Immigration reform advocates speak out at AFL-CIO headquarters

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WASHINGTON - For a wide range of reasons that would benefit the whole country, people all over the U.S. must pressure the GOP-run U.S. House to approve comprehensive immigration reform that includes a path to citizenship for the undocumented, speakers at an immigration reform symposium urged.

And speakers at the three-hour session on July 30 at the AFL-CIO, including Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., Rep. Xavier Becerra, D-Calif., and prominent economists, sociologists and Latino group leaders, said it won't be easy.

The packed house was filled with supporters of immigration reform, many of whom are already participating in the immigration reform campaign the AFL-CIO is running across the country now during a five-week congressional recess.

"We're going to continue to fight for passage of this critical issue until Congress gets it done," vowed Laborers President Terry O'Sullivan, who opened the session with brief remarks. The Laborers, like other construction unions, include undocumented workers - or their documented relatives in the Latino and Asian communities.

The federation and the Economic Policy Institute convened the session as Congress was preparing for its August recess with the GOP-run House having done little on immigration reform - and nothing about the central crux of it, creating a path to citizenship for the 7.5 million undocumented adults and 3.5 million undocumented youth now in the U.S.

Unionists and their allies, from civil rights, Latino, Asian and other groups, started their pressure on the House GOP about citizenship on Aug.1 when 41 of their leaders were arrested here demonstrating near Capitol Hill. AFL-CIO Executive Vice President Arlene Holt Baker, Communications Workers President Larry Cohen, Service Employees Secretary-Treasurer Eliseo Medina and others sat down in the middle of Independence Avenue as hundreds of supporters chanted and applauded. Those arrested were released after having spent six hours in a holding cell.

Led by four Democrats and four Republicans, among them McCain, a bipartisan majority in the Senate passed a comprehensive reform bill. It includes a 13-year path to green cards and eventual citizenship for the undocumented. The "compromise," however, contains some onerous provisions, none of which are seen as justified by the immigration rights movement, labor or its allies. Immigrants would first have to pay fines and back taxes," pass an English language exam, show they've stayed out of legal trouble and go to the back of the line after regular visa applicants but only after they pay fines and back taxes.

On the plus side, however, undocumented workers applying for provisional immigrant status would immediately come under the protection of U.S. labor law. They aren't protected now, and that harms both the undocumented workers and other U.S. workers, panelists said.

That's because venal and vicious employers exploit the undocumented and threaten them with deportation if they stand up for themselves, and employers can also use the threat of firing regular workers and hiring the undocumented to force other workers into lower wages and living standards. Giving the undocumented "blue cards" for provisional status immediately brings them under labor law.

McCain, Becerra and the others were optimistic the GOP-run House would eventually pass immigration reform measures and then reach agreement with the Democratic-run Senate. McCain said, however, that labor and the Democrats would have to work within the House's framework - splitting comprehensive reform into separate bills covering employer verification of workers' status, border security and farm workers. Immigrant rights advocates have pointed out repeatedly, however, that the House approach of splitting the bill into a host of smaller ones amounts to an effort to avoid creating a path to citizenship for the more than 11 million immigrants who want to take that path.

"August is a very important month, because that's when members are back in their districts," and supporters of immigration reform must meet and lobby with them, even with apparent foes of reform, McCain said.

"And this fall is very important because of the mess we'll get into in 2014, when we get back into an election cycle," he added.

Though McCain did not say so, pro-reform Republicans could find themselves subject to nativist Tea Party challengers in GOP primaries next year, making them leery of supporting comprehensive reform.

"The chances of getting reform are much better than they were, but we're not going to do this unless there's a bipartisan bill," Becerra said. He forecast unanimous Democratic support for reform - and he lauded Republicans "who at some risk to themselves" politically "are stepping up to the plate" for it. He did not give an exact number, but said it was enough, along with the 201 Democrats, to push reform through.

"One of the things that's different now, from 2006-07" when a comprehensive reform bill went down the drain due to nativist opposition "is that young conservatives such as (Florida Sen.) Marco Rubio and (Wisconsin Rep.) Paul Ryan want to get this done," added Douglas Holtz-Eakin, former director of the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office and a top economic advisor during McCain's 2008 presidential bid.

Other speakers told how comprehensive reform would benefit the nation:

  • Cutting the deficit. Holtz-Eakin cited CBO calculations showing the added revenue from regularizing undocumented workers would cut the federal deficit by about $1 trillion over 10 years. Economic models predict legalization would add 600,000 jobs to the U.S. economy and 0.3 percent to U.S. gross domestic product, he added.

"That may not sound like much," he said. "But the U.S. economy has outgrown the British economy by an average of 0.3 percent of GDP every year since the American Revolution - and look where the two economies are now," Holtz-Eakin deadpanned.

  • Lessening the threat of home-grown terrorism. McCain drew a contrast with Europe, which does not legalize immigrants from North Africa. "They're in enclaves and never become part of society, and bad things happen" when they get radicalized.
  • Helps U.S. population grow, which will help Social Security revenues. Speakers noted the average immigrant woman has slightly more than two children, thus adding to the nation's future workforce. With the baby boomers aging, and with native U.S. women bearing an average of 1.7 children each - fewer than needed to replace people who die - the U.S. will need the new workers and revenue immigrants provide.
  • Ending the threat of second-class citizenship, or none at all. "Historically, immigrants have always been able to become citizens," said Alejandro Ruelas, a naturalized citizen and head of a Latino ad agency in San Antonio. "The exceptions have been Asians" in the 19th century "and those without status," the undocumented. "If you create a second-class citizenship, that is very different," he warned.

Ross Eisenbrey of the Economic Policy Institute added a specific benefit for unions. He said undocumented workers, due to their exploitation, are eager to unionize and collectively bargain. "The Supreme Court said you don't have the right to get back wages" as compensation for company labor law-breaking "if you have undocumented status," Eisenbrey noted. Legalizing the undocumented, even with provisional blue cards, overturns that ruling, both the Senate bill and employment attorneys say.

One complaint came from Gaby Pacheco, a leader of the Dreamers, the undocu- mented youth who have become the face of immigration reform. She noted the 13-year wait for legalization is long, notably for older people who have been "underground" for years. "That's fairly inhumane," she said. But even Pacheco agreed the important point is to pass the reform bill and set up the path to citizenship, which can be adjusted later.

"If you put aside party for country, you'll recognize it (immigration reform) adds billions of dollars to the economy and lets millions of people come out of the shadows," Becerra stated. "If we can galvanize all these different parts of America we can prevail," McCain added. "We haven't done that as well as we should."

Photo: Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP

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