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Businesses and Unions Face the Guest-Worker Dilemma

America's Voice, Column, Maribel Hastings Posted: Dec 11, 2009

In April of this year a coalition of unions, headed by the AFL-CIO and Change to Win (CTW), announced with great fanfare what would have been impossible in 2007: a statement of support for comprehensive immigration reform.

Furthermore, their agreement included a controversial component: an independent commission to determine future labor flows, including both temporary and permanent workers. The commission would be an alternative to a guest-worker program.

Given that splits within the labor movement in 2007 were one of the many reasons for the defeat of immigration reform in the Senate, the announcement was welcomed by diverse sectors of the pro-immigrant movement.

The AFL-CIO represents 56 trade unions, with more than 10 million workers, and CTW is a coalition of 7 unions, with more than 6 million workers.

Of course, the final chapter hasnt yet been written in the saga between labor and businessfrequent opponents who each wield enormous influence over the White House, Congress and the immigration debate.

The consequences of defeat

Business owners are being watched more closely than ever by immigration authorities to ensure they comply with laws that prohibit hiring undocumented workers.

In 2009, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) audited more than 2,000 companies suspected of having undocumented employees on their payrolls4 times the number audited in 2008. ICE fined companies a total of $2.5 million in 2008; in 2009, that amount skyrocketed to $16 million.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced in August that during the first seven months of 2009, it had deported 215,000 undocumented immigrants.

Last week, Human Rights Watch released the report Locked Up Far Away, in which it reported that 53 percent of the 1.4 million transfers of undocumented detainees to jails far from their original location had occurred since 2006.

Unions have watched the deportation of members and potential members attempting to exercise their right to organize, as happened at the Smithfield processing plant in North Carolina.

The sticking point

In contrast to the demands of labor, business organizations demand an expansion of policies like the H-1, L-1 and EB visa programs, which facilitate the admission of professionals, employees with exceptional qualifications and investors.

The United States Chamber of Commerce (USCC) places these demands on its website, along with a promise to lobby for reform to enable seasonal and small businesses to continue to use the H-2B temporary visa.

The business sector favors legalizing the undocumented, but opposes the commission proposed by labor groups, instead defending a guest-worker program.

David Ferreira, vice president of government affairs for the United States Hispanic Chamber of Commerce (USHCC), assured Americas Voice that the commission is a non-starter. We know that the Administration considers it so, we know that the Congressional leadership privately considers it so". Politically, it doesnt have enough support for reform to go forward in the Senate and moderate Senators, Republicans and Democrats, dont support the commission.

The USHCC and other business groups back a regulator determined by the market to control the flow of immigrants, something that shouldn't be dictated by a political posse. It should be dictated by the needs of the economy", said Ferreira.

Although the unemployment rate is now in double digits, a guest-worker plan is needed, according to Ferreira, because our economy isn't going to be down forever. Our economy is going to grow, and at that point businesses are going to demand workers.

We have concerns that some members of the labor movement are not fully commited to comprehensive immigration reform, and the commission is one additional means by which they want to restrict the ability of immigrants to lawfully enter the United States", Ferreira indicated.

But Ana Avendao, the AFL-CIO's assistant to the President for Immigration and Community Action, told Americas Voice: How can (the USHCC) explain to a member of Congress that they support bringing hundreds of thousands of temporary workers into the country when we have 16 million people out of work? The politician who accepts that will find himself out of work after the next election!

According to the labor leader, the commission would not have any intention of reducing future immigration; it would be independent , not union-controlled; and it would base its recommendations on how many workers the economy requires at any given time.

Besides, Avendao said, both the Administration and Congress support the commission. The Chamber (of Commerce) insists on this model (the guest-worker program) thats already failed. We have to consider other alternatives.

But hope remains

Despite their differences, the business sector has been working with labor groups such as the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) on other issues, such as health-care reform. Ferreira praised Eliseo Medina, International Executive Vice President of the SEIU, for engaging in good-faith negotiationswhich could recur on immigration reform.

Currently, the national unemployment rate is almost 11 percent. In June of 2007, when the last attempt at reform was killed, unemployment was at 4.5 percent. These figures should inspire business and labor leaders to negotiate a realistic plan for immigration reform for the good of the nations economy and for the 12 million undocumented immigrants.

Rafael Prieto Zartha contributed to this article.

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