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Immigration

February 16, 2000

New Orleans, LA

The AFL-CIO proudly stands on the side of immigrant workers. Throughout the history of this country, immigrants have played an important role in building our nation and its democratic institutions. New arrivals from every continent have contributed their energy, talent, and commitment to making the United States richer and stronger. Likewise, the American union movement has been enriched by the contributions and courage of immigrant workers. Newly arriving workers continue to make indispensable contributions to the strength and growth of our unions. These efforts have created new unions and strengthened and revived others, benefitting all workers, immigrant and native-born alike. It is increasingly clear that if the United States is to have an immigration system that really works, it must be simultaneously orderly, responsible and fair. The policies of both the AFL-CIO and our country must reflect those goals.

The United States is a nation of laws. This means that the federal government has the sovereign authority and constitutional responsibility to set and enforce limits on immigration. It also means that our government has the obligation to enact and enforce laws in ways that respect due process and civil liberties, safeguard public health and safety, and protect the rights and opportunities of workers.

The AFL-CIO believes the current system of immigration enforcement in the United States is broken and needs to be fixed. Our starting points are simple:

  • Undocumented workers and their families make enormous contributions to their communities and workplaces and should be provided permanent legal status through a new amnesty program.
  • Regulated legal immigration is better than unregulated illegal immigration.
  • Immigrant workers should have full workplace rights in order to protect their own interests as well as the labor rights of all American workers.
  • Labor and business should work together to design cooperative mechanisms that allow law-abiding employers to satisfy legitimate needs for new workers in a timely manner without compromising the rights and opportunities of workers already here.
  • Labor and business should cooperate to undertake expanded efforts to educate and train American workers in order to upgrade their skill levels in ways that enhance our shared economic prosperity.
  • Criminal penalties should be established to punish employers who recruit undocumented workers from abroad for the purpose of exploiting workers for economic gain.

Current efforts to improve immigration enforcement, while failing to stop the flow of undocumented people into the United States, have resulted in a system that causes discrimination and leaves unpunished unscrupulous employers who exploit undocumented workers, thus denying labor rights for all workers.

The combination of a poorly constructed and ineffectively enforced system that results in penalties for only a few of the employers who violate immigration laws has had especially detrimental impacts on efforts to organize and adequately represent workers. Unscrupulous employers have systematically used the I-9 process in their efforts to retaliate against workers who seek to join unions, improve their working conditions, and otherwise assert their rights.

Therefore, the AFL-CIO calls for replacing the current I-9 system as a tool of workplace immigration enforcement. We should substitute a system of immigration enforcement strategies that focuses on the criminalization of employer behavior, targeting those employers who recruit undocumented workers from abroad, either directly or indirectly. It should be supplemented with strong penalties against employers who abuse workers' immigration status to suppress their rights and labor protections. The federal government should aggressively investigate, and criminally prosecute, those employers who knowingly exploit a worker's undocumented status in order to prevent enforcement of workplace protection laws.

We strongly believe employer sanctions, as a nationwide policy applied to all workplaces, has failed and should be eliminated. It should be replaced with an alternative policy to reduce undocumented immigration and prevent employer abuse. Any new policy must meet the following principles: 1) it must seek to prevent employer discrimination against people who look or sound foreign; 2) it must allow workers to pursue legal remedies, including supporting a union, regardless of immigration status; and 3) it must avoid unfairly targeting immigrant workers of a particular nationality.

There is a long tradition in the United States of protecting those who risk their financial and physical well-being to come forward to report violations of laws that were enacted for the public good. Courageous undocumented workers who come forward to assert their rights should not be faced with deportation as a result of their actions. The recent situation at the Holiday Inn Express in Minneapolis highlights the perversity of the current situation. Therefore, the

AFL-CIO calls for the enactment of whistleblower protections providing protected immigration status for undocumented workers who report violations of worker protection laws or cooperate with federal agencies during investigations of employment, labor and discrimination violations. Such workers should be accorded full remedies, including reinstatement and back pay. Further, undocumented workers who exercise their rights to organize and bargain collectively should also be provided protected immigration status.

Millions of hard-working people who make enormous contributions to their communities and workplace are denied basic human rights because of their undocumented status. Many of these men and women are the parents of children who are birthright U.S. citizens. The AFL-CIO supports a new amnesty program that would allow these members of local communities to adjust their status to permanent resident and become eligible for naturalization. The AFL-CIO also calls on the Immigration and Naturalization Service to address the shameful delays facing those seeking to adjust their status as a result of the Immigration Reform and Control Act.

Immediate steps should include legalization for three distinct groups of established residents: 1) approximately half-a-million Salvadorans, Guatemalans, Hondurans, and Haitians, who fled civil war and civil strife during the 1980s and early 1990s and were unfairly denied refugee status, and have lived under various forms of temporary legal status; 2) approximately 350,000 long-resident immigrants who were unfairly denied legalization due to illegal behavior by the INS during the amnesty program enacted in the late 1980s; and 3) approximately 10,000 Liberians who fled their homeland's brutal civil war and have lived in the United States for years under temporary legal status.

Guestworker programs too often are used to discriminate against U.S. workers, depress wages and distort labor markets. For these reasons, the AFL-CIO has long been troubled by the operation of such programs. The proliferation of guestworker programs has resulted in the creation of a class of easily exploited workers, who find themselves in a situation very similar to that faced by undocumented workers. The AFL-CIO renews our call for the halt to the expansion of guestworker programs. Moreover, these programs should be reformed to include more rigorous labor market tests and the involvement of labor unions in the labor certification process. All temporary guestworkers should be afforded the same workplace protections available to all workers.

The rights and dignity of all workers can best be ensured when immigrant and non-immigrant workers are fully informed about the contributions of immigrants to our society and our unions, and about the rights of immigrants under current labor, discrimination, naturalization and other laws. Labor unions have led the way in developing model programs that should be widely emulated. The AFL-CIO therefore supports the creation of education programs and centers to educate workers about immigration issues and to assist workers in exercising their rights.

Far too many workers lack access to training programs. Like all other workers, new immigrants want to improve their lives and those of their families by participating in job training. The AFL-CIO supports the expansion of job training programs to better serve immigrant populations. These programs are essential to the ability of immigrants to seize opportunities to compete in the new economy.

Immigrant workers make enormous contributions to our economy and society, and deserve the basic safety net protections that all other workers enjoy. The AFL-CIO continues to support the full restoration of benefits that were unfairly taken away through Federal legislation in 1996, causing tremendous harm to immigrant families.

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