David Bacon Stories & Photographs
Bondage Or Freedom? The Debate Over Immigration Between Labor and the Republican Right
by David Bacon

OAKLAND, CA (2/5/01) -- Even though she was working a 40 hour week at the Valencia St. Travelodge in San Francisco, Matilda (last names withheld) still couldn't afford to clothe her four kids. "First I go to churches where they give clothes and food away," she said. "When school begins, we get pencils and books from the Salvation Army. If it wasn't for this kind of help, we couldn't live in San Francisco."

Her coworker, Patricia, meanwhile, was paying $635 a month for a studio apartment for her children and husband, and considered herself lucky. Normal rent for a San Francisco studio starts at $1000. At the end of each month, after putting out $250 for food, nothing was left from her paycheck.

The motel paid roomcleaners $6.25/hour - not enough to send money back home to families in Mexico or El Salvador. It was barely enough to keep them off the streets in San Francisco.

Then in May of 1999, disaster struck. John Jake, the general manager, called nine workers into his office, including the two women. He told them Social Security had notified the motel that their numbers didn't match the government's database. Straighten it all out in a week, he warned, or you're out of a job.

The workers felt helpless and scared. And a week later, when they tried to punch in, security guards told them they'd been fired.

For years, unions and immigrant rights advocates have criticized Social Security for sending letters to employers, in which the agency lists names and numbers which don't match its database (called no-match letters.) Often, as was the case at the Travelodge, employers assume the reason for the discrepancy is that the workers have no legal immigration status, and fire them. And sometimes, the letter is just a pretext for firing immigrants who assert their rights.

The roomcleaners at the Travelodge had joined Hotel Employees Local 2 after a bitter campaign in 1994, which the union won. Its first contract was signed three years later. Afterwards, says organizer Chito Cuellar, the motel used the threat of no-match letters to keep workers quiet, and derail protests over high work loads and harassment. The firings were the final straw.

Twenty years ago, most unions would have written off such workers and their problems. At the Travelodge, however, the firings began a long struggle which eventually led to an historic legal decision ordering their reinstatement. Today the attitude unions take towards immigrants like Patricia and Matilda is changing drastically. As a result, the old political rules and alliances which limited the possibility for immigration reform have also changed. Amnesty for undocumented immigrants, which was off the radar screen in Washington just a few years ago, is now a realistic goal. And employers see opportunity as well. They want new bracero contract labor programs, which would transform immigrant workers into an even cheaper and more vulnerable labor force than ever before.

The arbitrator's decision won by Local 2 said a no-match letter couldn't be used to fire workers. If the decision is applied by other unions, it will help protect thousands who lose their jobs because of the letters every year. The Travelodge case reverberated through Local 2's master contract negotiations, covering thousands of other San Francisco hotel roomcleaners. "Our members understood we needed stronger protection for immigrants, and were willing to fight for it," Cuellar says. "Not just the Latinos. The anglos, the Filipinos, and others who weren't directly affected also knew why it was important. If a hotel can use immigration to make some workers work faster, the pressure affects everyone." The union eventually won language increasing its ability to represent immigrants and protect their job rights.

Across the bay in Oakland, sister HERE Local 2850 also faced no-match letters. At the Radisson Hotel, one was used to threaten the job of a member of the union committee during an organizing drive. The local called on the support of the Labor Immigrant Organizers Network, a loose coalition of labor and community activists which supports the organizing efforts of immigrant workers. A delegation to the hotel manager saved the worker's job, and the union eventually won recognition and a contract. It was no surprise when the local in turn gave staff time and office space to help LION organize a march of 5000 people through Oakland's Latino Fruitvale neighborhood in January, calling for amnesty and immigrant rights. It was the third labor-backed immigrant rights march in northern California in a year.

"This is exactly what's leading unions to change their attitude towards immigration," explains HERE President John Wilhelm, who spoke at the Oakland march. "Most unions today are at least trying to organize. And no matter what the industry, they run into immigrant workers. Immigrants are everywhere, not just in the service industry, and not just in California and the southwest. That's what brought home the failure of the AFL-CIO's old immigration policy."

In 1986 the AFL-CIO supported the provision of the Immigration Reform and Control Act which makes no-match letters possible - employer sanctions. The law requires fines (low and rarely collected) on employers who hire undocumented workers. The real impact of the law is on the workers themselves, making it illegal for them to hold a job.

The law requires employers to keep records of workers' immigration status, called I-9 forms. Since 1986, it has become common for companies facing organizing drives to call in the Immigration and Naturalization Service to verify the forms, leading to wholesale firings. The no-match letters provide another means to the same end.

