LAS VEGAS -Top union leaders, including AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka and Service Employees President Mary Kay Henry, joined Democratic President Barack Obama in Las Vegas on Jan. 29 to endorse an immigration reform framework that a bipartisan group of eight senators unveiled the day before.
But despite that breakthrough, the "devil is in the details," as AFL-CIO spokesman Jeff Hauser told Press Associates Union News Service - especially on the issues of what would be sufficient protection of U.S. borders and the rights available to the 11 million currently undocumented workers.
And even Trumka, in a prepared statement, recognized there could be a big roadblock: How could undocumented workers, many of whom now toil "off the books" in the so-called underground economy, prove they've worked in the U.S.?
Immigration reform is important to all workers, not just the undocumented ones. That's because the undocumented workers lack any labor law protections. So venal and vicious employers - from construction companies to Wal-Mart - not only low-ball, underpay or don't pay the undocumented, but use the threat of hiring them to drive down the wages and working conditions of other workers, too.
The 4-1/2-page outline of the immigration reform framework calls for a path to citizenship for the undocumented workers, but only after the borders are secure and strong sanctions are put in place against employers for hiring workers who are not legal.
It also says that before any measures legalizing the undocumented workers start, immigrants who overstayed their visas must leave the country. And senators left details about creating a "guest worker" program to the AFL-CIO and the Chamber of Commerce, who have strongly differed on the issue in the past.
All the holes and vagueness did not stop several union leaders from issuing prepared statements backing the immigration overhaul principles even before leaders joined Obama on stage in Las Vegas to tout it and launch a pro-immigration campaign.
After Latino voters backed Obama by a 3-to-1 ratio last year, he put the issue atop his agenda. And the Republican negotiators want to see the issue solved so their party can appeal to Latinos without being perceived as racist.
"President Obama 'gets it' - he gets that a rising tide lifts all boats and that empowering immigrant workers is a win for all working people," Trumka said as the two stood on the stage. "The president clearly shares the AFL-CIO's commitment to a viable pathway to citizenship, meaning that seemingly innocuous conditions cannot be allowed to get in the way of a roadmap for citizenship that encompasses the dreams of 11 million people."
Trumka said unions would "undertake a national campaign to support the aspiration of 11 million immigrants to become citizens because we understand that a more equal America is a stronger America."
Legalizing the undocumented workers is the fed's top priority in immigration reform, the AFL-CIO leader added. The senators back legalization, but behind everything else.
"But much remains to be seen on the details of that path, and each detail can have significant consequences. For instance, we are concerned that making the citizenship path consistent on proof of employment at the time enforcement measures are deemed completed could be problematic," he warned.
"Depending on implementation, the principles could potentially exclude millions of workers-those who care for our children and our elderly, mow our lawns and repair our homes, drive taxis-who cannot prove employment because they have been forced to work off the clock or have no employer by virtue of being independent contractors. It would also exclude immigrants who are employers themselves."
SEIU posted a blog calling immigration reform a civil rights issue. The union's general counsel, Judy Scott, previously said it's SEIU's top legislative priority this year. SEIU represents hundreds of thousands of Hispanic-named workers.
"Immigrants should no more be relegated to second-class social standing because of their birthplace than should any native-born person because of the color of his or her skin," SEIU blogged.
"Through immigration reform, we have an opportunity to confront shared struggles such as boosting working people's wages. Together we have the opportunity to lift up all communities and push policies that address the social and economic concerns that affect all working families."
AFSCME President Lee Saunders and Secretary-Treasurer Laura Reyes agreed. "Immigrant rights are worker rights," they said. Reyes was in Las Vegas. 'While many important policies and details remain to be debated, the framework release is an important first step in moving forward on fixing our broken immigration system." It also supports citizenship for undocumented workers.