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Immigration Reform May Come With Big Gifts to Employer

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  • Steven L. Robinson
    Immigration Reform May Come With Big Gifts to Employers By Samantha Winslow Labor Notes February 18, 2013 Unionists and immigrant rights activists are at once
    Message 1 of 1 , Feb 19, 2013
      Immigration Reform May Come With Big Gifts to Employers

      By Samantha Winslow
      Labor Notes
      February 18, 2013

      Unionists and immigrant rights activists are at once excited and
      apprehensive about the immigration law overhaul proposed by the Obama

      A path to citizenship, though it will be arduous, could give some of the
      nation's 11 million undocumented workers a chance to get their papers
      and become full participants in work and civic life.

      This could be a breakthrough for unions: every worker who becomes
      documented is a worker whose boss can no longer threaten to have her
      deported if she stands up for her rights on the job.

      But, as a pro-business trade-off, the law may also come with an expanded
      "guestworker" component. Historically, defenders of worker rights,
      including unions, have objected to guestworker programs, calling them
      "modern-day indentured servitude."

      Guestworkers are tied to their employers on pain of deportation—making
      it hard for them to protest mistreatment or low pay, causing employers
      to hire them instead of U.S. residents.

      "One fundamental starting point for any immigration reform is that
      deportation of the undocumented has to end immediately," said Saket
      Soni, executive director of the National Guestworker Alliance. "You
      can't deport today the citizens of tomorrow."

      But Obama's administration has deported more people than Bush's, and
      many immigrant rights activists have spent the past four years
      protesting these deportations.

      The new law is also certain to step up border security enforcement. And
      the package includes stricter electronic verification of job applicants'
      legal status, which could lead to heightened profiling and intimidation
      for immigrants, both documented and undocumented.

      Even the proposed path to citizenship—the carrot alongside all these
      sticks—requires payment of fines and back taxes and proof of long-term
      employment, all of which could be difficult or impossible for a large
      portion of undocumented immigrants.

      They must start at "the back of the line" behind other immigrants
      applying for citizenship. In 2010 alone more than 700,000 people applied
      for naturalization, according to the Department of Homeland Security.


      After years of harsh anti-immigrant rhetoric, some Republican lawmakers
      are open to some kind of immigration reform, as a way to gain a foothold
      in the growing Latino electorate that overwhelmingly voted for Obama
      last fall. But they will seek to give it a pro-business cast—as do some
      of the administration's proposals.

      The number of Latinos in unions actually grew in 2012. To re-activate
      the many who worked to elect Obama in 2012, unions in the AFL-CIO and
      Change to Win are holding rallies in 14 cities across the U.S. in
      February and March, beginning in Raleigh, North Carolina, and Las Vegas.

      The two labor federations reiterated their 2009 joint framework on what
      needs to be included in immigration reform. It includes a path to
      citizenship for the undocumented, a de-politicized plan for future
      immigration flows, a rational border control system, a secure and
      effective system to verify workers' status, and improvement, not
      expansion, of current guestworker programs.

      But what are the devilish details? Representatives of both coalitions,
      including the AFL-CIO's Rich Trumka and the Service Employees' Eliseo
      Medina, are speaking to the media alongside representatives of the
      Chamber of Commerce, to show common ground between business and unions.

      Although advocates don't want to go on the record, some fear that
      labor's willingness to collaborate with business interests could weaken
      its position. By analogy, at the end of the health care reform debate in
      2010, union leaders were willing to back just about any bill the
      administration proposed, even when some provisions would hurt union

      So despite labor's stance against expanding guestworker programs, Trumka
      and Medina may end up backing expansion in hopes of citizenship for some
      current immigrants. Already they are speaking of flexibility, based on
      U.S. employment levels and other "data-driven" factors, to decide the
      number of foreign workers to be allowed into the U.S. in the future.

      Guestworker programs allow employers to bring in foreign workers on
      temporary visas. Current law allows an unlimited number of agricultural
      workers for up to 10 months at a time; in 2011 there were are about
      80,000 agricultural guestworkers in the U.S., according to the
      Department of Labor—a small proportion of all farm workers.

      A second program brings in workers for industries such as landscaping,
      forestry, seafood processing, and hospitality. The 2012 cap on these
      workers was 66,000. Highly skilled workers such as engineers enter under
      a separate program.

