David Bacon Stories & Photographs
On Immigration, The AFL-CIO Gets It Right
by David Bacon

This year the AFL-CIO took a big step towards embracing the immigrants who have contributed to its best traditions. It called for a new amnesty for the undocumented, for repeal of employer sanctions (the U.S. law making it illegal for an undocumented worker to hold a job), and for educating immigrants about their rights.

The AFL-CIO recognizes a new world reality. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that over 80 million people live outside their countries of origin -- the U.S. is home to only a small percentage. Growing economic inequality on a global scale, between rich and poor countries, causes this migration. When people cannot survive and feed their families at home, they will leave and seek survival elsewhere, come what may.

Economic survival has become difficult because of the structural adjustment and trade policies imposed by wealthier countries and international financial institutions, such as the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. It is shortsighted, if not hypocritical, for the U.S. to promote these policies on the one hand, and then ignore their consequences on the other. The migration of people will not stop until the underlying economic causes forcing people from their homes are eliminated.

NAFTA and free trade have freed the movement of capital and goods, while the people they've displaced become illegal and hunted. Workers also have a right to freedom of movement.

It is clear that building walls along the border and militarizing it cannot halt this flow of people. Nor can draconian anti-immigrant legislation, whether California's Proposition 187 or the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act. The AFL-CIO recognizes this fact.

U.S. immigration policies have, however, undermined the rights and wellbeing of people once they are here. Thousands of workers have been fired from their jobs as a result of employer sanctions. It's ironic that our current political climate removes welfare and social benefits in the name of the work ethic, and then punishes the undocumented for the crime of working.

The enforcement of current immigration policies hasn't benefited native-born workers either. The more undocumented workers fear losing their jobs as a result of INS actions, the more employers have been able to impose lower wages and worse conditions. INS enforcement has undermined the ability of immigrant workers to organize unions to improve those same conditions, hurting immigrant and native-born workers alike. Making immigrants vulnerable has been, in effect, a giant sweatshop subsidy.

It is a tribute to the courage and anger of immigrant workers that thousands have defied those risks to successfully organize unions, choosing the same path to economic advancement generations chose before them.

Supporters of current policy blame immigrants for the relative decline in income for U.S. workers since the 1970s. But the real, structural causes for declining wages have nothing to do with immigration. They include the impact of plant closures and industrial restructuring (costing the jobs of millions of unskilled workers), the growth of service-sector, minimum-wage jobs (including contract and temporary employment), and steep obstacles facing workers who organize unions.

Industries which hire immigrant workers to keep wages down will not voluntarily raise salaries if immigrants are somehow replaced with the native-born. Workers will have to struggle to increase living standards, just as they have always done. Their unity and cooperation is an important advantage, which the AFL-CIO is right to try to protect.

The undocumented will not simply disappear tomorrow, nor should they. They are productive members of our communities, enrich our culture, and are part of our hope for the future. Our country needs to build a human community in which people do not live in fear, or suffer from discrimination. Using immigration policy to keep millions of people vulnerable and illegal undermines respect for the law. Our laws should protect the human rights of migrants, not undermine them.

Following the 1986 amnesty, which legalized over 3 million people, immigrants continued coming. Those arriving after the cutoff date faced the same denial of legal status that amnesty "fixed" for those who came before.

Critics say the amnesty resulted in greater immigration of undocumented people. But immigration was taking place long before amnesty, and exists in other countries with no such programs. It is ridiculous to imagine, 18 years after the original cutoff date, that the millions of people currently in the U.S. without documents arrived here thinking that all they had to do was wait to have their status normalized.

Rather than repeating this experience endlessly, new ways of looking at amnesty should be considered. Immigrants should be able to normalize their status after establishing roots in the U.S. The number of residence visas should be expanded. Those wanting to work in the U.S. and maintain permanent residence in their countries of origin should be allowed to do so.

Employers facing a tight job market are also making proposals for amnesty. But their proposals, S 1814 and 1815, link legal status to employment. They would return immigrants to the bracero program of the 1940s, as contract laborers reduced to indentured servitude. "We remember the bracero program here," says Mexican Senator Rosalbina Garabito, "and it's not a good memory. Our people were treated like animals."

Whether immigrant or native-born, workers must be free to work and move about as they please, to join unions and to exercise their labor rights. All people in this country must be guaranteed basic human and labor rights.

The AFL-CIO is right.

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photographs and stories by David Bacon © 1990-

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