AFL-CIO: Citizenship, NOT Guest Workers

Every person who works in this country – regardless where he or she was born and regardless how long he or she has been here – must be entitled to the full range of workplace and civil rights America provides. It’s not enough to stop US House leaders from turning undocumented immigrants and the people who help them into criminals.

Progressives who care about the rights of immigrants should be working together to fix the Senate immigration compromise as well.

The compromise legislation has two fatal flaws: a guest worker program that would institutionalize and expand a second-class workforce easily exploited by employers and an unjust, inhumane and unworkable three-tier system of treatment for immigrants who are in this country.

The original guest worker operation – the post-war Bracero program – was shamed out of existence in 1964 because of egregious employer abuse, cheating, racial oppression and more.

The Bracero program may seem like a dirty page out of history – but the legislation now pending would massively expand today’s guest worker programs without even the bare protections the Braceros had and with no seasonal limits. It would be little more than an opportunity for employers to turn hundreds of thousands of permanent jobs in the United States into temporary jobs filled by exploitable immigrants who are paid low wages and receive few if any benefits. As during the Bracero era, today’s guest workers remain legally tied to the employers that recruited them, leaving them naturally vulnerable to abuse.

The proposed three-tier treatment system is equally deserving of rejection. Rather than offering a path to permanent residency for all undocumented immigrants currently working and contributing to our country, it would slice them into three groups. Those who have been here more than five years could earn permanent residency; workers here between two and five years would have to leave the country and return through a port of entry; immigrants here for less than two years would be forced to leave the country and return only as employer-sponsored guest workers. Millions of workers would never have a voice in our democracy or incentive to invest in our communities, and millions would be indentured to employer sponsors to preserve their legal status. Not only is that unfair – it could never be made to work.

Many progressives think we should settle for the Senate compromise legislation, which is certainly less brutal than the House’s punitive immigration measure. The AFL-CIO refuses to accept this position.

Why? Because there is absolutely no good reason for any immigrant who comes to this country prepared to work, to pay taxes and to abide by our laws and rules to be relegated to a repressive, second-class status. A path to permanent residency for all hardworking immigrants in this country is the only acceptable immigration reform.

We should be fighting together for permanent relief for the millions of undocumented workers already in this country, paying taxes and contributing to their communities, rather than expanding policies that have been proven to keep immigrants in the shadows of American society while allowing employers to depress labor protections and standards for all workers within our borders.

There’s a venerable old saying in the union movement: An injury to one is an injury to all. Exploitation of immigrants hurts all of us. It drives down wages and working conditions for all of us. Again and again employers say they need immigrant workers because U.S.-born workers won’t do the jobs. But you know and I know it’s the unacceptable wages – not the work – that U.S. workers reject.

Allowing immigrant workers to be exploited – by yesterday’s Bracero program or today’s guest worker programs – is immoral and far outside the values to which America aspires.

If employers can demonstrate a real need for outside workers, immigration laws should require that they be allowed into our country with the same rights and labor protections of any U.S. citizen. When there is a real need for foreign workers, we should embrace them not as temporary commodities but as full members of our society.

Immigrant workers are our sisters and brothers in labor. We must support immigrant workers by rejecting guest worker programs and three-tiered treatment, as well as criminalization.