This is a good moment to explain why I feel so passionately about enacting immigration reform that provides a real pathway to citizenship for 11 million immigrants who call this country home.
You may know that until about a dozen years ago, the AFL-CIO did not support policies that give immigrants a route to citizenship; most unions saw those policies as a way for employers to find low-cost workers and push down wages. Our official policy changed in 2000, when we asserted that the AFL-CIO “proudly stands on the side of immigrant workers.”
Even today, I get mail and other comments criticizing me and the AFL-CIO for supporting reform, claiming that bringing immigrants out of the shadows will worsen the continuing jobs crisis. I know that good jobs are scarce and family pocketbooks are squeezed. Anxiety is natural. But I also believe those comments are misguided.
A century ago, America’s established unions, to a large extent, turned their backs on new immigrants as members, and were not welcoming to women, people of color and millions of so-called unskilled industrial workers.
That has never sat well with me. When people use the word “immigrant” like an epithet, I take it personally. I come from a small town in southwestern Pennsylvania’s coal country called Nemacolin. It was not easy when my family came to this country. My parents and grandparents fled poverty and war from different corners of Europe.
When I was a kid, there was an ugly name for every one of us in all 12 languages spoken in Nemacolin—wop and Hunky and Polack and kike. We were the last hired and first fired, the people who did the hardest and most dangerous work, the people whose pay got shorted because we didn't know the language and were afraid to complain.
When the immigrants of my parents’ and grandparents’ generation got to the mines and mills, the people already there said we were taking their jobs and ruining their country. Yet in the end, the immigrants of my parents' and grandparents' generation prevailed, and built America. This is the history of my family, and this is the story of towns large and small across America, places like Seattle and St. Louis, San Antonio and Chicago and so many others.
And yet it doesn’t take long for us to forget the past and focus on anyone we think is different, and to bring back those familiar responses—that immigrants are taking our jobs, ruining our country.
When I hear that kind of talk, I ask: Did an immigrant move your plant overseas? Did an immigrant take away your pension? Or cut your health care? Did an immigrant undermine America’s workers' right to organize? Or crash the financial system? Did immigrant workers write the trade laws that have sent millions of jobs from our shores? Of course not.
In fact, as more immigrants gain the rights and responsibilities of citizenship, our chances of a future of shared prosperity increase. America’s economic strategy must bring us together, not drive us apart.
The reform President Obama proposed last week is a big step in the right direction, and it has the potential to lead us all in a better direction.
As president of the AFL-CIO, I’m proud to say that we open our arms to everybody who works—no matter where you’re from—and we demand commonsense policies that reflect America’s best values and our shared commitment to the country we love. Work connects us all and we are better together.
We’ve been calling for commonsense reform based on a blueprint developed across the labor union movement since 2009. That blueprint has five planks:
• Formation of an independent commission to assess and manage the future flow of new immigrants based on actual labor market needs;
• A secure and effective worker authorization mechanism;
• Rational border control;
• A road map to citizenship; and
• Improvement, not expansion, of temporary workers programs.
That’s what we mean when we call for comprehensive immigration reform. We’re in it to win it. And that’s exactly what we’re going to do.