Why we fight for immigrant rights

Many workers — union and nonunion — ask why unions support a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. Why, as one member puts it, are we fighting for the “illegals who have been taking our jobs”?

I remind them of a powerful statement from labor’s past that lives on today: An injury to one is an injury to all.

America’s broken immigration system has allowed employers to create a low-wage labor pool of immigrant workers that is easily exploitable. Employers can pay these workers less, force them to work in intolerable conditions, block their right to union representation and threaten to turn them in to immigration officials if they complain. That’s immoral.

And when employers drive down wages and working conditions for one group of workers, they harm us all. That’s not progressive rhetoric — it’s cold, hard truth. U.S.-born workers who work alongside immigrants and in the same industries suffer the same exploitation. The U.S. Department of Labor, for example, has found the poultry industry — with a workforce split about evenly between African Americans and immigrants — was 100 percent out of compliance with federal wage and hour laws. More than half of the country’s garment factories violate wage and hour laws and more than three-quarters violate health and safety laws, according to the department. If a workplace is dangerous for immigrant workers, it is equally dangerous for their U.S.-born co-workers.

Some people say we could solve this by simply keeping immigrants out of the country. But America is a nation of immigrants, made up almost entirely of European, African, Asian and South and Central American brothers and sisters who came here in previous waves of migration. Some 12 million undocumented immigrants are here today — that’s reality — and they are working and paying taxes and strengthening our economy and our culture. Here’s more reality: Globalization is not going away. Employers will do all they can to fill the jobs that can’t be exported to low-wage countries by importing low-wage workers with no ability to exercise their rights. The genie of the globalized economy is not going back into the bottle.

The answer isn’t to make immigrant workers here now disappear, or turn them into felons, as the bill passed by the Republican majority in the U.S. House of Representatives would do. The answer is to deprive employers of the means to exploit them and lower work quality for all of us. As long as immigrant workers can be terrorized by the threat of deportation or prosecution based on their status, employers can control and abuse them. But 12 million immigrant workers with the power and rights of citizenship would be vital partners with U.S.-born workers in the fight for living wages, health and retirement benefits and justice on the job.

And the answer isn’t guest worker programs that U.S. employers use to turn permanent jobs that pay well into temporary jobs that offer few or no benefits, pay lower wages and chain workers to the employers that recruited them, making them vulnerable to exploitation.

Again and again employers say they need immigrant workers because U.S.-born workers won’t do the jobs. But you and I know darn well it’s slave wages U.S. workers are rejecting, not the jobs themselves.

I believe deeply that immigrant workers are our sisters and brothers and that every person who works in this country is entitled to the full range of rights and opportunities America provides. We must support immigrant workers because supporting all working people is the core of what it means to be a trade unionist. We are always — always — stronger together than when we allow ruthless employers and the politicians they own to drive wedges between us.

The AFL-CIO and our member unions demand a path to citizenship for immigrant workers and fair treatment and freedom from exploitation for all the workers of America.

John Sweeney is president of the AFL-CIO. This article is reprinted from www.aflcio.org.