Make it a memorable May Day for all workers
Immigration bill provides security
Imagine that you have made it to the United States from a country where economic opportunities are absent. You have found work in a laundry, a restaurant kitchen, a nursing home or on a construction site. The pay is low by U.S. standards, but you save enough to send some every month to your family back home. Every day you put up with hazards and harassment, knowing that if you raise your voice in protest you risk not only getting fired but getting reported and deported. Some weeks you don’t get paid at all, but you keep your mouth shut and live with the abuse.
Hundreds of thousands of immigrant families across the country live this scenario every day. Now, as Congress considers sweeping changes to a broken immigration system, we must press the case for a more humane approach to immigration – and protections for all workers, immigrant and native-born alike.
Begun in 1887 as a day for workers to press their demands for an eight-hour work day following the violent suppression of a Chicago labor rally, immigrants, their advocates and allies took the holiday observed on the first of May to another level in 2006, when they connected workers’ rights to the need for repairs to a broken immigration system. On this May 1, here in Concord, the American Friends Service Committee will join them.
It’s not only workers without the right papers who suffer; when employers can get away with exploitation, the whole workforce suffers and deplorable conditions ripple through the entire labor market.
Immigration reform legislation offers the prospect of ending such exploitation, by providing a path to citizenship for qualifying individuals and a provisional legal status along the way. This will enable workers to stand up for their rights without fear of deportation simply for being an unauthorized worker.
That could be one of the outcomes of passing the Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act, the official name of the massive immigration bill now pending in the Senate Judiciary Committee.
For future immigrants, the creation of a new visa category, the W visa, would provide opportunities for low-skilled workers to move from one employer to another without losing the authorization to work. This category would ensure that pay levels are set between minimum wage and medium wage for the particular job, and also would require that labor recruiters be registered and regulated. Additionally, holders of “W” visas would be able to seek Legal Permanent Residency for themselves and their immediate family members.
The bill also would create a “blue card,” an improvement for agricultural workers. Those who qualify for these visas would be offered a faster track to Legal Permanent Resident status.
The bill is not without problems, such as the provision that mandates that all employers, public and private, use the federal E-Verify system, which ties access to jobs to a massive data-management system with a long history of errors and abuses. Making participation in this flawed system obligatory as a condition for immigration reform is misguided and wrong.
About 8 million of the approximately 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. are workers. They want what workers everywhere want-safe working conditions, fair wages, and protection from abuse. AFSC sees that as a reasonable desire, consistent with a belief that all work should confer dignity on workers, employers, and consumers.
As we say in our policy paper, A New Path Toward Humane Immigration Policy, “all workers are entitled to humane policies that protect their labor and employment rights.”
This year we must take the opportunity to set a long-sought pathway to protection for workers’ and immigrants’ rights – so that May Day 2014 can be a day to celebrate the progress we have made together.
(Arnie Alpert and Maggie Fogarty are New Hampshire staff for the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker organization supported by people of many faiths.)