03/06/2006 Eye on Immigration

Monday, March 06, 2006

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Strengthening Communities

by Nathan Newman

Eye on Immigration: Real State Solutions

In the last few weeks, the debate on immigration has heated up.

Even as some state legislators across the country have filed bills to crack down on undocumented immigrants, the Cardinal of Los Angeles called for respecting the human rights of immigrants and the Western Governors united in support of establishing a national guest worker program, variations on which are promoted both by President Bush and by Senators Kennedy and McCain. And the AFL-CIO Executive Council this last week issued a statement arguing that even guest worker programs would just create an undemocratic, two-tiered society -- and that the real solution to immigration was reform of labor laws to end the exploitation, both in the US and overseas, that encourages employer hiring of immigrants in the first place.

As the debate moves forward in the states, legislators and Governors across the country face a choice: embrace progressive policies that will boost wages for American workers and solve the root causes of immigration or choose failed conservative options that will drive the problem out-of-sight without solving it.

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Protecting Labor Rights for All Workers

There are real policy alternatives. A number of states have recognized that rather than further punish exploited immigrant workers in the underground economy, a better solution is to end the exploitive conditions that make hiring lower-paid immigrants so attractive for employers in the first place.

Just two weeks ago, New York's highest court ruled that giving undocumented workers injured at work the right to sue employers for compensation was a crucial policy for enforcing labor rights and deterring immigration. The lack of labor rights by undocumented immigrants "would lessen the unscrupulous employer's potential liability to its alien workers and make it more financially attractive to hire undocumented aliens," said Judge Victoria A. Graffeo writing for the majority, and "would actually increase employment levels of undocumented aliens, not decrease it."

This policy of strengthening undocumented workers' legal rights is in line with states like California, which passed SB 1818 in 2002 to affirm that all labor protections are available to any employee "regardless of immigration status." While many native workers fear immigrants are driving down wages in industries that they enter, the best way to prevent this wage depression from happening is not to punish the immigrants but to strengthen their rights. As the high court in New York emphasized, the stronger the rights of the immigrants, the less likely employers will undermine wage standards for all workers.

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Stopping Immigration at the Source: Anti-Sweatshop Legislation

Ultimately, as the AFL-CIO said in their statement last week, "any viable solution to this crisis must address the reasons why people are coming to the U.S," including trade and development policies that don't strengthen labor protections and wage levels in immigrants' home countries. And as Jeff Faux of the Economic Policy Institute has detailed, "Since NAFTA's inception in 1994 -- indeed, for the 20 years of neoliberal 'reform' -- the Mexican middle class has shrunk and the number of poor has expanded... So the northward migration continues."

While states cannot change trade policy, they do have the power through their own purchasing decisions to help end the global sweatshops that drive undocumented immigration. California, Illinois, Maine, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, along with sixty cities, counties and school districts, have changed their procurement policies to ban government purchases from contractors violating internationally-recognized labor rights.

This last week, the Governor of Maine, John Baldacci, launched a challenge to his fellow Governors to join a multi-state Governor's Coalition for Sweatfree Procurement and Workers Rights to strengthen monitoring of labor conditions of contractors used by states. With states and local governments purchasing $400 billion in goods and services, a nationwide coalition of states could play a pivitol role in changing sweatshops both at home and abroad and creating real long-term solutions to the conditions driving immigration.

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Failed Rightwing Solutions

Typical of the anti-immigrants attacks is a new proposal in Georgia supposedly to deter undocumented immigration that has all the earmarks of failed conservative policy-- it punishes individual immigrants while doing nothing to end the exploitation that makes employing undocumented immigrants so attractive to businesses.

The Georgia bill, like similiar bills in other states, sounds tough: businesses can be fined for hiring undocumented immigrants or denied public contracts if they do so, but as long as an immigrant has a fake document, the employer cannot be penalized. And contractors who use subcontractors using undocumented immigrants would be off the hook as well, despite the fact that huge corporations like Wal-Mart use precisely these tactics to avoid liability.

So the bill is toothless in punishing those who exploit immigrants. Nothing in the bill combats the business conditions that lead to exploiting low-paid undocumented workers. The bill has no toughened enforcement of the minimum wage, of safety conditions at work, or any other provision to end the underground economy of exploitation that feeds the demand for more low-paid immigrant labor. The only real penalties in the bill are for the immigrants themselves, including denying most adults medical care. And while the bill sponsors says it will save public funds, a lot of physicians think otherwise since it just means they'll be showing up in emergency rooms instead of getting cheaper preventive care.