      Some employers want flexibility to expand the type and number of
      guestworkers they can import. The American Health Care Association, for
      instance, wants to import nurses, nurse assistants, and LPNs to work in
      nursing homes.

      The Laborers say one in five workers in construction now is an
      immigrant. The union's immigration coordinator, Yanira Merino, said for
      years employers have misused guestworker programs, hiring workers for
      jobs in other industries and then moving them into construction work as
      a way to cheat the system.

      The law requires employers who recruit guestworkers to first demonstrate
      that there aren't enough U.S. workers able to do the job—but enforcement
      is weak. The union doesn't want to "open up a situation where employers
      will be able to bring in workers with not much of an effort, and that
      will undermine standards in our industry," Merino said.

      Despite concerns about some provisions, the union doesn't want to be
      labeled a spoiler of historic immigration reform. "We don't think a ‘no'
      position is a constructive one," Merino said. "But we will speak out if
      we think it will hurt workers." RED FLAG

      Josh Stehlik, a workers' rights attorney at the National Immigration Law
      Center, was encouraged that the president spoke about the need for
      workplace protections as part of immigration reform. But the employment
      verification system raised a red flag, he said.

      NILC has opposed mandatory status-verification systems because immigrant
      workers—even those with legal status—are vulnerable to the error-ridden
      databases used.

      NILC and the Guestworker Alliance want any new law to include the
      protections contained in the POWER Act, which was introduced in 2011 but
      garnered little support in Congress. Undocumented workers who report
      workplace law violations, including wage theft, would be granted
      temporary visas, to protect them from retaliation.

      Saket Soni of the Alliance said any reform will be tainted if workers'
      rights aren't explicit. "No matter what the size [of the program], the
      labor rights of guestworkers and their right to access basic civil
      rights and organize collectively have to be protected," Soni said.

      The Alliance is part of the United Workers Congress, a coalition
      representing workers excluded from labor law protections, such as
      domestic and farm workers. They gathered in Washington in February to
      pressure Congress for their own immigration platform—which is strikingly
      different from Obama's.

      Their proposals include social safety net protections for immigrants
      during the legalization process; an end to collaboration between police
      and immigration enforcement; minimization of fines and high fees; no
      mandatory expansion of E-Verify, "the error-ridden electronic
      verification system which has repeatedly been used to destroy union
      organizing campaigns"; a "labor law enforcement fund" for industries
      with large numbers of immigrants; and partnering with worker
      organizations to help implement legalization. HARVEST SEASONS

      Adrienne Der Vartanian of the advocacy group Farmworker Justice said
      that, to avoid the abuses guestworker programs have allowed in the past,
      they must allow workers portability—so they're not tied to one
      employer—among other protections.

      More broadly, she says, all farm workers, including guestworkers, should
      be eligible for the path to citizenship.

      One union has organized guestworkers, and Baldemar Velasquez, president
      of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC), thinks it's not realistic
      to keep them out. "I would venture to say guestworkers would be a
      necessity in agriculture," Velasquez said.

      Temporary workers from countries like Mexico, he said, are the only
      group willing to take such short-term, low-paying jobs as bringing in
      the crops during the short northern harvest seasons.

      It's not a bad thing to allow workers from other countries to make money
      to bring home to their families, Velasquez said. But "if you are going
      to have a guestworker program, give them their right to organize."

      FLOC's contract, covering 8,000 seasonal guestworkers at cucumber and
      other farms in North Carolina, includes a grievance procedure and
      seniority. It took years of organizing, boycotts, and other pressure on
      the Growers Association to win.

      Many in labor are skeptical that guestworkers can be organized on a
      large scale.

      FLOC, part of the AFL-CIO, is now working with the United Farm Workers,
      a union formerly at odds with guestwork in agriculture, to push for
      agricultural workers to be protected in whatever legislation passes. The
      UFW plans a series of marches in farmworker communities in California
      and Arizona.

      Gone are the days when most union policies were simply anti-immigrant.
      Unions have committed to organizing immigrants and supporting equal
      rights at work.

      The questions for labor in this year's reform debate are whether it can
      nail down immigrants' rights on the job, how many it can include under
      the umbrella, and how it can avoid a bill that contains too many sticks
      for a too small carrot.

      A version of this article appeared in Labor Notes #408, March 2013.
      Don't miss an issue, subscribe today.

      Samantha Winslow is a staff writer and organizer with Labor


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