By LINDA CHAVEZ-THOMPSON
Sunday, March 26th, 2006
They are Latin American immigrants tending the manicured lawns in wealthy New York neighborhoods. They are Indian computer programmers working for major corporations. They are women, born in Mexico and Africa, who tend our children. They pay taxes and have been contributing members of our communities for years. Many have families. We rely on their labor each and every day. Yet the basic rights of these workers - to a minimum wage, a safe workplace and fair treatment - are routinely trampled upon. This exploitation hurts all of us, foreign and native-born alike. It must end, and the overhauling of our nation's broken immigration laws is essential to achieving this goal.
Tragically, all immigration reform proposals currently circulating in the halls of Congress fail to protect even the most basic rights of immigrant workers and their families. Just last week, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) put forth his own makeshift proposal - topping the list of legislative failures. He wants to criminalize immigrant workers, deepening the potential for abuse and exploitation while undermining wages and labor protections for all.
To achieve comprehensive immigration reform, we have to give up the illusion that enforcement of laws alone can fix our broken system. Effective reform must include three interdependent goals. First, our government must uniformly enforce laws on workplace standards. All workers, including immigrants, should earn a minimum wage, have safe jobs and receive fair treatment. When immigrants are treated poorly, workplace standards are dragged down for all workers. Second, we must reject guest worker programs. Because these workers are wholly dependent on host employers for both their livelihoods and legal status, guest workers are ripe for exploitation. Finally, there must be a path to permanent residency for immigrant workers already here.
Undocumented workers are under constant threat of deportation, and employers cheat them out of due wages. They work the most dangerous jobs - among foreign-born workers, workplace fatality has increased by an alarming 46% between 1992 and 2002. When immigrant workers try to correct these injustices by forming unions, they are harassed, intimidated and terminated. When all else fails to break a union drive, employers simply call in the immigration authorities and everyone gets deported for standing up for basic rights.
Criminalizing undocumented workers makes them easy prey for unscrupulous employers. That in turn drives down working standards for all Americans and creates an undemocratic, two-tiered society.
We need an immigration policy that provides a real path to citizenship for those workers already here and that helps meet the future needs of workers in a fair way. We should recognize immigrant workers as full members of society - permanent residents with full rights that employers may not exploit.
As a nation that prides itself on fair treatment and equality, we simply cannot settle for anything less.
Chavez-Thompson is executive vice president of AFL-CIO.