Workplace enforcement of immigration law became the key element in the Clinton administration's overall immigration policy. In its ultimate expression, Operation Vanguard, the INS conducted I-9 checks on every meatpacking plant in Nebraska in 1999 (see "The INS Takes on Labor", The Nation, ____). Over 4700 workers were called in by agents, and 3000 left the plants. In Omaha, where a community organization, Omaha Together One Community, had made beginning steps towards organizing non-union plants, Operation Vanguard wiped out its rank-and-file organizing committee.

Last year the United Food and Commercial Workers and OTOC together mounted new organizing drives at the Omaha plants, winning several elections. Despite an internal operating procedure directing INS agents not to initiate immigration enforcement actions during labor disputes, however, the INS responded with new raids. At Nebraska Beef, over 200 workers were arrested. "It divided families and threw fear into the community, right at the moment when workers were risking their jobs to change conditions," charges OTOC organizer Sergio Sosa.

Meanwhile, the administration transformed other government agencies into immigration agents as well. Even Department of Labor inspectors looking for minimum wage and overtime violations were required to check I-9 forms, and report workers they suspected lacked documents.

AFL-CIO support for sanctions rested on the idea that if it became illegal for the undocumented to work, fewer immigrants would come to the U.S., while those working here illegally would return home. The position, which reflected the federation's coldwar, business union policies of that era, created a color line. It sought to protect wages for native-born workers by excluding immigrants, rather than by organizing everyone, as the CIO and Wobblies had done earlier.

The reality proved far different than the predictions of sanctions' advocates. Sanctions had almost no effect on halting the flow of migrants into the U.S., but they did drastically undermine their rights once they were here, with devastating consequences.

Since 1986, the organizing efforts of immigrant workers have become more important to unions. Last year, the percentage of U.S. workers belonging to unions dropped from 13.5% to 13.3%, and fell to 9% in the private sector. For the overall percentage to stay constant, unions have to organize 400,000 workers a year. To increase by 1%, they have to organize twice that number. And the AFL-CIO proposes a goal of organizing 1,000,000 workers yearly, a rate not achieved since the 1940s. Since immigrants represent a section of the workforce with a long track record of labor activism, defending their right to organize is clearly in the federation's own self-interest.

"Every period of significant growth in the labor movement was fueled by organizing activity among immigrant workers," Wilhelm says. "We're a labor movement of immigrants and we always have been."

In 1999, LION activists wrote a resolution calling for a new program in which the six million undocumented workers in the U.S. can gain legal resident status, and for the AFL-CIO to change its old position favoring sanctions. It was circulated and adopted in labor councils throughout the country, in a wave of support that crested at the national convention in Los Angeles. There a succession of union presidents spoke in its favor. Wilhelm declared that his own union's support for sanctions in 1986 was a big mistake: "Those who came before us, who built this labor movement in the great depression, in strikes in rubber and steel and hotels, didn't say 'Let me see your papers' to the workers in those industries. They said, 'Which side are you on?' And immigrant workers today have the right to ask of us the same question. Which side are we on?"

Following the convention, the AFL-CIO executive council adopted a resolution last February, calling for the repeal of employer sanctions, and for a new amnesty. The federation also organized a series of hearings around the country through the summer, in which workers, organizers and community activists testified about the violation of immigrant workers' rights and the need for basic immigration reform. The last hearing in Los Angeles in June drew 20,000 people, who filled the LA Sports Arena and spilled over into the streets outside.

Many immigrant activists assumed that the AFL-CIO's change in position would result in a major campaign for amnesty and to repeal sanctions. Yet no bill was introduced into Congress last year calling for such basic reforms. Instead, in April, Henry Cisneros, past secretary of housing and urban development, proposed that unions and immigrant communities support expansion of the H1-B program, which supplies contract labor to high-tech industry. In return, he suggested, Congress could be convinced to pass proposals to end discrimination against Central American and Haitian refugees, for fair treatment for late applicants for the last immigration amnesty, and other reforms.

Cisneros' prediction was wrong. The Republican majority in Congress was ultimately able to pass H1-B without those amendments (the vote in the House was unanimous, and only Ernest Hollings dissented in the Senate). No campaign was mounted against H1-B expansion by unions or civil rights groups.

"I don't think the H1-B strategy was the right one," says Eliseo Medina, vice-president of the Service Employees and a leading immigration strategist. "High tech was only interested in its own issue, and had no desire to link it to any broader program. We also tried to pass a more limited set of reforms, and in the end, we got a minor amnesty which may affect 6-800,000 people."

