Top Latino labor leader talks immigration law with Obama

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WASHINGTON - Service Employees Secretary-Treasurer Eliseo Medina, the most-powerful, highest-ranking Hispanic American in the labor movement, told President Obama of SEIU's all-out commitment to immigration reform, assuming reform includes a path to citizenship for undocumented workers.

Medina's promise, in a Feb. 5 White House meeting Obama hosted for union and progressive leaders - including AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka - came after the Economic Policy Institute pointed out the president's immigration reform framework includes an explicit commitment to worker rights for the undocumented.

Medina called the White House meeting "very productive." He said Obama "reiterated his commitment to commonsense immigration reform with a path to citizenship for the 11 million immigrants now here without documents.

"While we were meeting with the president, the GOP-controlled House Judiciary Committee held a hearing that tilted away from common sense solutions," the SEIU leader added.  "It serves as a reminder that we have to remain watchful over the legislative process to make sure voters learn who are the champions of reform and who are the ones who will try to obstruct the process.

"We have a lot of work to do between now and when the president signs a bill into law, but we are committed to making sure Congress approves reforms that include a reasonable and fair path to citizenship and that protect the rights of all workers."

SEIU General Counsel Judy Scott previously said comprehensive immigration reform would top the union's legislative priority list.  The 2.1-million-plus member SEIU represents hundreds of thousands of Hispanic-named workers, including janitors, nurses and aides.  Many of them have undocumented relatives.

Other unions, along with the AFL-CIO, are also making immigration reform a top legislative goal.  The latest was the Auto Workers: Its president, Bob King told his legislative conference in D.C. that "we are a union of immigrants."

Obama met Medina, Trumka and the others as part of his campaign for comprehensive reform designed to legalize the status of the 11 million undocumented workers now in the U.S. His plan, like those floating around Capitol Hill, would increase U.S. border security, establish an employment verification system to ensure firms hire only legal workers, then set up a long detailed process to legalize the undocumented.

That process includes paying taxes and fines, learning English, having a crime-free record and proving you have worked in the U.S.  And even then, the undocumented workers would have to go to the proverbial "back of the line" to seek legal residency.

Obama's plan also explicitly would give undocumented workers employment-related rights, such as labor law and minimum wage law coverage.  Now, labor laws do not cover those workers.  That lets venal and vicious employers exploit undocumented workers - and use the threat of hiring them as a lever against other workers.

Under the heading "Protections for all Workers," a White House fact sheet on Obama's plan declares: "The president's proposal protects workers against retaliation for exercising their labor rights.  It increases the penalties for employers who hire undocumented workers to skirt the workplace standards that protect all workers. And it creates a 'labor law enforcement fund' to help ensure that industries that employ significant numbers of immigrant workers comply with labor laws."

Obama's plan lacks more details, but the immigration reform proposals floating around Congress have none. And for both the AFL-CIO and SEIU, legalization of undocumented workers is a top goal, as that would bring them under labor law.

Photo:   Eliseo Medina    SEIU

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