Immigration Reform May Come With Big Gifts to Employers

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week of February 18, 2013

Immigration Reform May Come With Big Gifts to Employers

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Unionists and immigrant rights activists are both excited and apprehensive about the immigration law overhaul proposed by the Obama administration.

A path to citizenship, though it will be arduous, could give some of the nation’s 11 million undocumented workers a chance to get their papers and become full participants in work and civic life.

This could be a breakthrough for unions: every worker who becomes documented is a worker whose boss can no longer threaten to have her deported if she stands up for her rights on the job.

But the law may also come with an expanded “guestworker” component. Historically, defenders of worker rights, including unions, have objected to guestworker programs, calling them “modern-day indentured servitude.”

Guestworkers are tied to their employers on pain of deportation—making it hard for them to protest mistreatment or low pay.

The new law is also certain to step up border enforcement. And the package includes stricter electronic verification of job applicants’ legal status, which could lead to heightened profiling and intimidation for immigrants, both documented and undocumented.

Even the proposed path to citizenship requires payment of big fines and back taxes and proof of long-term employment, all of which could be difficult or impossible for a large portion of undocumented immigrants.

They must start at “the back of the line” behind other immigrants applying for citizenship. In 2010 alone more than 700,000 people applied for naturalization, according to the Department of Homeland Security. Experts now say the “path” could take 13 years.

Representatives of both U.S. labor coalitions are speaking to the media alongside representatives of the Chamber of Commerce, to show common ground between business and unions on immigration. Some fear that despite labor’s stance against expanding guestworker programs, union leaders may end up backing expansion as a trade-off for citizenship for some current immigrants.

MORE GUESTWORKERS

Guestworker programs allow employers to bring in foreign workers on temporary visas. Current law allows an unlimited number of agricultural workers for up to 10 months at a time; in 2011 there were are about 80,000 agricultural guestworkers in the U.S.—a small proportion of all farm workers.

A second program brings in workers for industries such as landscaping, forestry, seafood processing, and hospitality. The 2012 cap on these workers was 66,000. Highly skilled workers such as engineers enter under a separate program.

Some employers want flexibility to expand the type and number of guestworkers they can import. The American Health Care Association, for instance, wants to import nurses, nurse assistants, and LPNs to work in nursing homes.

RED FLAG

Josh Stehlik, an attorney at the National Immigration Law Center, said the employment verification system in Obama’s proposal raises a red flag.

NILC has opposed mandatory status-verification systems because immigrant workers—even those with legal status—are vulnerable to the error-ridden databases used.

NILC and the National Guestworker Alliance want any new law to include the protections contained in the POWER Act, which was introduced in 2011 but garnered little support in Congress. Undocumented workers who report workplace law violations, including wage theft, would be granted temporary visas, to protect them from retaliation. This would give workers the power and freedom to speak out about bad conditions.

The United Workers Congress, a small coalition representing workers excluded from labor law protections, such as domestic and farm workers, gathered in Washington to pressure Congress for their own immigration platform—which is strikingly different from Obama’s.

Their proposals include social safety net protections for immigrants during the legalization process; an end to collaboration between police and immigration enforcement; minimization of fines and high fees; no mandatory expansion of E-Verify, “the error-ridden electronic verification system which has repeatedly been used to destroy union organizing campaigns”; a “labor law enforcement fund” for industries with large numbers of immigrants; and partnering with worker organizations to help implement legalization.

The questions for labor in this year’s reform debate are whether it can improve immigrants’ rights on the job, how many immigrants can be included, and how to avoid a bill that contains too many negatives in exchange for a legalization program that is too small.

Jane Slaughter is a former editor of Labor Notes.