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Immigrant Rights Movement

Immigrant rights were brought to the forefront of the American social consciousness in the past year. The country witnessed the mobilization of immigrant groups in a dramatic and unprecedented show of solidarity. Issues relating to immigrant employees were finally being discussed openly.

Late last year, the House of Representatives passed a controversial bill (H.R. 4437) which would have classified many illegal immigrants as felons, increased border security, increased punishment for employers who hired illegal immigrants, and deported many immigrant workers. As it turned out, the House’s offensive assault on immigrant groups would backfire in a spectacular manner, igniting passions that had been kept cool for many years.

Back in December of last year, before the House passed its controversial bill, Pacific News Service editor David Bacon published a simple message: “A strong coalition of immigrant rights groups, unions, civil rights organizations and working families can build a movement powerful enough to win legal status and rights for immigrants—and jobs and better wages for everyone. It can not only stop the rightward push, but win something much better. It's time to fight for that.” After H.R. 4437 was passed, immigrant rights groups would make Bacon’s prophecy come true.

In Spring 2006, the rallies came. And kept coming. In March, approximately 500,000 people rallied in downtown Los Angeles in support of immigrant rights. A short time later, in Dallas, as many as 500,000 people, dressed in white, marched in support of immigrant rights. Organizers managed to top those rallies with rallies on April 10 spanning the country, covering more than 100 cities. In Birmingham, Alabama, demonstrators marched along the same route taken by civil rights activists in the 1960s and rallied at a park featuring a statute of Martin Luther King, Jr. Comparisons to the Civil Rights era did not escape Washingtonians either, as Senator Edward Kennedy observed: “There is no issue outside of civil rights that brings out the kind of emotions we have seen.”

While some employers, such as a Chicago-area factory and a Detroit meatpacking plant, retaliated against employees who missed work to participate in rallies, several employers—perhaps aware of the legal repercussions—supported their employees.

On May 1, 2006, immigrants staged the Great American Boycott (El Gran Paro Americano), also known as A Day Without an Immigrant—a boycott boycott actually endorsed by the California Senate—as more than one million immigrants demonstrated what life would be like without their services.

The effect of the rallies was seen immediately in many industries. Several meatpacking plants were forced to shut down or operate at reduced capacity as a result of the rallies, and employers in the restaurant, hotel, cleaning, maintenance, and construction industries were also affected.

Meanwhile, in Washington, the rallying cries from the nationwide demonstrations echoed strongly on Capitol Hill. The Senate Judiciary Committee declined to adopt the House bill, instead opting for a bill—enjoying bipartisan support—that would provide for a guest-worker program. Under the initial plan, immigrants would be required to pay back taxes and a fee before applying for a 3-year work visa that could be renewed for 3 more years. Visa holders would be eligible to apply for green cards after 4 years. The Senate plan would unravel, with a watered-down version later surfacing that would allow only immigrants who had lived in the country for more than 5 years to avoid deportation. In April, Republican leaders dropped their original plan that would have subjected illegal immigrants to felony charges.

As a result of Washington’s indecisiveness on the issue, many states have pursued separate legislation, although their approaches have varied greatly. Georgia recently enacted legislation that prevents illegal immigrants from receiving many social services and requires employers to report undocumented workers to the Immigration Service. Meanwhile, states such as Maine, California, and New York have taken a compassionate approach, urging greater protections for immigrant workers. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures in May, 463 bills concerning immigration had been introduced in 43 states in the past year. By July, states had enacted 57 laws on the subject.

As federal and state politicians debated immigration policies, commentators, journalists, and experts also engaged in a lively debate over the issue. Several empirical studies have debunked the myth that immigrant workers hamper the economy by taking jobs, specifically with respect to uneducated native workers. According to the Congressional Budget Office, there is no clear evidence that immigrant workers hurt the earnings of U.S.-born workers over the long term. Nor is there evidence that increases in immigration led to higher unemployment among Americans. Another study has found a positive correlation between the size of the immigrant population and job growth in cities. Moreover, the U.S. will add about five million jobs in the retail, food service, and landscaping industries over the next decade, with not enough native workers to meet the need.

In response to criticisms that illegal immigrants take advantage of public services paid for by U.S. citizens, studies have shown that immigrants and their offspring are a net tax benefit to the United States, paying more than they ever use in services, and that illegal immigrants could help shore up the expected shortfall in Social Security.

In addition, the wave of immigrant rights rallies brought workplace safety issues to the forefront. As one observer opined: “Middle-class and aspiring middle-class Americans should support workplace rights for immigrants not just out of compassion for mistreated immigrants, but because they want to preserve their own job standards and the opportunity to improve them... By making sure workplace laws—from the minimum wage to the right to organize a union—truly apply to all workers, we can bring undocumented immigrants into the economic mainstream and help level the playing field for other workers.”

Indeed, immigrant workers have helped rebuild the city of New Orleans, but continue to face workplace dangers. As another commentator observed, “What is happening in the Gulf Coast is an exaggerated version of what happens around the country. We benefit from immigrants' hard work, but we are unwilling to respect their rights or see to it that these are properly enforced. We allow immigrants to work in our country's most dangerous jobs, yet we deny them access to care or compensation when they are injured. Then we attack them on the airwaves for being here at all.” In fact, immigrant workers have the highest mortality rate and highest injury rate on the job. A positive step for immigrant workers was taken when New York’s highest court ruled that undocumented workers can sue for lost wages when they are hurt on the job.

So, when immigration officials decided to impersonate OSHA officials to conduct a sting operation to nab illegal immigrants, many people rightly criticized the sting operation as creating distrust with safety officials at a time when immigrant workers need their assistance. Fortunately, after much criticism, federal officials later announced that they would discontinue this practice.

Immigration officials did not cease their round-up of illegal immigrants, but accelerated their search instead. In April, at the height of the immigrant rights movement, immigration officials conducted a massive multi-state raid that resulted in 1,187 illegal immigrants in 26 states being taken into custody. The following month, federal authorities announced the arrests of 76 illegal immigrants in Kentucky and promised to continue the crackdown on employers who hire illegal immigrants. Not surprisingly, these raids have been criticized as disruptive to the communities to which these workers belong.

Notwithstanding these setbacks, the mobilization of immigrant groups and awareness among Americans of the important issues facing immigrants—particularly immigrant workers—makes these developments one of the five positive trends for workplace fairness in the past year. The next chapter of this story has yet to be written by Congress, but until then, immigrant workers, as they have for centuries, will keep reaching for the American Dream.