Why Workers Should Support Immigration Reform

(PAI) If union members are like the general population, there are probably thousands of you wondering today why you should support immigration reform.

After all, a key plank of reform proposals Democratic President Barack Obama and lawmakers of both parties are tossing around Washington is to open an eventual path for legalization of the estimated 11 million undocumented workers in the U.S.

“But these people came here illegally,” you say. “They snuck in over the border, or overstayed their visas. Why can’t they stand in line like those who came in the right way?” Those are good questions. Leaving aside moral issues, here are some reasons:

The first is that immigration reform proposals would let them stay here, but, in essence, go to the back of that line and do what they should have done in the first place: Apply for legal entry, wait for years, keep out of trouble, learn English, assimilate, pay taxes, work.  And they could start doing all this only after somebody – it’s unclear who – certifies that U.S. borders are strongly guarded enough to prevent further illegal migration. These are all requirements the 11 million must fulfill, inside the country.

The second is self-interest, theirs and yours.

Once those 11 million attain some sort of legal status in the U.S., they fall under protection of our labor laws, however weak they are, just like you and me. Right now, they aren’t protected.

And what are the results?  The 11 million workers are cruelly exploited by venal and vicious employers.  They’re underpaid, or not paid.  They get no benefits and no health care coverage.  When they try to protect themselves, the employers get rid of them – by calling federal immigration agents, who make a specialty of deporting workers, especially those involved in organizing campaigns.

And that brings us to the other group that benefits if those 11 million undocumented workers come under labor law protection: You and me.  That’s because those same venal and vicious employers who hire the undocumented workers in the first place can also use the threat of hiring them as leverage against regular workers.

“Hey, Joe,” the straw boss yells. “We’re gonna pay you the minimum wage, with no health insurance.  No pension, either. And ya better take it.”

“Why?”  “’Cuz if you don’t, we’ll go find a ‘coyote’ who’ll bring us a pack of illegals.  We don’t gotta pay them the minimum, and we won’t. It’ll all be in cash under the table, and they’ll get nuttin’. They won’t get health care. They’ll be ‘contractors,’ so they can’t organize. If they bitch, we’ll fire them, call the feds and hire another batch.

“So you better take that job, on our terms, at our minimum wage. There ain’t any others. And don’t you dare call the union, either.”

Sound fanciful? It isn’t. Several years ago, regular workers sued a rug company in Georgia over precisely that scenario. The regular workers alleged the firm hired the coyotes to import and transport undocumented workers, that the firm provided false documents and put them to work at the minimum wage or worse. The regular workers lost jobs. They charged the rug company with conspiring with the coyotes to deprive them of an economic opportunity – jobs – in violation of federal racketeering laws.

The only facets missing were the call to the union, and any organizing attempts.

The regular workers lost in court, but it doesn’t take too much imagination to envision similar scenes playing out at the farms and in the factories of the nation’s worst employers. Think sweatshops in Los Angeles, farm fields in Texas – or the after-hours cleaning crews at Wal-Mart. Or pick a fast food restaurant, any fast food restaurant.

You want that exploitation to stop? You want corporate blackmail against you to slow?  You want the straw boss to shut up and his firm to follow the law and pay you a decent wage? Then legalizing undocumented workers is in your best interest.

And those are some reasons to support immigration reform.