The administration pledged support to these more limited goals, and for presidential candidate Al Gore, the absence in Congress of a broad amnesty bill repealing sanctions was good news. He didn't have to open himself up to a Republican attack by supporting such a proposal, or lose the Latino vote in states like California by opposing it.

With the Bush administration in office, the political terrain is changing quickly. In January, Texas Senator Phil Gramm, the most anti-immigrant voice in Congress, flew to Mexico City to meet new Mexican President Vicente Fox, a former Coca-Cola executive with close links to major Mexican and U.S. corporations. On his return, Gramm announced that he and Fox had discussed a vast expansion of bracero contract labor programs.

"We have got a lot of people interested in this issue and believe the timehas come to stop sweeping this under the rug," Gramm told reporters. "It is delusional not to recognize that illegal aliens already hold millions of jobs in the United States with the implicit permission of governments at every level, as well as companies and communities."

While Gramm called for transforming Mexican migrants into braceros, he also proposed increased enforcement of employer sanctions, to force them into his contract labor scheme. His analysis echoes Mark Reed, INS director in Dallas, who at the height of Operation Vanguard, made a similar call. "That's where we're going," he predicted. "We depend on foreign labor, and we have to face the question -- are we prepared to bring in workers lawfully? How can we get unauthorized workers back into the workforce in a legal way? If we don't have illegal immigration anymore, we'll have the political support for guestworker."

Nebraska's governor Mike Johanns was a strong critic of Operation Vanguard, for causing production bottlenecks in meatpacking plants. Last year he publicly endorsed a guestworker program for the industry, to deal, he said, with its chronic labor shortage.

`The agriculture industry has pushed hard as well for expansion of its existing guestworker program. At the end of the last Congressional session, agribusiness convinced farmworker unions to agree to an arrangement which would have set up a legalization program for undocumented farm laborers, in exchange for relaxation of wage and housing requirements for growers using the guestworker program. The Republican rightwing, opposing any amnesty at all, killed the proposal at the last moment. But guestworker expansion in agriculture is sure to resurface in Congress.

"We're going to have a big fight this year," Medina predicts. "The Republicans think that a stolen presidency gives them a free hand, and Gramm's new bracero program is going to be front and center on their agenda. I think they'll introduce a comprehensive bill. Even nursing home employers want guestworkers now."

Opposition from unions and the Latino and Asian/Pacific Islander communities to guestworker programs stems, not just from a desire to prevent an oversupply of labor, and therefore falling wages, but from the bracero program's historical record. While guaranteed labor rights on paper, guestworkers depend on the continuation of a job to remain in the country. Employers therefore not only have the power to fire workers who protest bad conditions and organize, but in effect to deport them as well.

The official position of the AFL-CIO opposes the expansion of existing programs, and calls for labor protections for guestworkers. But that position is likely to harden. "I don't think it's possible to have labor protections for contract workers," says Wilhelm, who head the federation's immigration committee. "To think the law will protect people whose right to stay in the country ends with their job is not living in the real world."

While fighting guestworker schemes, labor is preparing to introduce its own program. "We're also going to put forward a comprehensive agenda, which will include legalization, repeal of employer sanctions, and workplace protections regardless of legal status," Medina says. At the immigration march in Oakland, the new president of the Laborers Union, Terence O'Sullivan (also a member of the AFL-CIO immigration committee), announced support for five general proposals, including a broad legalization program, repeal of employer sanctions, opposition to contract labor, and protection for the right to organize. A fifth point, especially important to Asian American immigrants, calls for increased ability to reunite families in the U.S.

Illinois Congressman Luis Gutierrez introduced one bill at the end of January to end discrimination against Central American and Haitian refugees, and another at the beginning of February to move the immigration registry date closer to 2001, allowing those immigrants who arrived before to normalize their status. No bill repealing sanctions or containing the other program points has been introduced yet, however.

Despite Republican control of both the White House and Congress, labor strategists think real reform is possible. "There is a coalition out there which can win," Medina emphasizes. "We need immigrant communities to unite. We have to strengthen labor support, and we need churches, especially the Catholic Church, which has historically been the most active. Even some sectors of business will support us. For them, sanctions have failed - they fear a new bracero program and don't have the resources to take advantage of one."

Wilhelm says "we're going to go to all members of Congress and ask them to sign on. If we can get the Democrats, and part of the Republicans, we can make a great law. If not, this will be our opportunity to punish those who oppose it on a national level, the way Pete Wilson and the Republicans were punished in California."

