Jeremy Beck's Picture


  by  Jeremy Beck

In "Labor Unions Move To Protect Immigrants, Regardless Of Legal Status" Esther Yu-Hsi Lee of ThinkProgress writes:

"For a large part of their history, labor unions cast a wary eye on immigrant workers, worried that foreign workers would hurt the leveraging power for members. But with a receding membership in recent times, unions are aggressively targeting the 22 million immigrant workers in the country, regardless of legal status, to join their ranks. Some immigrants are especially eager to join unions because many who fear deportation believe that it would improve workplace conditions without retribution. And unions are taking immigrant needs straight to the bargaining table.

"In fact, some unions now have clauses in their contract that protect against the use of programs like E-Verify and I-9 that could prevent some immigrants from getting jobs in the first place. That controversial bargaining chip is one that unions, like Unite Here, lobby for on behalf of undocumented immigrants who are the ones working in jobs that Ofello Carrillo insists no one else is taking. 'That's something we typically advocate for,' said Carrillo, the communications organizer for Unite Here Local 11 chapter."

For a more in-depth look, see "American Unionism and U.S. Immigration Policy" by the economist Vernon Briggs.

The founder of the American Federation of Labor, Samual Gompers, was an immigrant himself. Gompers declared immigration to be fundamentally a labor issue. As immigration reached record highs in the first decade of the 20th century, Gompers and the AFL gave their support to a Congressional commission to study mass immigration's impact on American workers. The Immigration Commission reported back in 1911 and concluded that mass immigration depressed wages, hampered unions, and exacerbated unemployment and poverty.

Although the economic findings of their report were sound, history has not been kind to the Immigration Commission because it also made several fatuous claims about the ability of certain ethnic groups to assimilate. This ugly bit of history helps explain why attempts to limit immigration in favor of American workers in the past few decades have been met with accusations of racial and ethnic bias.

Nevertheless, the commissions findings ultimately resulted in the Immigration Act of 1921 and the Immigration Act of 1924, which limited immigration to just over 150,000 per year. During this period of low immigration, the middle class grew, even for Blacks who faced overt and institutional discrimination. The percentage of Blacks in the middle class grew from 22 percent in 1940 to 71 percent in 1970.

Like the commission that inspired them, the 1921 and 1924 acts had a dark side to them, notably a discriminatory system based on national origin which continued into the 1950's. That system left virtually no slots for African or Asian countries while favoring immigration from countries in Northern and Western Europe. The newly-merged AFL-CIO lobbied to remove the discriminatory quota system in the 1950's but did not recommend increasing the overall numbers. The Immigration Act of 1965 did end the quota system but inadvertently also sent the numbers skyrocketing. The new family-based system ushered in an age of chain migration; and the law's lack of enforcement ushered in a new era of illegal immigration. Overall Immigration quickly doubled and eventually quadrupled to the 1 million annual average we have today.

A new commission was formed in the 1970s to offer recommendations on fixing the Immigration Act of 1965 and the Select Commission on Immigration and Refugee Policy, chaired by Rev. Theodore Hesburgh issued its final report in 1981. Congress was unable to pass comprehensive immigration reform in 1982 and 1984 but it passed the Immigration Reform and Control Act in 1986 to address illegal immigration only. That bill amnestied illegal aliens in the country but the enforcement measures that the AFL-CIO asked for were never enacted.

Legal and illegal immigration continued to rise throughout the 1980's and 1990's and by 1993, the AFL-CIO had changed its position on immigration. As immigration increased, unions began to target immigrants and illegal aliens for union membership. The AFL-CIO banded together with anti-union groups in 1996 to block workplace verification measures that would have reduced illegal immigration.

Union support for amnesty provoked this rebuke from the New York Times' editorial board in 2000:

"The A.F.L.-C.I.O.'s proposal is attractive to many groups. Unions welcome the chance to go after a huge new pool of unorganized workers. Employers welcome the chance to hire cheap labor without fear of criminal liability. And illegal immigrants who have worked hard for years and raised families under harrowing circumstances would welcome access to medical care and other services denied to illegal aliens.

"But the A.F.L.-C.I.O.'s proposal should be rejected. Amnesty would undermine the integrity of the country's immigration laws and would depress the wages of its lowest-paid native-born workers."

The current New York Times editorial board supports amnesty with or without protections like E-Verify for American workers.

JEREMY BECK is the Director of the Media Standard's Project for NumbersUSA

Updated: Tue, Apr 14th 2015 @ 11:45am EDT

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