The Continuing Struggle for Immigration Reform


By Duane Campbell

During the last year there was substantive unity between immigrants’ rights groups, community groups, religious groups, and major parts of organized labor in the effort to craft a comprehensive immigration reform bill.  Now, with the amendments and passage of Senate bill SB744 at the end of June, this unity is challenged.   The draft of SB744 by the Gang of Eight was always a compromise. There is, for example, a redesigned guest worker program, a new special status for H-1B hi-tech workers, enhanced border enforcement, an extended period of time required for application for legal status, and more.

Conservative Republican forces in the Senate amended the bill to achieve a massive   $46 billion expansion of border control and enforcement.  The National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, a network of grassroots community groups of which DSA is a member, sharply criticized these  developments. The Dignity Campaign and Presente (a new on-line group that claims to speak for the Latino community) has called the bill unacceptable, while the big Washington D.C. lobbying groups such as the National Council de La Raza continue to support the bill.   

Labor unions are caught between a rock and a hard place. The national AFL-CIO praised the passage of SB477 in the Senate. Richard Trumka  said,

The United States Senate today moved our country a big step closer to building a common sense immigration system that will allow millions of aspiring Americans to become citizens. 

But, Trumka added,

Unfortunately, the bill has become less inclusive, less compassionate and less just since it emerged from the Gang of Eight’s bipartisan compromise.  We will work to see the bill offer even more protections to workers, more access to needed benefits, a far less militarized, more sensible border security program and fewer obstacles to aspiring Americans. Clearly, no further compromise to the roadmap to citizenship can be tolerated by the labor movement or our allies. (AFL-CIO. June 27, 2013.)

The Service Employees International, which has been one of the more active advocates for the bill, saw the passage of the amended SB477 as a major victory for working people.   SEIU Vice President Eliseo Medina said,  

What we can undoubtedly affirm is that this bill will set a new precedent and will mend much of our broken immigration system. It will allow millions of our friends, colleagues, families and neighbors to enter the threshold into American society, democracy and our economy. The lives of all families will be impacted for the better as will our economy that will stand to flourish.

What lies ahead will not be easy or pretty, but what stands before the House is a model of compromise that stood the test of scrutiny, heated debate and challenging amendments. The bill is an agreement between two political parties that found common ground in upholding a roadmap to citizenship unfettered by burdensome barriers, protecting future and current working families and strengthening the unity of families.

Editor’s Note: Eliseo Medina, a DSA Honorary Vice Chair announced on Sept.21, that he will retire from his leadership position in SEIU and pursue “common sense immigration reform”

The Labor Council for Latin American Advancement also endorsed the bill as it was passed in the Senate.

In addition to an unnecessary and very expensive border surge, costing some $46 billion additional dollars, inserted into the bill at the behest of lobbyists for technology and security firms, the  current Senate  bill will exclude  millions of people from applying for legal status because of the income requirements  that penalize the working  poor.   This bill is now for at most 8 million people, not the original 11.1 million.  Immigrant community groups and unions have proposed far more progressive alternatives.  And, the bill expands the E-Verify work identification system.

A number of repressive bills have been produced in the Republican-dominated House of Representatives.   Rep. Bob Goodlatte,  (R. Virginia – 6th) chair of the House Judiciary Committee, has passed  a bill, HR 1773, which would re-establish the prior bracero program (guest workers) with many  of its worst features, tying the work visa to a single farm corporation, company housing, controlled wages, an external “savings” bank, and more.  

Goodlatte’s Judiciary Committee has also passed HR 2278, the SAFE act, which grants states and localities the authority to enforce federal immigration laws.  Such enforcement has been a major source of abuse of migrants and extended and expensive incarceration.  Currently some 400,000 are held in private corporate detention centers, costing over $5 billion per year.  The so-called SAFE act will dramatically increase private and abusive detention processes and costs since the act makes it  profitable for a county or a state to increase arrests  

Other Republican bills in the House include HR 1417, the Border Security Act, HR 2131, the Skills Visa Act, and HR 1772, the Legal Workforce Act (E-Verify).  Goodlatte has also announced that legislation coming out of his House panel will not include a pathway to citizenship. And, there are a number of Republicans in the House, such as Rep. Steve King of Iowa, who only want the enhanced border enforcement with sharply restricted provisions for changing immigrants’ status.   

