What Kind of Immigration Reform Do We Need?: Labor and the Struggle for a Just Immigration Policy


On February 7, 2013, the leadership of the AFL-CIO launched a major nationwide campaign to promote the Obama administration’s proposed “comprehensive immigration reform” plan. The Obama plan calls for some legalization for undocumented immigrants in exchange for guest-worker programs and increased immigration enforcement.

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka and AFL-CIO immigration Committee Chair Maria Elena Durazo announced this campaign in Washington, D.C. According to Trumka, it will be initiated in 14 cities over the next month and will “deploy the labor movement’s political and grassroots infrastructure and the same system that has been used to elect and re-elect Barack Obama.”

The overall objectives of the campaign are lofty. Trumka explained:

“We believe that in order to create shared prosperity and a voice for all, we must address our immigration process. … Workers without the protections of citizenship are subject to enormous abuse by employers. That’s why the labor movement has been working with day laborers and domestic workers for years. We understand that solidarity means standing together with predominantly immigrant workforces to improve wages and workplace safety.”

On February 12, in a commentary piece on President Obama’s State of the Union address, Trumka expanded on labor’s stance in relation to the proposed immigration reform law, stating:

“We share the President’s urgent belief in the importance of a path to citizenship for 11 million aspiring Americans who call this country home, and we are fully committed to making that a reality. Reform of our immigration laws must reflect America’s values as a democratic society, and not create a second class of workers, whether through a temporary worker program or by restricting the ability of the undocumented to someday attain citizenship. Strong protections for worker standards and worker rights are essential to the economic future of all working people.”

It should be noted that in his address to the nation on February 12, Obama underscored the first priority of his “comprehensive immigration reform” plan: tightened border security. For Obama, this question is at the center of his plan. This is what he told the nation:

“Real reform means strong border security, and we can build on the progress my administration has already made — putting more boots on the southern border than at any time in our history, and reducing illegal crossings to their lowest levels in 40 years.”

Indeed. Obama beefed up enforcement and deported a record number of undocumented people, surpassing the numbers of the George W. Bush administration. During his first term, 1.2 million people were deported through night raids on families’ homes and stricter enforcement of programs such as E-verify and Secure Communities. During the fiscal year 2012 alone, the Obama administration spent an astounding $18 billion on immigration enforcement (presente.org).

And Obama’s 2013 proposal calls for increased repression.

Labor Movement’s Blueprint for Immigration Reform

A closer look at the Labor Movement’s Blueprint for Immigration Reform — the document presented jointly by Trumka and Durazo on February 7 — raises some serious questions about how far the labor movement is actually willing to go in asserting labor’s independent positions on immigration reform and raising the demands that are needed to win justice for all undocumented people living in this country.

The AFL-CIO’s blueprint consists of five major interconnected pieces that fall way short of — and in many ways are in contradiction with — the positions adopted by the AFL-CIO National Convention in 1999 or by the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement’s 17th National Convention in 2008.

The five pillars of the AFL-CIO’s new blueprint are as follows:

  1. An independent commission to assess and manage future flows, based on labor market shortages that are determined on the basis of actual need;
  2. A secure and effective worker authorization mechanism;
  3. Rational operational control of the border;
  4. Adjustment of status for current undocumented population; and
  5. Improvement, not expansion of temporary worker programs, limited to temporary seasonal not permanent jobs.

All these points accept many of the basic premises of the Obama administration’s “reform” proposal: the need for “guest workers,” the need for continued workplace enforcement, and the need for continued “border security” — that is, a militarized border — presented here as “operational control of the border.”

Nor does the Labor Movement’s Blueprint propose to tackle the root causes of the massive migration to the United States by workers, peasants and youth — particularly from throughout Latin America. And these causes are no secret; they are to be found in the multiple U.S. government-imposed “free trade” agreements that have decimated the national economies south of the border in the interests of the transnational (mainly U.S.) corporations.

The U.S. labor movement has long understood this, which is why it has opposed — at least formally — these “free trade” agreements. But now there is total silence on the part of Trumka and the AFL-CIO leadership on this question.

Not just that: Obama announced in his State of the Union address that he will be going ahead with the “Trans-Pacific Partnership Program” — which is really nothing but NAFTA on steroids, this time with Asian nations. And there was not one word of criticism from Trumka on this question in his commentary on Obama’s speech to the nation, even though millions of U.S. jobs are likely to be lost under this agreement.

