We need real immigration reform, not a wall
A toddler sits on the floor with other immigrant detainees. Trump's immigration policy has resulted in unprecedented cruelty including the tearing of children away from their parents and the incarceration of children in cages. It has done absolutely nothing to increase either the safety or the security of the country. | Eric Gay/AP

Republican President Donald Trump wants a wall – a wall between the United States and Mexico. He wants it so bad that he shut down as much of the U.S. government as he could in order to try and extract $5 billion from Congress to build the wall.

Now the wall could be concrete. It could be steel slats – so you can see who is trying to get in. Or perhaps he would accept, as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., teased, “a beaded curtain.”

But the fact remains the majority of Americans do not support a border wall while they do support ways to strengthen immigration policy and security.

January 3 marked Day 13 of Trump’s shutdown of the federal government. More than 800,000 federal workers are still without a paycheck – 420,000 working every day and in some cases putting their lives on the line without pay, and 380,000 furloughed without pay.

The president whines about sacrificing his Christmas and New Year’s holiday by staying in Washington, D.C. rather than at his Mar-a-Lago resort. But unlike hundreds of thousands of federal employees and union members struggling financially due to the shutdown, the president remained housed and well fed at the White House at taxpayers’ expense.

Labor leaders have something to say about this.

“Our members put their lives on the line to keep our country safe,” said American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) President J. David Cox. “Requiring them to work without pay is nothing short of inhumane.”

According to AFGE, the average take-home pay for their members is $500 a week. Trump does not have the slightest idea the sacrifice these workers make for the U.S., even when they are paid.

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said, “Trump’s holding U.S. workers hostage” for the wall “and wants taxpayers to foot the bill.”

Here are some facts:

  • 56 percent of Americans oppose Trump’s Mexican Wall (Harvard/Harris Poll)
  • 58 percent believe Trump should back-off his demand (same poll)
  • 61 percent oppose using shutdown as leverage on issue (same poll)
  • 83 percent approve of DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) – creating a pathway to citizenship for “The Dreamers,” children of undocumented immigrants – (Gallup)
  • In 2016, the U.S. has had the lowest level of undocumented individuals in a decade and their share of the total U.S. workforce has dropped (Pew Research)
  • Most undocumented individuals enter the U.S. with visas but overstay their visas; 90 percent of those who overstay are from countries other than Mexico and Central America (Pew Research)
  • More than 21,000 Border Enforcement Agents, 2,000 National Guard, and 5,200 troops are stationed at the U.S. border (DHS and Trump).

Nonetheless, because his lies and exaggerations worked so well during the 2016 campaign, Trump continues to wage his personal immigration war, claiming he is combating drugs, human trafficking, gang members, and criminals.

With all too typical bombast and bullying, Trump demands people believe we need a wall because he says we do.

Trump discounted Democratic congressional ideas for ending his shutdown by labeling them the “Pelosi Plan” and claiming this plan is a “non-starter,” and “puts the needs of other countries above the needs of our own.”

I think it would be more accurate to say the House Democratic plan puts the needs of the U.S. above the needs of Donald Trump.

Over the next days and weeks, it is important to make clear we will not allow this president to hold union members hostage to a false sense of border security. It is important for us to articulate for our members the need for real immigration reform.

As part of this process, we need to remind our members of the past and present contributions immigrants made to our economy and culture. It is also important to begin a substantive discussion on how we use our better angels to address the issue of migration by political, economic, and climate refugees.

As climate disaster continues its attack on our environment and economy, forced migration around the world will accelerate. We need to address this migration thoughtfully, with humility and morality.

To help ground us for this discussion, I want to share with you a poem by Washington state’s Poet Laureate. Claudia Castro Luna read “Am I Not an Immigrant” to those celebrating Casa Latina this past fall. Her poem follows the pattern and theme of Sojourner Truth’s statement, “Ain’t I A Woman,” presented at a Women’s Rights Convention in 1851.

“Am I Not An Immigrant”

By Claudia Castro Luna

There is so much turmoil in our country of late, something must be terribly wrong.

There is a man over there, who occupies the highest office in the land, who says immigrants are rapists, criminals, the worst kind of people.

I have never committed a crime, have paid taxes every year of my adult life, and have worked to earn an honest wage! And, am I not an immigrant?

He says, immigrants take away from everyone and for this they should be rounded up by the millions and deported; they should be banned and blacklisted for worshiping in a way that differs from his. I studied hard to obtain an education and worked to educate children in public schools and everyday commit to lead a life worthy of my parents’ sacrifice, who knew this country was by no means perfect, but it offered us refuge and hope! And, am I not an immigrant?

That man over there may well say, “you are an exception,” but let me tell you, all of us in my immigrant family, my immigrant friends, and many immigrant brothers and sisters, none of us lead our lives to cheat, deceive, take advantage of anyone or any system. We love our kin like everyone else and aspire to a fulfilled life.

The immigrants I know are nurses, teachers, doctors, day laborers, professors. They own businesses, clean school buildings, compose music, make sculptures, write poems. And all are dreamers.

From its dawning, where did the majority of this country’s population come from? Where did it come from?

From other places, other countries. The exceptionalism of this country resides in that very fact. In the respect and wonderment of difference.

Let her, let her who can produce a birth certificate immune to the waves of immigration to this county, speak to the grandeur of this land before it was bound to western laws.

Otherwise the road has been/is made by walking — together. Juntos. Together. Todos juntos. All together.

We walk this road together not just as “Good Samaritans,” but as leaders and activists that see a progressive, moral, and “Just Transition” for working people. We have our work cut out for us. But it is righteous and important work.

This column first appeared in WSLC’s online publication, The Stand. Used by permission.


Jeff Johnson
Jeff Johnson

Jeff Johnson was president of the Washington State Labor Council. He retired January 4, 2019, after 32 years with the labor council.