June 23, 2000


Labor's Push For New Amnesty For Immigrants

By David Bacon

LOS ANGELES — It may be considered a radical idea, but there is nothing new about the idea of granting amnesty to people who cross the border without papers. The first one came in 1906 when San Francisco's earthquake and fire destroyed the records of immigrants brought from China to work on the railroads.

"A hundred years ago my grandfather and his brother crossed the Mexican border into California illegally, buried in a hay cart," says Katie Quan. They had to sneak in, because after the rails were laid, the door was slammed shut by the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882 — an act that "brings bitter memories for Chinese Americans to this day," says Quan, "because it barred Chinese, and only Chinese, from entering the U.S."

When the fire burned City Hall, the entire Chinese community became undocumented — anyone could say they had arrived legally. Quan's grandfather became a legal resident in this way. Other immigrants brought relatives from China — called "paper sons" — saying their documents had perished in the fire.

"A very high percentage of Chinese Americans came to the U.S. that way, including my mother's family," Quan says.

Quan, a former garment union leader now at the Center for Labor Research and Education at the University of California, Berkeley was speaking at a hearing held to gather support for the AFL-CIO's recent proposal for a new amnesty.

Over the years, public sentiment in the U.S. toward immigration has swung between exclusion and the open door. U.S. unions have moved on similar lines, with the exclusionary trend dominant throughout the Cold War.

But in February the AFL-CIO passed an historic resolution calling for an amnesty, and for repeal of employer sanctions — laws that make it illegal for undocumented immigrants to work.

This "has made a whole new discussion possible," says Victor Narro, a staff attorney at the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights in Los Angeles. "Now we have a labor movement that's on the side of immigrants, rather than one bent on trying to stop immigration, as we had in 1986."

The unions held hearings to gather testimony about how immigration law undermines workers' rights, and to forge a new labor/community/religious coalition to change the law. They started in March and moved from New York to Atlanta, Chicago, Silicon Valley, Portland, Salinas and Fresno.

The immense support for amnesty among immigrants was clear at the last hearing in Los Angeles in mid-June. More than 16,000 people poured into the L.A. Sports Arena, chanting "Que quere-mos? Amnistia, sin condi-ciones!" — "What do we want? Unconditional amnesty!" Thousands more, unable to get in, gathered outside.

The L.A. hearing was cosponsored by 60 churches and community organizations.

Speakers told the panel of union and community leaders how immigration laws were used — sometimes successfully — to defeat organizing drives. Ofelia Parra, who works in Washington state's apple-packing sheds, described how a Teamsters Union drive was broken when 700 undocumented workers were fired at the demand of the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

"We contribute to this society just like the people who have papers," she said. "We need an amnesty so we can work in peace and organize to improve conditions."

Maria Sanchez told how managers at the Palm Canyon Hotel in Palm Springs tried to avoid an order to rehire workers fired for joining a union by checking their immigration status. The hotel's workers, with or without papers, responded by staying off the job until everyone was rehired. "I lost my house and my car. I sold some of my possessions so I could survive," Sanchez declared. "But we woke up!"

Sending the National Guard to the border, stepping up immigration raids, passing anti-immigrant legislation — none of these have halted the flow of people across the border. In changing its position, the AFL-CIO recognizes that continued immigration reflects a new reality. More than 80 million people today live outside their countries of origin. Growing economic inequality pushes more and more people to seek survival elsewhere.

Miguel Contreras, head of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, emphasizes that "Amnesty is a means to an end — the elimination of poverty and a better redistribution of wealth. "L.A. is a county in crisis," he continues. "Fifty wealthy families have assets of $60 billion, more than the wages of 2 million of the city's lowest-paid workers, mostly immigrants."

"What we need," says Service Employees International Union executive vice-president Eliseo Medina, "is workplace enforcement of worker protection laws, instead of employer sanctions. We want a general amnesty, covering all the people who are here now. Many Mexicans would rather stay at home, but companies pay starvation wages in the maquiladoras, and wind up creating the very conditions forcing people to come here."

Quan's grandfather would have approved.

David Bacon writes widely on immigrant and labor issues.

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