only lose their job, but can lose their right to stay in the U.S. as
"I was hired by a software company in Los Angeles that sponsored my
visa," Kim Singh, a former H-1B worker, told the AFL-CIO's Silicon Valley
hearing. "In every paycheck the company would deduct 25% of my salary.
When I questioned this practice, I was told that I would get this money
when I left. But I never got it." At another company in Torrance, Singh's
H-1B coworkers labored seven days a week with no overtime. A third company
in Silicon Valley rented an apartment for Singh and three other contract
workers for $1450/month, and then deducted $1450 from each of their
While Singh was able to change jobs and eventually obtain a normal
visa, "other programmers stayed at the company because the employer had
their passports and they were intimidated."
"Why aren't the companies training workers here for those jobs?"
asks Linda Chavez-Thompson, AFL-CIO executive vice-president. While H-1B
workers are paid considerably more than the minimum wage, "it still is like
the old bracero program," she asserts. "Companies use this program to keep
workers in a position of dependence. And because they're often hired under
individual contracts, U.S. labor law says they don't even have the right to
organize." Eliseo Medina, executive vice-president of the Service
Employees International Union, was at the Cisneros meeting, and says the
AFL-CIO doesn't support the H-1B program.
But both political parties are competing to woo the huge campaign
contributions flowing from the computer industry, and in Congress there's
overwhelming support for giving Silicon Valley employers the workers they
Other industries are not far behind. Employers around the country
complain they can't get their labor needs supplied with just citizens, or
legal residents already here. Growers have bills in Congress to expand
their "guestworker" program, and remove restrictions protecting workers.
The garment industry and others dependent on immigrants also want contract
Last year in Nebraska, the INS itself conducted its largest
workplace enforcement program ever, intended to build support for these
programs. After driving over 3000 undocumented workers from the state's
meatpacking plants, INS midwest direct Mark Reed stated in an interview
that "we depend on foreign labor, and we have to face the question -- are
we prepared to bring in workers lawfully? If we don't have illegal
immigration anymore, we'll have the political support for guestworker
[contract labor programs]."
The political problem for labor, as defined by its political
strategists in Washington, is that some employer support is necessary to
get a pro-immigrant bill through Congress. But if the price for that
support is a chain of contract labor programs, instead of an immigrant
workforce legalized by amnesty and freed from employer sanctions, immigrant
workers could wind up more chained than ever.
"I'm not convinced there is a labor shortage," says Medina, one of
the main AFL-CIO leaders pushing for the new immigration policy. "We don't
support lifting the cap on H-1B. If companies were willing to pay fair
wages, they'd have all the workers they want.
"What we do need," he continues, "is workplace enforcement of
worker protection laws, instead of employer sanctions. We want a general
amnesty, covering all the people who are here now. In addition, many
Mexicans would rather stay at home, but companies pay starvation wages in
the maquiladoras, and wind up creating the very conditions forcing people
to come here. So as long as people continue coming, we need to deal with
that. One idea is a rolling date, so that people who have been here a
certain amount of time could apply for amnesty. The AFL-CIO hasn't adopted
this yet - so far we're just talking."
Despite its limitations, Medina called the Cisneros meeting "a good
first step," because it brought together a widely disparate group of
employers and unions, political conservatives and immigrant rights
"This is the time to be bold," urges John Wilhelm, president of the
Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union. "I'm not
against incremental steps, but we have to push amnesty and get rid of
sanctions. In the legislative process we'll wind up bargaining, and what
we get will depend on how strong our coalition is. But if someone had told
me 3-4 years ago that we'd be taking this position today, I'd have thought
they were out of their minds."
That describes pretty well the experience of at least one speaker
at the LA forum, the grandfather of the immigrant rights movement, Bert
Corona. In one of the most emotional moments of the huge rally, Corona was
helped across the stage, in steps made halting by his age, and given credit
for years spent trying to convince the labor movement that defending
immigrants was in its best interest.
Corona started campaigning against employer sanctions and
immigration raids in the 1960s, long before the 1986 law was passed. He
got a cold shoulder from the AFL-CIO's former leaders in Washington.
During those years, a rally like Saturday's hearing would have been
inconceivable. Corona would certainly never have been an honored guest.
"There is no mine, no bridge, not a row in the fields nor a
construction site in all the United States that hasn't been watered with
the tears, the sweat and blood of immigrants," Corona reminded the huge
crowd in Spanish. "We demand an amnesty for the workers who have made the
wealth of this country possible. Amnesty is not a gift, but a right, for
those who have contributed so much, and should be free of any conditions
reinforcing the hard exploitation of our past. It means achieving real
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