People Have a Right to Be Somewhere
THE AFL-CIO CALLS FOR A NEW IMMIGRATION POLICY
We do not place much faith in large bureaucracies. But when a big outfit such as the AFL-CIO admits it was wrong and changes one of its policies, we must sit up and take notice. Many years ago, the CIO was a great leader. Can the AFL-CIO become a great leader? Think it over while you read this in-depth coverage.
by David BaconThis 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 families.
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 million people in the world live outside their countries of origin. Clearly, the migration of people is a worldwide phemonenon 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 like animals."
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.
More of David Bacon's work can be found at www.igc.org/dbacon/
Copyright 2000 by David Bacon. The article appears here at The Progress Report with the permission of the author. For more information, you can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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