Unions must again fight for immigrant amnesty

March 13, 2019

Lucy Herschel, a 22-year rank-and-file member of 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East, argues that the labor movement needs to revive its recent history of demanding full equality for all immigrant workers.

IN FEBRUARY 2000, the AFL-CIO Executive Council passed a unanimous resolution calling for an immediate amnesty for undocumented workers and an end to employer sanctions that had primarily been used to undermine labor organizing, “thus denying labor rights for all workers.”

The resolution called for enforcement against employers who violated the labor rights of their undocumented workers and demanded protected status for undocumented worker who reported their employers for labor violations.

This was a dramatic shift for the U.S.’s main labor federation, which for decades had primarily viewed undocumented workers as competitors who unfairly undercut wages and job prospects for U.S.-born workers. In 1986, the AFL-CIO had supported the employer-based sanctions that were allegedly put in place to punish employers who exploited undocumented workers.

However, for the next decade and a half, labor activists saw how these same employers used these new enforcement tools in their favor to intimidate immigrant workers, bust up unionizing drives and keep wages low.

The Laborers contingent at an Immigrant Freedom Rides event in 2003
The Laborers contingent at an Immigrant Freedom Rides event in 2003

By the late 1990s, immigrant workers and rights activists, both within and outside the AFL-CIO, built mounting pressure to push the federation to recognize this fact. The 2000 resolution was a recognition that undocumented workers and their families were part and parcel of the American working class and that attacks on their rights were an attack on all of labor.

The unions took the call into action with the 2003 Immigrant Worker Freedom Ride. Some 900 undocumented workers, their families and fellow activists set out in 18 buses from around country.

The riders had the support and collaboration of historic figures from the 1960s civil rights movement Freedom Rides to desegregate the South. The 2003 freedom riders paid tribute at sites where the original freedom riders face repression, and they faced repression of their own — including immigration checkpoints that they successfully resisted.

The Freedom Ride culminated in an October 4 rally of 100,000 in Queens, where then-AFL-CIO President John Sweeney told the crowd, “The struggle of immigrant workers is our struggle. We believe, as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. believed, that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

Unfortunately, just as the labor movement was turning toward this position of solidarity, the narrative in Washington around immigration was undergoing a drastic and tragic reframing.

AFTER THE attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, immigration was rebranded as a “national security” question. The same year as the Freedom Ride, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) was renamed Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and brought into the Orwellian-named Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

The reframing of immigration as a national security threat was, unfortunately, a bipartisan effort, as Democrats rushed to show how “strong” they were on border security. In the 2004 presidential debates, John Kerry went so far as to paint Republican incumbent George Bush Jr. as endangering Americans by being soft on border security.

By 2005, even “pro-immigrant” politicians like Barack Obama were framing immigration proposals in the context of the dangers of the “flood” of unmonitored “illegals” coming into the country.

In this context, much of the immigrants rights and labor movements (including my union) were convinced that amnesty was impossible, and were corralled to support a dead end strategy around the framework of “Comprehensive Immigration Reform” (CIR).

The dreams of legalization for undocumented workers were contorted to fit the priorities of the national security state. Thus, any type of reform had to follow a strategy that emphasized punitive measures for “illegals” who had broken the law before they could gain any relief, along with an increase in enforcement measures and a massive militarization of the U.S.-Mexico Border.

CIR might better stand for “Corporate Immigration Reform” given the fact that, over time, the successive waves of proposed CIR legislation included ever increasing levels of guest-worker and temporary visa programs that delivered “legal” workers with ever limited rights to employers, while offering billions dollars in contracts to the private prison industry to house the increasing number of detainees.

In 2006, far right anti-immigrant legislation pending in Congress sparked mass marches around the country. Hundreds of thousands in several cities turned out to “mega-marches” that eclipsed even the numbers from the Immigrant Worker Freedom Ride. The protest wave culminated in one the biggest job action in this country’s history, with immigrant workers across the country boycotting work in a Day Without An Immigrant on May 1, 2006.

However, while unions participated, these marches were not initiated nor primarily lead by the official labor movement, which at this point had abandoned its call for amnesty.

As the framing of the movement shifted away from amnesty toward a highly restrictive, punitive and conditional path to citizenship, the field was left open for the far right to dominate the narrative on immigration. Immigrant bashing became a get rich quick scheme for politicians with flagging careers, most notably our current president.

TODAY THERE is a new opening to revitalize the call for unconditional solidarity with immigrants of all statuses.

Trump’s blatant racism and demonization of all immigrants, undocumented or not, are rejected by a majority of the population.

The sickening scenes of children being ripped from their parents at the border has awakened awareness about the brutality of ICE and the Border Patrol, with recent reports from the ACLU and Department of Health and Human Services exposing the fact that this horrific abuse long predates the Trump administration. This has led to heightened calls to Abolish ICE, even among mainstream Democratic Party politicians.

The brutal abuse of migrant children in government custody is only the most extreme example, however, of an immigration system that subjects immigrants of all statuses to exploitation, anxiety and even terror on a daily basis.

History shows that whenever a people are denied basic civil rights, human rights violations follow. In the U.S. today, we have a growing section of our population that is denied a number of basic rights, including the right to vote, the right to due process when facing criminal allegations and the right to work, organize and unionize freely.

Immigration laws do not just impact the undocumented population. Today, almost one in five U.S. workers are foreign born, including naturalized citizens, legal permanent residents, visa holders, people with temporary status and other undocumented workers.

People of all statues are integrated into our economy, our workplaces, our schools, our communities, and our families. Many live in mixed status families affected by range of immigration issue. Millions of “undocumented” workers hold various types of work permits that allow them to work legally. Millions of others pay payroll and other taxes they will never reap the benefit of. All this while foreign-born workers, just like their native-born counterparts, produce profits for their employers.

The reality is employers want immigrants to be here, but only if they are locked into permanent or semi-permanent second-class citizenship.

Author and activist Justin Akers Chacon argues that employers used the 1986 laws to restructure the workforce throughout the 1990s and lock in permanent pools of cheap labor beyond even what had existed before:

They pushed wages downward by having the ability to reveal those without papers, fired workers who protested, and got rid of those who tried to unionize... It is precisely the restriction of immigration and persecution of migrant workers that has allowed employers to divide and weaken organized labor as a whole.

This increase in immigration enforcement has happened in tandem with the dramatic expansion of mass incarceration, which has used criminalization to similarly deny basic civil rights to a large section of our population for being poor, Black and Brown.

WE NEED to fight the racism inherent in both of these systems and for equal rights for all — the right to live free of fear, to work and organize and participate fully as equals in our society. This was a founding principle of the labor movement that needs to be revived today.

Recently, we have seen more and more acts of workplace solidarity with immigrants. Both SEIU and National Nurses United have organized solidarity trips of health care workers to address the humanitarian crisis unfolding at Tijuana-San Diego border crossing and elsewhere. Tech workers have protested their companies complicity with ICE. Unionized legal workers in New York have staged walkouts against ICE presence in the courts.

Some unions have also gone so far as to put immigrant solidarity into their contract demands. Striking teachers in Los Angeles and at charter schools in Chicago prioritized and won protections and resources for their immigrant students and their families.

Conversely, immigrant activist played an important role in organizing solidarity for the Denver teachers strike.

Unfortunately, too much of the labor movement is still mired in notions of nationalism that only serve to weaken them. But the argument for working-class solidarity between immigrants and native-born workers is actually quite simple.

For the past several decades, our government has spent increasing billions of our tax dollars terrorizing, imprisoning, brutalizing and deporting working-class people in record numbers. They have done so not to protect the rest of us, but rather to the benefit of corporations who have driven down wages and living conditions for all in that same time frame.

The labor movement should join the call to abolish ICE and come out against all enforcement tools used by employers to drive down wages. We should demand that the billions being spent on repression be redirected to jobs, infrastructure, schools and health care.

Often we are told the problem with initiatives like Medicaid for All or the New Green Deal are that they are too expensive, and yet the money is there if we simply take it away from destructive entities like ICE. We must also demand that some of that money be spent to provide services and aid to communities that have suffered decades of physical and psychological warfare.

We should continue to push for sanctuary and Abolish ICE resolutions in our unions and non-unionized workplaces. We should begin to talk again about general amnesty and workplace protections for undocumented workers.

We should seek to incorporate protections for our immigrant co-workers and neighbors into our contracts. We should support and learn from the heroic struggles of immigrant workers in this country as well as from important strikes across the border.

Trump and his ilk are trying to use immigration to drive a wedge down the middle of the U.S. working class. It’s time for us to take to heart the old labor slogan “an injury to one is an injury to all,” and stand shoulder to shoulder with all workers, regardless of where they were born or how they got here.

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