Labor group and an Ohio town call for new immigration approaches

A new report by a national union group says that attacks on immigrant rights make no sense because it is corporate addiction to cheap labor and the so- called "free trade" agreements that cause millions to leave their homelands and come to the United States.

A town in Ohio, meanwhile, says that by rolling out a welcome mat for immigrants, rather than persecuting them, it can help solve the immigration problem and fix its economy at the same time.

The report, "Disposable Workers: Immigration After NAFTA and the Nation's Addiction to Cheap Labor,"was released this month by the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement (LCLAA), an AFL-CIO constituency group.

Hector Sanchez, LCLAA's executive director and the report's main author, says it's time that politicians stop blaming immigrants as the problem. The debate should target how U.S. international policies have exacerbated the rising income inequalities in this country and how millions of Mexicans and Central Americans continue to be economically displaced because of them.

"The same policies that are displacing workers here in the U.S. have dislocated workers in Mexico and other countries - limiting their economic prospects in their homeland and forcing them to seek better opportunities in the U.S.," said Sanchez.

He added that the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was a failure for working people in Mexico and the U.S.

Recent free trade agreements with Colombia and Panama, like the NAFTA-style trade deals, will continue to cause massive job loss, says Sanchez.

Speaking about this matter to the PW in April, Sanchez noted that Latinos are the fastest growing segment of the U.S. workforce. When the labor movement and the immigrant rights struggle unite, they make a strategic alliance and complement one another, he said:

"There is no other group in the U.S. that is more exploitable and vulnerable as undocumented workers. Enforcement-only policies have only enhanced that vulnerability to the point that immigrants have become disposable workers. It's a perfect system for exploitation, but we need to ask who is really benefiting from this, because so far everyone wants to blame undocumented workers. Eleven million immigrants living in the U.S. is not a mistake. This is a public policy issue and the corporations and entire sectors of the economy are profiting from the broken immigration system."

Sanchez argues that it's time to change the debate and promote fair trade policies that seek sustainable economic development for all parties involved. The agreements, he said, need to respect workers' rights at home and abroad.

Nevertheless, states like Arizona, Georgia, Alabama and others continue to target immigrants by passing some of the toughest anti-immigrant laws in the nation. Critics say the new laws not only hurt immigrants but badly affecting the state's local economies. A massive exodus of immigrants can spell economic disaster for whole towns or counties.

Officials in one town, however, have taken a completely different approach. Dayton, Ohio is using the recent exodus of immigrants from unfriendly states like Alabama, which recently approved a tough anti-immigrant law, to help spur a recovery effort for its own faltering economy.

Dayton officials unanimously adopted the "Welcome to Dayton" plan earlier this month to encourage immigrants to settle in their city. Dayton officials see the potential influx of new residents as a way to boost the city's dire economy.

The city's unemployment rate is 11 percent, two points higher than the national average, yet the number of foreign-born residents in Dayton has increased 57 percent in 10 years.

Dayton's Mayor Gary Leitzell, who was endorsed by the Republican Party in 2009, said immigrants would bring new ideas, new perspectives and new talent to the city's workforce. "To reverse the decades-long trend of economic decline in this city, we need to think globally," he said on the ThinkProgress.org website.

Dayton officials began to examine the city's immigration population, noting immigrants have revitalized rundown houses and have moved into, and fixed up what had been vacant homes.

The new policy is a work in progress, say officials. It's key areas include increasing information and access to government, social services and housing issues. Language education, assistance with identification cards, and grants and marketing help for immigrant entrepreneurs to help build the economy will also be part of the plan.

"We will be more diverse, we will grow, we will have more restaurants, more small businesses," said Tom Wahlrab, Dayton's human relations council director, to Think Progress.

According to Think Progress farms and businesses under Alabama's anti-immigrant law, the worst in the nation, have lost workers as immigrants have fled the state. And few Alabamians have stepped in to take the jobs left behind.

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