Why Immigration Is a Top Priority for US Labor

by Amy Dean

Maria Elena Durazo speaks during the Action Summit on Worker Safety and Health at East Los Angeles College, April 26, 2012. (Photo: Susan Goldman / US Department of Labor)

Maria Elena Durazo speaks during the Action Summit on Worker Safety and Health at East Los Angeles College, April 26, 2012. (Photo: Susan Goldman / US Department of Labor)

Immigrants’ rights are workers’ rights. These days, that idea is a principle held dear by the US labor movement. But that wasn’t always the case.

As recently as the mid-1990s, many unions took protectionist stances against allowing new immigrants to come to this country. It was only after these unions saw the abuses that became prevalent under an employer-driven system for verifying immigration status that the labor movement embraced a new position. The movement recognized that for working people to thrive, all employees had to have full rights in the workplace.

Today, labor is one of the key forces pushing for comprehensive immigration reform in Washington, DC. To learn more about the movement’s advocacy and more about how unions transformed themselves into outspoken champions of immigrant rights, I spoke with Maria Elena Durazo. A daughter of Mexican immigrant farm workers, Durazo rose to become the leader of the hotel and restaurant workers union in Los Angeles, the dynamic UNITE HERE Local 11. And, as chair of the national AFL-CIO’s Immigration Committee, Durazo is now a leading point person in the national immigration debate.

Knowing that many people are confused when hearing about union activism around immigration, I asked Durazo a straightforward question: Why is this issue a top priority for labor?

“It’s bad for American workers for there to be 11 million-plus people out there working with no rights,” Durazo said. “[These immigrants] are subject to exploitation. They are subject, as a result of that, to accept lower wages. They are subject to working in dangerous conditions. That is bad for those immigrant workers, and it is bad for American workers as a whole.”

She continued: “We cannot have a prosperous nation and recreate the middle class as long as there is an underclass of 11 million people who do not have rights. By fixing this and getting them all on the road to citizenship, we address a huge issue that is the cause of enormous exploitation – of wage theft and other massive violations of labor laws.”

“It’s kind of like why we support raising the minimum wage,” she added, by way of comparison. “Ninety-nine percent of unionized workers aren’t directly impacted by an increase in minimum wage. But when the standard is raised, when the bottom is lifted, that helps all workers.”

Continuing our conversation, Durazo and I spoke about the benefits she anticipates if immigration reform is successful.

“We are positive that immigration reform is going to strengthen the middle class. One of the studies shows that, just through citizenship, someone’s income grows by 15 percent. Employers know that they can’t threaten and push them down.

“We want to raise the working standards for everybody. That is both self-interest, and it is [consistent with] the values of the labor movement. That is what we hope to live up to, that is what we believe in, and that is what we have got to put into practice.”

Noting that there has been an almost 180-degree turn in the past 20 years, I asked Durazo to speak about the internal changes that the labor movement has experienced around its position on immigration.

“This year the national AFL-CIO convention is going to be in Los Angeles,” she said. “I was remembering that, the last time the convention was in Los Angeles – in 1999 – that was when there was a major break with the previous policies on immigrant workers. [Former AFL-CIO] President [John] Sweeney had recently come into office, and there was a [shift] from basically blaming immigrant workers for a lot of problems to saying, ‘We stand with immigrant workers, and we want immigration reform.’

“I think a number of things lined up” to make that happen, she said. “One is President Sweeney’s election and his own experience as the head of SEIU [which represents janitors and other service-sector workers]. Other unions had national leadership that had also become very passionate about immigration. SEIU, [UNITE] HERE, the Farmworkers Union, the United Food and Commercial Workers – and even the Laborers at the time. Those national leaders stood up and backed up this change in policy.

“It was delicate, to say the least, but it happened. I would say that from then to today, we have come a long way. It has been more constant, to the point where, this year, President Trumka is in a position to say, ‘We are going all out. This is one of two national priorities for the AFL-CIO to get done in 2013.’ That is a remarkable change from 1999.”

Knowing that Republicans are pushing for some pretty odious compromises, I asked what labor is willing to accept in an immigration reform proposal.

“It is premature to say what we would accept or would not accept,” Durazo said. “What we are pushing for, and what is absolutely essential to us, is that there has to be a path to citizenship. There are a lot of details still to be figured out about this. But we say, ‘Don’t play games about a “path to legalization,” which leaves people halfway there, with half the rights.’ That is a game we don’t want to play.

“We think both the Democrats and the Republicans, who have been shaken up by the surge in the number of Latino voters who went to the polls in November, have got to understand why those Latinos care. They care because if it’s not fixed the right way, then they are going to continue to be singled out – under the guise of immigration laws, which in fact turn out to be voter suppression laws [or] discriminatory laws, like SB1070 in Arizona.”

Concluding our talk, I asked Durazo to speak about her personal experience with this issue – and about how she sees labor’s investment growing.

“I have been working at this my whole life. My parents came to this country from Mexico. My oldest sisters were born in Mexico. We worked in the field. I personally know what it’s like to be singled out and to not earn enough money to have a roof over our heads, to not make enough money to have food on our table. It is wrong, period, in this country to live like that.

“When I see in the year 2013 – 40 years after I left working in the field – that there are car wash workers who routinely do not get wages, do not get paid for 8 or 10 hours of work a day, the only thing they get is tips . . . When I see routinely that hotel housekeepers have to clock out and then go back and clean a bunch more rooms . . . When I see that stuff going on to this day, it angers me.

“Yet it is extraordinary when those men and women turn around and take charge of their lives,” Durazo continued. “For me, this is not about what happens inside of Washington, DC. What I am excited about is all the organizing, all the connections that we are going to make outside of Washington, DC., outside of the Beltway, in our communities. Because not only will that organizing deliver the best immigration reform, but it is also going to get a whole lot of other things done for this country.”

“Lord knows,” she said, “we have got a lot of other things to fix besides immigration reform.”

Amy Dean is co-author, with David Reynolds, of “A New New Deal: How Regional Activism Will Reshape the American Labor Movement” and is president and founder of ABD Ventures. She worked for nearly two decades in the labor movement and now works to develop new and innovative organizing strategies for social change organizations. You can follow Amy on Twitter at @amybdean, or she can be reached via www.amybdean.com.

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