AFL-CIO, in Dramatic Turnaround, Endorses Amnesty for Undocumented Immigrants

In a dramatic reversal of its past policy, the AFL-CIO on February 16 forcefully called for an immediate amnesty for undocumented immigrants, and an end to sanctions on employers who hire them. "Sanctions...[have] failed and must be eliminated," the federation said.

The federation's executive council acknowledged what immigrant rights groups have been saying for years--that immigration laws have enabled corporations to exploit undocumented workers, "thus denying labor rights for all workers."

Some unions and immigrant rights groups, particularly on the West Coast, have been urging the policy change for many months. They succeeded in getting the issue to the floor of last October's AFL-CIO convention, where it was referred to the executive council. At about the same time, 15,000 people under the auspices of the National Coalition for Dignity and Amnesty marched on Washington to demand an immediate amnesty for undocumented workers.

The AFL-CIO had endorsed employer sanctions and tightened immigration controls in 1986, purportedly in an effort to keep undocumented immigrants from entering the labor market and depressing wages. While the sanctions were intended to provide penalties for employers who hire undocumented workers, in practice they have meant the opposite.

"Enforcement has been directed against undocumented workers," said Cathy Tactaquin, director of the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights. "It has had the impact of further criminalizing the undocumented, and very few penalties have actually been levied against employers who have hired undocumented workers."

The AFL-CIO's new policy wants employer sanctions replaced with a system of "strong penalties against employers who abuse workers' immigration status to suppress [workers'] rights and labor protections."

POWER OF LATINO WORKERS

Since the new penalties could not be used as an immigration tool by the Immigration and Naturalization Service, they would benefit all workers. "Employers that hire undocumented workers...are employers who have been proven to exploit all employees regardless of status," said Tactaquin. "They generally have been cited for labor violations, including wage violations, but these have not been enforced. We would like to see strict enforcement of labor violations, which would benefit all workers, regardless of status."

Along with eliminating employer sanctions, the other centerpiece of the new AFL-CIO policy is a call for unconditional amnesty for undocumented workers and their families.

The AFL's dramatic turnaround on amnesty is the result of years of organizing by immigrant workers and advocates. "What this demonstrates is the power of Latino workers within the labor movement," said Baldemar Velasquez, president of

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the Farm Labor Organizing Committee.

The AFL-CIO had scheduled a series of town-hall style meetings to discuss immigration issues and to gauge the mood of the members, but the executive council voted for the policy change even before those meetings took place. The forums, scheduled for April and May, are now intended to build support for the new immigration policy. They will be held in New York on April 1, Atlanta on April 29, Chicago on May 6, and Los Angeles on May 20.

"There was a lot of pressure from workers at the grass-roots level and from the regional leadership, as well," said Monica Santana, director of the Latino Workers Center in New York. "Normally, they make decisions at the top and then they filter down to the rest of the organization. This time, it was the other way around. Workers from the base were mobilizing, and they pressured their regional bodies to respond."

The new AFL proposal also calls for strengthened workplace protection for all immigrant workers, expanded job training and immigrant rights programs and centers, and an end to further guest worker programs.

PERMANENT RESIDENCY FOR ORGANIZING

Interestingly, due to a tight labor market and fears of rising interest rates, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has supported the AFL's call for amnesty. "Unemployment is at a 30-year low and in some areas and industries we are seeing full employment," said a Chamber spokesperson. "For our members to remain competitive and continue to grow they need more workers to fill job openings."

While the Chamber of Commerce is in favor of amnesty and a repeal of employer sanctions, expanding worker protection laws and repealing guest worker programs is another story. The AFL has called for "whistleblower protections providing protected immigration status for undocumented workers who report violations of worker protection laws." Most dramatically, the federation is calling for permanent residency for any undocumented workers who exercise their collective bargaining rights by organizing a union. This would give undocumented workers a huge incentive to speak out against employer abuses and join unions.

Cathy Tactaquin says there is precedent for such a proposal. "The EEOC a few months ago clarified its position regarding protection of undocumented workers," she said. "Under EEOC guidelines, workers regardless of status have the right to protest and make claims for various forms of discrimination in the workplace." The EEOC asserted that "[undocumented immigrants] should be protected from deportation in the course of making that claim." Monica Santana said that her group will propose, at the New York town hall meeting, that the AFL-CIO join with the National Coalition for Dignity and Amnesty in sending a petition to President Clinton, asking that protection be granted immediately to all workers.

The AFL-CIO still has to formulate a concrete program for achieving amnesty, but the new policy at least points the labor movement in the right direction.

"I am not sure how difficult it will be to get the AFL moving on this, since there are always a lot of unionists who are opposed to an amnesty, but at least this will lead to a serious debate," said FLOC's Baldemar Velasquez. "Instead of maintaining silence, unions will have to study and discuss this issue at their meetings. We're going to ask them for support at every meeting we go to, and they're going to have to say yes or no. The AFL's decision puts them on the spot. They can't just walk away without saying anything anymore."