WASHINGTON - With the Senate plowing its way through debate and votes on comprehensive immigration reform, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka has laid down, in detail, what the federation wants - and doesn't want - in the legislation.
And he promises labor will fight fiercely both for the provisions it favors and the ones - almost all from the tea party and radical right Republicans - it opposes.
The federation's position is important because unions are one of the top progressive forces campaigning for comprehensive immigration reform, including a path to legalization and eventual citizenship for the 11 million undocumented people in the U.S. Some 7.5 million of them are adults and workers; the rest are children.
Immigration reform is important to all workers, labor says, including not just the undocumented but also immigrants with papers and those who are natural born or naturalized citizens. Unions note that employers exploit the undocumented workers, and use them as leverage to wring concessions from and foist lower living standards on all other groups of workers.
"The AFL-CIO is committed to ensuring that changes to our legal immigration system protect the rights of all workers in our society - both workers who are already in the United States as well as workers who come to our country through employment-based visa programs," Trumka's four page-letter to each senator says.
A guaranteed path to legalization and citizenship for the undocumented, and specifically for low-wage workers, tops the AFL-CIO's priority list, the letter adds.
"A very high percentage of undocumented individuals work in the underground economy," called "independent contractors" by their firms or paid "under the table" in cash, he explains. Those are the most exploitable workers, he adds.
Labor is taking issue with some on the right who want to limit the path to citizenship to only those immigrants who hold jobs. "The AFL-CIO would like to ensure the first step towards citizenship does not include an employment requirement," the Trumka letter declares." Adding that right at the start of an undocumented person's path to legalization would halt many of them in their tracks, he warns.
The nation's largest labor federation "opposes any efforts that would threaten the ability of individuals to legalize their status," including a "hard trigger" mandating absolute U.S.-Mexico border security before the road to citizenship can even start, "onerous documentation requirements" and "prohibitive fees" imposed on undocumented people. It also opposes limits on who can seek provisional immigrant status and limits on youngsters' - the Dreamers' - ability to become citizens if they're in college or the military.
Right-wing and tea party Republican senators have proposed all those limits and restrictions on the path the undocumented must take towards citizenship, except for the limit on the Dreamers. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W. Va., authored that, Trumka says.
The labor movement has also said it will fight hard to keep the Senate bill's restrictions and licensing of foreign labor contractors, especially after past and present abuses. A group of guest workers and their advocates told a press conference in Miami on June 18 that the Senate bill's sanctions on companies using unscrupulous foreign contractors are too weak. They want the right for workers to sue the contractors and to get protection when they do.
Along those lines, Trumka said senators could improve the bill by adopting stronger whistleblower protections for undocumented workers who report labor or immigration law violations, as Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., proposes. Right now, Trumka said, "unscrupulous employers (can) violate the law and then deport away the victims and the witnesses necessary to bring the employer to justice."
The AFL-CIO also wants a stronger due process and anti-discrimination provisions in the E-Verify system, which the Senate bill's sponsors see as the way for employers to ensure they hire legal residents, citizens, including registered provisional immigrants.
E-Verify, now voluntary, is rife with misidentification problems. It lacks due process for workers to disprove its charges. The system is so bad the Service Employees once sued to stop its use. Tea party Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, has an amendment "to make it easier to discriminate against U.S. and foreign workers," Trumka says.
Trumka says the fed is unhappy with any moves to deny the undocumented "a path to economic security." The Senate bill reaffirms the most notable one: The ban on undocumented persons' access to the Affordable Care Act, the 2010 health law.
There are also two sections of the bill that labor wants to improve, Trumka says. One would let W visa seekers - one of the new visas for immigrants - apply for them on their own initiative, without an employer sponsor. The Senate bill "does not make a sufficient number of visas available in a timely manner," Trumka's letter says.
The other is the H1-B visa program for specialized workers, which would triple from 65,000 visas yearly to 180,000. Trumka said the original bill required firms to "first offer open positions to qualified U.S. workers, and to prohibit employers from firing U.S. workers and replacing them with H1-B workers, but this balance was severely watered down." Instead, visas could rapidly escalate "without regard to labor market needs."
Trumka wants senators to restore the "U.S. workers first" rule, as Sen. Bernie Sanders, Ind.-Vt., seeks. Trumka opposes letting more H-1B workers in or moves to "dilute restrictions" on visas, which right wing Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., advocates.