The House leadership approach is to produce a series of bills on separate issues, not a comprehensive bill. They plan, for example, to get a majority vote on the enhanced border enforcement, drones, and prison growth, while knowing that an independent bill offering a reasonable pathway to citizenship would fail in the Republican House.   By dividing up the issues they intend to win on the repressive measures and block comprehensive immigration reform such as that favored by community groups, labor  and DSA.

 Since the bill is so bad, and likely to get worse, why then do national labor leaders argue that the bill should be supported?  Well, it is something.  Both SEIU and UNITE/HERE among others, have hundreds of thousands, perhaps over a million workers who hope for legalization.  The argument is that we should get them through the pipeline – even at the cost of a repressive bill.  The ILWU, among others, opposes this approach.

 Let’s take Richard Trumka at his word:  “Clearly, no further compromise to the roadmap to citizenship can be tolerated by the labor movement or our allies.“ (AFL-CIO. June 27, 2013.)

 It is clear that the House will insist upon  further restrictions and limits on the roadmap to citizenship.  And then some bill or bills may go on to a Senate/House Conference Committee.   Maintaining a coalition between labor and community groups, including some labor/workplace-based community groups, will be difficult.

 Update,  Sept. 26, 2013.

 In August, as Congressional leaders turned their attention to Syria and budget crises, work by progressive groups and internal divisions  intensified.  In California, labor and its allies targeted Rep. Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield with demonstrations by thousands of farm workers, faith communities, and immigrant rights groups, including a 285-mile pilgrimage  of protest to the Bakersfield office of  Rep. Kevin McCarthy, majority whip in the House.   McCarthy is not usually counted among the extreme Tea Party Congresspersons.  The Bakersfield area district has a 35 percent Latino population and 22.8 percent of the voters in the 2010 election were Latino.

While most Republicans remain with the Tea Party’s anti-immigrant position to only pass legislation to enhance border security and  intensify enforcement, bringing  even more mass prosecutions and deportations,  two  California Republican Congressmen from districts with a high density of Latinos have pledged to vote for comprehensive reform  including a path toward citizenship.  Community groups are focusing on changing the votes of the other Republican holdouts in districts around the nation.  However on September 20, Texas Republicans John Carter and Sam Johnson  resigned from the house bi-partisan effort known as the Gang of Seven.  Their action probably ends the possibility of House compromise or a bi-partisan bill from the House.

In September the AFL-CIO at its convention passed a strong immigrants’ rights resolution saying:

EVERY DAY, more than 11 million aspiring citizens contribute to our communities, our economy and our country — yet they are effectively not covered by our fundamental labor law and are denied essential rights in our society.

A strong and vibrant democracy cannot function unless all men and women living and working within its borders, regardless of their skin color or their place of birth, can participate meaningfully in the political process with full rights and equal protections.

The union movement recognizes that the way we treat aspiring citizens reflects our commitment to democracy and the values that define us.

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.

(Read the full resolution here.

The convention and the member unions pledged to make a sustained effort for immigration reform and to bring immigrants into their unions.

In California the organizing momentum for immigrants’ rights has produced long-sought new legislation to provide driver’s licenses for undocumented  drivers and passage of the Trust Act, encouraging local police to not hold for deportation persons arrested for minor civil violations such as selling tamales to feed their families, as well as passage of an increase in the minimum wage to $9 per hour in 2014 and $10 per hour in 2016.  The governor has said he will sign these bills.

SEIU and others have scheduled nationwide demonstrations for Oct.5 as a part of the March for Dignity and Respect.  You can find your nearest march here: .           

Duane Campbell is a professor (emeritus) of bilingual multicultural education at California State University Sacramento, a union activist, and chair of Sacramento DSA.  He has worked on immigration reform issues for over 30 years. Portions of this post were originally published in Democratic Left.

Individually signed posts do not necessarily reflect the views of DSA as an organization or its leadership.