Labor’s Positions Past and Present

* Contrast these five “interconnected pieces” of the AFL-CIO’s new blueprint with the positions adopted at the National 1999 AFL-CIO Convention in Los Angeles, which demanded the repeal of employer sanctions, immediate amnesty for all undocumented workers, protection of the right to organize for all workers, the strengthening of family reunification as the basis of immigration policy, and opposition to guest-worker programs.

* Contrast these five points as well with the positions taken by the National Convention of LCLAA — the Latino wing of the AFL-CIO — in Las Vegas in August 2008, which called for the following:

– rejection of the “free trade” agreements throughout the Americas and call for their renegotiation and ultimately for their repeal if (1) labor and environmental standards are not elevated to levels considered adequate by the labor movements in the signatory countries, (2) national development programs are not established in the signatory countries that promote massive investments that generate manufacturing employment, (3) necessary comprehensive agricultural reforms are not implemented in the signatory countries with the aim of rooting the campesinos in the land so that they can remain in their countries of origin, without having to migrate, and (4) they continue to undermine the democratic institutions and protections of each country.

– repeal of the Security and Prosperity Partnership between the United States, Mexico and Canada;

– rejection of the privatization of state enterprises that provide public social services (education, health, public transportation) and rejection of any form of privatization-destruction of the public system of social security, pensions and retirement.

– rejection of the privatization of natural resources (oil and gas in particular) in Mexico and countries south of the border; the revenue from the State enterprises should be put toward investment in national development plans and programs — in infrastructure and in industrial and agricultural production;

– legalization and Papers for All workers, documented or undocumented; immigrant workers should have full rights like any other component of the U.S. working class.

– tearing down the Wall of Shame along the U.S.-Mexican border and putting an end to the militarization of the border; and

– putting an immediate halt to the raids and detentions of undocumented immigrants; and

– rejection of the guest-worker programs as contrary to the interests of both immigrant and native-born workers.

All the planks were submitted to the LCLAA national convention by its Sacramento chapter based on the chapter’s campaign for the Right Not to Emigrate.

* Contrast the five points, finally, with the resolution adopted July 7, 2010, by the San Francisco Labor Council, which in “Resolveds” section states, in part:

– The San Francisco Labor Council reiterates its support for the immigration position adopted by the AFL-CIO Convention in 1999.

– The San Francisco Labor Council rejects all the proposals in Congress that promote the firing of immigrant workers, open the doors to new guest-worker programs, and do not contain a program for the quick and inclusive legalization of undocumented workers.

– The San Francisco Labor Council supports only those proposals for immigration reform that would force the renegotiation of NAFTA, CAFTA and all other trade agreements, in order to stop the enforced poverty that displaces communities abroad and to protect jobs in the United States, and will oppose any new trade agreements that cause such displacement and do not protect jobs.

Drawing a Hard Line in the Sand: Papers for All, Full Rights for All!

The AFL-CIO leadership has proposed to open a discussion among its affiliates as well as among labor’s community allies about how best to advance the fight for comprehensive immigration reform today.

Union activists who support full labor and democratic rights for all the undocumented immigrants living in the United States should seek to participate in these discussions to remind everyone of labor’s past positions and to insist that labor must draw a hard line in the sand and not back down from its past call for Papers for All and Full Rights for All!

Most important, it will be necessary to argue that if the labor movement is to win these pressing demands, it must break with its ties of subordination to Obama and the Democratic Party and champion the sole interests of the working class majority — including its immigrant and undocumented sectors, who are part and parcel of the U.S. working class.

In a word, it will be necessary for the labor movement to stick to its guns and not accept or support anything less than a program that protects unconditionally and without exceptions the labor and human rights of all people. And to prevail, this will ultimately require building broad-based mass demonstrations around the above demands in the streets, together with labor’s allies.

In that vein, following the lead of the Sacramento chapter of LCLAA, labor activists should reach out to the immigrant rights’ organizations nationwide and propose a dialogue within the immigrant community — “Consultas Populares” — to insist that the immigration proposals emerging from Washington must be based on the needs and demands of the immigrant community.

Together, workers documented and undocumented, can force through their demands:
– Stop the Raids and Deportations!
– End E-Verify & Full Labor Rights For All!
– A DREAM Act with no military strings!
– No Guest Worker Programs!
– No to the English requirement!

– No to the back-of-the-line requirement!

– No to back taxes or fines without Social Security for those who have paid into the system!

– Tear down the Wall of Shame; End the militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border!

– Amnesty/Legalization, Papers for All Now!


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