As Republicans resist, labor tackles comprehensive immigration reform
A coalition of all the Democrats and 20 Republicans in the House fell just short of the number needed to force a vote on legislation that would make DACA permanent. Trump cancelled the program stared by President Obama but deportations of as many as 800,000 are held up because of court rulings. | AP

WASHINGTON—As the U.S. House’s ruling Republicans rip themselves apart over immigration issues, organized labor tackled comprehensive policy ideas on the issue in a recent half-day symposium the AFL-CIO hosted.

“We have a very simple agenda to advance – an agenda for all workers, and I emphasize the word “all,” fed President Richard Trumka said in opening the session.

But whether any of those ideas, including eventual citizenship for any of the estimated 11 million undocumented people in the U.S., ever becomes law, is up in the air. That’s because solons are struggling with what to do about DACA beneficiaries, first.

President Trump abolished DACA, the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program – or thought he did. But federal judges put a halt to his planned deportations of the 690,000 to 800,000 DACA recipients, all of whom were brought to the U.S. as youngsters.

Those “Dreamers” are now teenagers and young adults, going to college, working and serving in the U.S. military. Obama let them come out of the shadows and live more or less legally. Trump wants to throw them out. But congressional Democrats and a group of renegade House Republicans don’t.

They’re demanding a vote on a measure to permanently establish the DACA program. To force it, they took the unusual move of filing a “discharge petition,” a device that lets a majority of House members – 218 – override leaders and bring legislation up for floor debate.

The DACA supporters signed up virtually every Democrat and at least 20 GOPers, bringing them within two names of success, and sending Congress’ GOP leaders scrambling to respond. House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., promised the closed-door meeting of all Republicans on June 7 he’ll “put pen to paper” and bring legislation to the floor by June 12. But he wants a measure the GOP majority can agree on.

All this is being hashed out behind closed doors. The AFL-CIO’s May 20 forum was out in the open.

The AFL-CIO’s agenda includes “fighting off the attacks on our brothers and sisters, which come in many forms. Some of the most-insidious are attacks that say ‘some have more rights than others,’” Trumka said. “The forces of fear are on the move again.”

Those forces of fear are in both the Trump administration – which is ripping apart families, even refugee families – at the U.S.-Mexico border and among the majority of the House’s ruling Republicans. Unlike the Republicans willing to vote for Democratic legislation to let the Dreamers stay in the U.S. for good, most House Republicans agree with Trump.

The forces of fear also force workers into the shadows. Trumka told the story of an undocumented construction worker who broke his leg in a fall. “The contractor didn’t have workers’ comp, and when he (the worker) tried to file a claim, ICE arrested him,” said Trumka, referring to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.

“Those ICE raids directly threaten workers,” union and non-union, native and immigrant, Trumka added. “And economists at UCLA found discrimination” in pay “against one group of workers not only leads to less pay for that group, but it leads to less pay for all groups of workers.”

Panelists at the federation’s forum agreed on one key idea for solving the problem: A form of legalization.

“The easy solution is to bring” the undocumented “out of the shadows by (enacting) programs like DACA and TPS (Temporary Protected Status),” said Heidi Shierholz, the Economic Policy Institute’s chief analyst. TPS is another pro-immigrant program Trump is abolishing, and kicking its recipients out of the U.S.  Some construction unions are one-quarter to one-third TPS recipients, all black or brown.

Unionists must also make the point that “immigration is not the cause of rising (income) inequality,” Shierholz said. Instead, “our current immigration system is being exploited by employers to the detriment of workers.” Added another panelist, “In the end, employers want cheaper, coerced labor.”

But Trumka and others reminded the packed house that union leaders must address their own members’ fears about competition from undocumented workers driving down wages and costing them jobs.

“We have to get and concentrate our action towards what’s driving” anti-immigrant prejudice, added Ironworkers President Eric Dean. “In construction unions, we could harness the power of docile workers afraid to speak up” by giving them protection in numbers and through legal defense. “But I don’t see the passion within the union movement” for immigration reform. “Immigrants are core constituencies of our unions and we need to speak up for them,” he said.

And Montserrat Garibay of the Texas AFL-CIO reminded the crowd that many of the union workers disturbed about immigration voted for Trump in 2016:

“We have to go back to the basics of organizing. The same people that are against labor, women’s rights and workers’ rights are attacking us” – the immigrants – “every single day. We need to go back and talk to those people who may have voted for the 45th president.”


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.