AFL-CIO’S TRUMKA, SEIU’S HENRY TOUCH OFF BIG IMMIGRATION PUSH

By Mark Gruenberg
            WASHINGTON—Backed by strong statements from AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka and Service Employees President Mary Kay Henry, dozens of local union leaders from around the nation descended on Capitol Hill starting on June 11 for a big push for comprehensive immigration reform.
            They lobbied lawmakers to create a 13-year path to admission and eventual citizenship of undocumented people in the U.S., plus stronger enforcement along the U.S.-Mexico border and a strong employment verification system (see separate story).
            Their campaign came as senators began work on legislation along those lines, which Democratic President Barack Obama backs.  Senate leaders want to approve the comprehensive immigration reform bill by July 4.  The federation also sent activists to offices of 27 senators nationwide.
            Trumka and Henry helped launch the latest drive at a White House press conference on June 11, after Obama made the point that venal and vicious employers exploit the undocumented workers.  All workers are hurt, he said.
            “Right now, our immigration system has no credible way of dealing with the 11 million men and women who are in this country illegally,” Obama commented.  “And, yes, they broke the rules; they didn’t wait their turn.  They shouldn’t be let off easy.  They shouldn’t be allowed to game the system.  But at the same time, the vast majority of these individuals aren’t looking for any trouble.  They’re just looking to provide for their families, contribute to their communities.
            “Too often, they’re forced to do what they do in a shadow economy where shady employers can exploit them by paying less than the minimum wage, making them work without overtime, not giving them any benefits.  That pushes down standards for all workers.  It’s bad for everybody.  Because all the businesses that do play by the rules, that hire people legally, that pay them fairly, they’re at a competitive disadvantage.  American workers end up being at a competitive disadvantage.  It’s not fair.  But that’s the broken system that we have today.”
            That’s one big reason that organized labor – with two exceptions – strongly backs comprehensive immigration reform.  Analysis of the proposed legislation shows it would immediately bring undocumented workers, the vast majority of the 11 million undocumented overall, under U.S. labor laws, including the National Labor Relations Act and its right to organize, even before they seek permanent citizenship in the U.S.
            “What you see here is probably the broadest coalition of American society that’s
been assembled,” Trumka said.  “You have business, you have labor, you have law enforcement, you have entrepreneurs — we have groups from all over the place, and we all agree on several things.  We all agree, one, that the system is broken; two, that we need comprehensive immigration reform and we need it now.
            “It will be good for not only newcomers or immigrants, but it will be good for every worker,” he declared.  “It will be good for business.  It will be good for the economy.  And that’s why all of us have come together to try to push and get this thing done this year.  Because every day that we wait is a day wasted and a day that we’ve lost, a day that the economy won’t grow.”
            “Members of SEIU are proud to stand with people from all walks of life to insist that the time is now, just as the president said, that we need common-sense immigration reform,” added Henry, whose union includes tens of thousands of immigrant workers.
            “We want safe and secure borders.  We want a pathway to citizenship for 11 million immigrants.  And we want to be able to restore economic fairness across this economy.  And we stand proudly with the rest of the sectors from all across the walks of life represented here today to insist that the Senate needs to move this now.”
            SEIU also took to the media to push senators to approve comprehensive immigration reform.  Starting June 11, it spent more than $1 million to buy advertising on national cable television networks, urging constituents to call their senators and advocate the comprehensive immigration bill.
            “These ads show the breadth of support for commonsense immigration reform and highlight the diverse voices that are integral to moving this debate forward,” Henry explained.  The ads feature law enforcement officials, small business owners, veterans, the youngsters, called Dreamers, who were brought to the U.S. as children, and Republican voters who call on the Senate to act.
            But while the unionists, along with undocumented Dreamer youngsters who are in college or the military, told lawmakers of the need for fixing the nation’s broken immigration system, two dissenting union voices spoke up.
            The presidents of federal union sectors representing law enforcement officers and immigration agents advocated defeating the legislation because, they said, its enforcement isn’t strong enough.  And Right Wing anti-worker anti-Hispanic Republican senators, led by Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., gleefully cited their comments.
            “There has been much public concern over the fact that the legalization occurs
prior to any border enforcement,” Kenneth Palinkas, who heads an AFGE sector of federal law enforcement officers, wrote lawmakers.  “History tells us future promises will not be kept and that our border agents will be left high and dry by the executive branch as they have so many times before, regardless of who writes the plan.”
            Chris Crane, head of the AFGE sector that represents Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, added: “The legislation before us may have many satisfactory components for powerful lobbying groups and other special interests, but on the subjects of public safety, border security, and interior enforcement, this legislation fails. It is a dramatic step in the wrong direction.”
            SEIU Secretary-Treasurer Eliseo Medina, the union’s #2 officer and the son of immigrants, rebutted both of them – and Sessions – in a statement.
            “Again, a small faction of the usual suspects took the stage to defend their unpopular beliefs against the bipartisan bill that stands to once and for all change thestatus quo of our fractured immigration system,” Medina said.  “If only Sessions and company weren’t fervently focused on skewing the truth, perhaps then they would be able to clearly see the improvements made at the border and the unprecedented border-security benchmarks the bill would implement.
            “Let’s leave the fear tales of ‘amnesty and border’ behind. It’s time to take note of the public’s readiness for commonsense reform that creates a path to citizenship, unhindered by burdensome barriers.”