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Worker Protections in Immigration Proposal Questioned

by Brendan Coyne

Feb. 28, 2006 – Having initially backed the most progressive reform proposal being considered by lawmakers, advocates for immigrant workers are now rethinking their support, saying the bill fails to adequately protect the rights of foreign-born workers.

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The bipartisan Secure America and Orderly Immigration Act would immediately open the path to legalized residency for many of the nation’s millions of undocumented immigrants. It also includes provisions extending to immigrant workers the same rights and remedies afforded citizens under federal, state and local laws.

Nevertheless, the Drum Major Institute (DMI) for Public Policy, a liberal think tank, recently gave the bill a "C" for "leaving immigrant workers vulnerable to exploitation in ways that could significantly undermine their rights and thus threaten middle-class wages and working conditions for all." DMI has recently released a report proposing immigration-law reforms it says would benefit immigrant and US-born workers.

The Secure America Act, proposed jointly by Senators John McCain (R-Arizona) and Edward Kennedy (D-Massachusetts), would create a new class of visa holders known as "non-immigrant aliens." Employers would be prohibited from treating such workers as independent contractors, thereby guaranteeing them minimum wage and other workplace protections. In addition, the bill mandates that such workers would have the same rights as other US-born workers.

Since its introduction last spring, various labor and immigrant advocates have cautiously applauded it for recognizing that immigrants -- documented or not --play an important role in the society and economy of the United States. In a statement characteristic of such support, Deepak Bhargava, executive director of the Center for Community Change, a national immigration reform organization, called the legislation "an important first step forward."

The bill would provide workers in the US with temporary visas and an option to apply for citizenship. It also contains provisions aimed at reducing the backlog of would-be immigrants who have applied to join their families in the US.

But the DMI study, released at the end of last year, appears to be making inroads with immigrant and labor groups and may fundamentally change the way many advocates see the issue.

Its authors call for a major shift in the way governments, employers and citizens view undocumented workers. By focusing on bolstering immigrants’ rights and responsibilities, the report maintains, middle-income workers can benefit.

"It is the vast majority of Americans struggling to work into and hold onto their spot in the middle class who should be engaged in a conversation that is critical to their own hopes and dreams," DMI Executive Director Andrea Batista Schlesigner said in a statement accompanying the report’s release.

The report outlines two interrelated proposals: increasing the contribution immigrants make to the economy, rather than undermining it, and empowering immigrants’ rights at work. In order to do so, DMI said, undocumented immigrants must be granted legal status.

DMI’s study found that maintaining a two-tiered labor pool permits employers to depress real wages. By changing that, the report said, deteriorating labor conditions can be reversed.

One major result of such an approach, the DMI report argues, would be a slow and steady rise in real wages for workers across the board. In this scenario, says DMI, with legal status no longer an issue and immigrant workers empowered to report employers to government agencies and agitate for better working conditions and wages, employers would no longer be able to play potential workers against one another.

Last Friday, DMI reiterated its stance that the Secure America and Orderly Immigration Act is the "strongest option before Congress," but criticized the measure as inadequately addressing immigrants’ rights in the workplace." Other progressive and activist organizations are urging a second look at the legislation as well.

In an analysis of the Act, the Philadelphia-based group Friends of Farmworkers concluded: "The bill strikes a balance so much in favor of employers that any benefits resulting from a more legalized workforce would likely be negated by the detriments resulting from a limitless and unregulated labor supply. A better balance must be found before workers should support this bill."

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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

This News Report originally appeared in the February 28, 2006 edition of The NewStandard.
Brendan Coyne is a contributing journalist.

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