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The immigration system in the United States is broken. The avenues for lawful immigration are clogged with long backlogs. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of undocumented people continue to enter our nation each year. Some perish in the attempt, and many are mistreated by human traffickers. Moreover, unauthorized immigration is unfair to those waiting for legal entry. It undermines the rule of law and strengthens the conviction that the federal government is powerless to solve important national problems. Existing employment programs controlling the number and employment type of foreign workers are not based on actual labor market needs. Rather, work visa levels are set by Congress through a purely political process. Furthermore, existing programs do not adequately protect immigrant workers’ wages and working conditions, but allow for exploitation, thus undermining the standards of all workers.
There are millions of undocumented workers in the United States, and many of them are forced to work long hours in miserable conditions for low pay and no benefits. Unscrupulous employers abuse immigration laws to prevent these workers from exercising the same rights as other workers, including the right to join a union. The result is a race to the bottom in which the wages, benefits and working conditions of all workers are depressed. International academic workers, who contribute enormously to the intellectual and cultural environment of educational institutions around the country, are routinely exploited in the workplace. They often receive low pay and few benefits. In addition, since Sept. 11, 2001, they have been the target of misguided, discriminatory policies that impose severe burdens. The recent wave of organizing in higher education, led in part by international academic workers, has led to improvements, but more needs to be done.
The UAW believes we need immigration reform that will address all of these problems. In 2009, the AFL-CIO and Change to Win announced that they had agreed on a framework for comprehensive immigration reform, based on principles established by former U.S. Secretary of Labor Ray Marshall in “Immigration for Shared Prosperity,” published by the Economic Policy Institute. The UAW strongly supports this framework which maintains that comprehensive immigration reform should:
• Create an independent commission to allocate employment visas based on ongoing labor market needs.
• Take employment verification out of the hands of employers by establishing a secure identification methodology.
• Ensure full, equal and enforceable workplace rights for all employees, including immigrant and guest workers, documented and undocumented, because this is the only way to ensure that unscrupulous employers do not exploit immigrant workers, using them to undermine workplace rights, pay, and benefits for all workers.
• Establish a well-defined pathway for immigrant workers to become permanent residents and citizens.
• Reform temporary worker programs that indenture employees to particular employers, weakening the ability of workers to defend themselves.
• Crack down on the dangerous and exploitive trafficking in undocumented immigrants.
• Use border enforcement judiciously as a complement to other aspects of immigration
• Increase work opportunities for international academic workers employed by U.S. universities and for their families.
Unfortunately, legislation to reform our immigration system did not reach the floor of either the House or the Senate in the last Congress. In the first session of the 112th Congress, the Development, Relief and Education of Alien Minors Act (DREAM Act) was introduced in both the House (H. R. 1842) and Senate (S. 952). Under the DREAM Act, most students with good moral character who came to the U.S. at age 15 or younger and at least five years before the date of the bill’s enactment would qualify for a special conditional resident status upon graduating from a United States high school, earning a GED in the United States or being accepted to college. Under current law, such students have no way to obtain legal residency if their parents are undocumented. At the end of the conditional period (usually six years), unrestricted lawful permanent resident status would be granted if, during the conditional period, the immigrant maintained good moral character, avoided lengthy trips abroad, and either:
The UAW strongly supports the DREAM Act. The legislation also has outspoken support from Gen. Colin Powell, and its passage was recommended by the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness to help the military “shape and maintain a mission-ready All Volunteer Force.” While the DREAM Act was introduced in the House and Senate in the first session of the 112th Congress and both bills were referred to the respective committees, neither bill made it to the House or Senate floor for a vote.
Also in the first session of the 112th Congress, U.S. Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ) re-introduced S. 1195, the “Protect Our Workers from Exploitation and Retaliation (POWER) Act.” A House version was also introduced by Reps. George Miller and Judy Chu. The POWER Act is designed to protect the right of immigrant workers to expose labor abuses without fear of retaliation—which will secure job opportunities, wages, and working conditions for U.S.-born workers as well.
Too often, when immigrant workers attempt to organize to combat exploitation, employers use immigration enforcement as a weapon to quash organizing efforts and trump labor law. The POWER Act ensures that immigrant workers who try to exercise their basic civil and labor rights are protected from retaliation. Simultaneously, the bill ensures that American workers’ wages and conditions are not undermined by employers who pit them against a captive workforce of exploited immigrant workers.
The POWER Act will protect the rights of all workers. When employers use threats of immigration to enforce a lower standard for some workers, then all workers suffer in the race to the bottom. U.S.-born workers who find their job opportunities, wages and working conditions undermined because employers have a captive immigrant workforce that has no choice but to work for less at lower standards. Current law deters immigrant workers from reporting labor violations because it fails to protect them when employers report them to immigration authorities for asserting their rights.
The POWER Act provides the following protections to workers who defend their rights: