LOS ANGELES - "Today at the AFL-CIO convention, we will vote on a resolution to reaffirm the need to pass comprehensive immigration reform," announced Maria Elena Durazo, chair of the federation's immigration committee and executive secretary-treasurer of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor. "Even if the Republican Party is standing in our way," she declared, "this is our time."
Surrounded by union members, many of them immigrants, Durazo made the announcement at an impromptu rally on Sept. 10 in the atrium at the Los Angeles Convention Center. (The resolution was adopted later that day.)
"Working people are strongest when no group of workers is exploited, and the union movement is strongest when it is open to all workers regardless of where they were born," the resolution states.
The resolution's title is "Assisting Immigrant Workers to Become Citizens and Exercise Their Workplace Rights."
It includes a call for the roadmap to citizenship developed by a broad coalition of labor and community leaders, union members, and undocumented citizens themselves. This is reflective of the new approach the labor movement is taking now with almost everything it does.
"We will not let Congress put this issue on the back burner," said Durazo. "We will escalate our actions. Republicans and Democrats who stand in the way of immigration reform will pay the consequences!"
Tefere Gebre, executive director of the Orange County Labor Federation, who came to the U.S. from Ethiopia as a teenager, added his voice to the fight. "I know the life of an immigrant," he said. "I identify as one more than I identify as anything else. But the America I dreamed of when I came here is not the one that I live in. It never tore families apart by deporting mothers, or detained hard-working undocumented taxi drivers. But that is what is happening."
Bhairavi Desai, who is the executive director of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, concurred. "In our industry," she said, "We work 60-70 hours a week and don't even earn a minimum wage. And it can be a dangerous job. So imagine the gall, to say to these drivers, 'You don't have the right to be here.' How dare they? Our citizenship has been earned through our hard work under backbreaking conditions. We need immigration reform, not a policy of indentured servitude for undocumented workers."
She related this struggle to those of other workers, noting, "We are two sides of the same coin. And we are at the forefront of this fight."
Neidi Dominguez, a DREAM Act supporter and organizer with the CLEAN Carwash Campaign, explained, "There has never been a division between immigrant rights and workers rights; they are both the same. Richard Trumka was right - we need to stop deportations now and build an alliance between U.S. labor and undocumented workers who need support."
AFSCME President Lee Saunders underscored the need for a collective, grassroots effort to alert Washington to the demands of immigrants. "Activists all over the country have reached out to Republicans in the House; but people like John Boehner have been very unresponsive," Saunders said. "So now it's time to take the fight to them. We're calling on governors to publicly demand that Republicans in Congress call for a path to citizenship.
"Whatever it takes, organized labor is prepared to push as hard as they can for this reform," he said. "Employers throughout the country have used the broken immigration system to bust unions, threatening union workers with deportation. Their fight is our fight!"
Video by Rossana Cambron, edited by Eli Halbreich
Photo: Bhairavi Desai, joined on the left by Tefere Gebre and Lee Saunders, and on the far right by Maria Elena Durazo, outlines the simple truth that the struggles of laborers and undocumented citizens are one and the same. Rossana Cambron/PW