He compares the potential impact of the immigrant vote to that of African Americans. "The Democratic Party can rely on the votes of African Americans today because some people in it supported the African American freedom movement. Those who didn't are still paying the price. It's going to be the same with the votes of immigrants."

While immigrant rights advocates have traditionally seen immigration as a civil rights issue, not all parts of the civil rights movement do so. In part, this is due to the way the U.S. economy pits workers against each other. In Silicon Valley, African-American and Latino engineers have waged a protracted effort to break down discriminatory barriers in high-tech hiring. In the debate over H1-B, civil rights groups pointed out that increasing the number of contract labor visas makes it more difficult to open up jobs for engineers of color, in an industry where the percentage of African-American and Latino engineers is very low.

In Los Angeles, the wave of immigrants which has provided the votes now changing its political landscape, and which has become the backbone of union organizing drives among janitors and hotel workers, also displaced an earlier generation of African American workers in those same industries. "Twenty years ago, our union was heavily reliant on Black workers, many of whom were leaders of our locals." Wilhelm says. "Today, hotels and janitorial contractors no longer hire them. The workforce should fairly reflect the community. It's not responsible to support the rights of immigrant workers and not support people who've paid their dues, and I don't mean union dues." LA's Local 11 is going to the hotels this year to ask them to lift the hiring bar voluntarily. If they don't, the union plans to organize a campaign to force the issue.

The conversion of Phil Gramm and at least part of the Republican right to favor bracero programs may actually help clarify the immigration debate. Gramm, the AFL-CIO, and immigrant rights activists all agree on one thing. The choice to be made is not over what will or won't stop people from coming across the border, but over their status in the U.S. It is the age-old American dilemma - bondage (whether as slaves, indentured servants or braceros) or freedom.

Migrant Watch International, based in Switzerland, estimates that 130 million people in the world live outside their countries of birth. Neoliberal economic reforms and the transfer of enormous wealth from developing to developed countries makes survival impossible for millions of people. Many cope by migrating to countries with greater employment possibilities and higher standards of living.

U.S. investment in Mexico (the source of most migrants to the U.S.), and the low-wage economic climate fostered by the governments of both countries to encourage it, push people north along with repatriated profits. But under the neoliberal rules of free trade, profits and investment have free passage across the border. People don't.

In addition to factors pushing people out of their countries of origin, there are pull factors as well. Communities of immigrants act as magnets, attracting other family members of those who have already immigrated. "These people are not strangers," declares Lillian Galedo, co-chair of Filipino Civil Rights Advocates. "They are our mothers and fathers, grandparents, aunts and uncles, brothers and sisters, and even our children. The truth is, although we often don't want to face it, the reason people leave the Philippines without documents is the same reason people leave with them. The economy of the Philippines cannot support its populace. Whether it is a future for their children, or hunger for food and survival itself, the pressure to leave is often so great that it cannot be denied."

U.S. immigration law and the increasing militarization of the border cannot stop this flow of migrants. And behind the immediate political debates over individual reform proposals lies a fundamental ideological question. Is the purpose of immigration law to supply labor to industry, on terms it finds acceptable, or is its purpose the protection of the rights and welfare of immigrants themselves?

"The nature of the fight is over what happens to people when they're here," says Medina.

The United States is not the only industrial country on the receiving end of the migrant stream, or trying to change its policies to adapt to a new world reality. Spain recently passed its own version of California's Proposition 187, prohibiting the undocumented from going to school, joining unions, or striking.

But there is another framework for dealing with migration, other than contract labor and repression. In 1990, the United Nations General Assembly adopted an International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families. It extends basic human rights without distinction to all migrants, documented or undocumented. It supports the right of family reunification, establishes the principle of "equality of treatment" with citizens of the host country in relation to employment and education, protects migrants against collective deportation, and makes both sending and receiving countries responsible for protecting them. All countries retain the right to determine who is admitted to their territories, and under what conditions people gain the right to work.

The Convention does not answer all questions, but it takes two basic steps which still paralyze U.S. debate. It recognizes the global scale and permanence of migration. And its starting point is the protection of the rights of migrants themselves. Predictably, countries which send immigrants favor the Convention, and countries which receive them don't. The U.S. has not ratified it.

Debate over ratification, and legalization proposals in Congress generally, will undoubtedly become more difficult if the economy spins into a recession this year. The INS characteristically responds to economic downturns with new waves of enforcement and deportations, and competition among workers increases. But the basic factors governing the migration of people will not change regardless of whether the U.S. economy grows or shrinks.

"People who are here won't go home," Medina cautions. "No matter what, we're going to have to deal with their issues."

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photographs and stories by David Bacon © 1990-

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