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Immigration Reform: Workers’ Voices Needed in Washington

Immigration Reform: Workers’ Voices Needed in Washington

The AFL-CIO has been calling on the White House to halt unnecessary deportations since spring 2013. Our dysfunctional and antiquated immigration system is an invitation for employer manipulation and abuse, and U.S.-born workers as well as immigrant workers are paying the price. Every day that the White House does not act, more than 1,000 people are torn from their worksites, their families and their communities, driving down wages and standards in the process.

The time to act on immigration was more than a year ago, when the Senate passed a comprehensive, bipartisan framework for real reform. House Republicans refused to do their job and put the compromise bill up for a vote, and the Obama administration has not yet used it as a blueprint for executive action. The fate of millions of workers continues to hang in the balance, and the president should use his authority to grant the broadest possible temporary relief.

We renew our call for the executive branch to provide work authorization to all those who would be on a pathway to citizenship now if House Republicans had allowed a vote on the bipartisan Senate bill. Only broad executive action will shore up the floor of employment practices in this country. More than 8 million immigrants—a full 5% of the labor market—are working today without the protection of law. We know all too well that unscrupulous employers exploit these hardworking women and men to force down labor costs, suppressing wages for all workers.Without adequately addressing the scope of this problem, administrative action will have limited impact on overall labor standards.

I urge the president to look into the eyes of immigrant workers, as I have, and let their stories be his guide in this critical decision. What would the president say to Ramon Mendez, a union roofer who was picked up by immigration authorities after filing a health and safety claim? When burns caused by a lack of adequate safety gear landed Mendez in the hospital for several days, his employer provided no workers’ compensation and told him that if he complained he would be fired and reported to immigration authorities. Indeed, less than two weeks after the National Labor Relations Board ruled on Mendez’s case, Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents arrived at his home.

Sadly, Mendez’s case is far from an isolated example. Francisco Ruiz was picked up by immigration agents while trying to testify at an arbitration session ordered by the federal government. Ruiz filed a civil complaint for unpaid wages and overtime after working for months for a homeowner who refused to honor a contractual agreement. When he arrived at the court-ordered mediation, ICE was there waiting and put him into deportation proceedings.

Like other workers brave enough to come forward to report employer abuse, Mendez and Ruiz deserve protective status for speaking up. Employers must no longer be able to use the threat of deportation as a weapon to keep workers from asserting their rights or enforcing standards on the job. In addition to broad affirmative relief, the administration should create a process through which workers engaged in protected activity, such as forming or joining a union, or filing a health and safety violation claim, would be safe from retaliation based on their immigration status.

The ability to exploit any worker lowers standards for all workers, and the data tells the story of the impact all too clearly. Immigrant workers, particularly the Latino workforce, face the highest rates of wage theft, sexual harassment, death and injury on the job. Our entire workforce suffers when we allow standards to erode as millions of workers struggle to support their families without the status to assert their basic rights.

Standards for all workers will improve only when we fix our unjust immigration system in a way that requires fair employment practices, ensures access to justice, and promotes a unified national workforce by affording a broad and inclusive pathway to citizenship. Many will seek to disguise corporate giveaways and racist voter-suppression efforts as comprehensive immigration reform, but we know the difference. Only meaningful legislative efforts that seek to lift the boats of all working people will enjoy the support of the labor movement.

The deafness in Washington to the real needs of workers inspires us to redouble our efforts to strengthen our movement from the ground up. We will continue to demand reforms at all levels of government that will help build a stronger economic future for our nation, and support the basic civil rights and dignity of all workers.

The AFL-CIO will not rest until all workers have a voice on the job and in their communities. Like the labor movement, grassroots immigrant groups are organized for collective voice and representation. And believe me, unions know that the best negotiators are the people who know the real situation—the people with skin in the game.

The president can and should take executive action broad enough to address the scope of the current crisis. As he continues to weigh his options, he needs to meet with and hear directly from the people who will be most affected by his decisions. Workers are the heart of this movement, and workers’ voices should be ringing in the president's ear when he finally makes the decision so vital to their future.

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