Almost 500 people died in 2005 trying to cross the border to find work in the US. If new immigrants are willing to risk death to come to the US, there is little evidence that denying a few health benefits will make much change in immigration numbers. In fact, creating more fear among immigrants will just make them more attractive to hire for employers who know that immigrants will be that much less likely to report workplace violations to authorities.

But we shouldn't be surprised that Georgia's leaders would coddle low-wage employers while scapegoating immmigrants. This is the same rightwing leadership that last year prohibited the city of Atlanta from encouraging government contractors to pay a living wage. As one of the sponsors of the bill striking down the Atlanta living wage law said, "The marketplace is what will determine what wages will be paid...We can't artificially legislate wages, and keep propping them up."

If conservative political leaders think third world workplace conditions are required for their states to compete economically, they shouldn't be surprised when low-wage employers enthusiastically provide those conditions by exploiting immigrant labor. But instead of importing sweatshops to the United States, maybe we should be eliminating them overseas.

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Progressive Talking Points

It is time to stop protecting corporations that benefit from hiring undocumented immigrants. If immigrant workers can't defend their rights, it only encourages unethical corporations to hire them as part of big business's underground economy.

We have to address the problems that are driving immigration, including bad trade deals and third world sweatshops that drive immigration to the US. States can take action by changing their own purchasing practices to fight sweatshops, both at home and abroad.

Conservative solutions don't save public funds. They shift costs. When we deny routine health care to workers, we only end up treating them in emergency rooms for the same cost. We're better off solving the issue of immigration.

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Valuing Families

by Nathan Newman

MA: Deal on Health Care -- But Is It Enough?

On Friday, legislative leaders in Massachusetts appear to have agreed to a compromise bill that would assess a modest fee on any business with ten employees or more which does not provide health care to their employees -- a key element of a broader plan to move towards universal health care coverage.

Business largely supports the compromise because the assessment is relatively small -- only $295 per employee not covered by health care insurance -- an amount far less than a proposed state House bill. Which explains why health care advocates are only cautiously celebrating.

John McDonough, executive director of Mass. Health Care for All, assesses the deal on the organization's blog here, here, and here. As McDonough writes, while the $295 assessment per business is woefully inadequate -- and allows companies to provide pretty nominal health care coverage and avoid any tax at all -- the deal involves a fundamental victory for advocates, namely establishing the principle that businesses have a legal obligation to provide for health coverage of their employees, either directly or through taxes paid to the state government.

"This is not the end, it's the beginning," writes McDonough, and with the principle of employer responsibility established, raising the assessment on businesses in the future will be far easier than establishing it in the first place. Massachusetts figures show the state already spends $212 million to provide health care to employees at larger firms -- and the number is no doubt far larger when smaller firms are included -- so the adequacy of the health care assessment will immediately become a key policy debate if enacted, so the debate will still be on advocates' terrain.

The deal in Massachusetts is an incremental victory, but by applying to most businesses in the state, it pushes the debate far beyond the law recently enacted in Maryland that applies only to large businesses like Wal-Mart. "If you don't go beyond Walmart," McDonough points out, "you're not accomplishing much of anything at the end of the day." Starting with Wal-Mart was always an incremental first step for the Maryland advocates, so starting with a more modest assessment on a larger base of businesses in Massachusetts is an alternative first step towards more comprehensive results.

And advocates are not sitting back-- they are ready to go to a ballot initiative if the final bill's details do not extend health coverage comprehensively to the uninsured in the state.

So health care advocates can be proud of a campaign in Massachusetts that is pushing the goal of universal coverage forward.

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Eye on Immigration


AFL-CIO -- Executive Council Statement on Immigration Policy
National Employment Law Project -- Workplace Rights for Immigrant Workers
Sweatfree Communities
Global Exchange -- Sweatfree Campaigns
National Immigration Forum -- Policy Wire

Recent Reports

Drum Major Institute -- "Principles for an Immigration Policy to Strengthen and Expand the American Middle Class"
Immigration Policy Center -- "Achieving Security and Prosperity : Migration and North American Economic Integration"


California SB 1818 -- Law declaring that all legal remedies are available to workers regardless of immigration status
New York Balbuena v. IDR Realty - New York Court of Appeals decision affirming immigrant workers' legal rights

MA: Deal on Health Care -- But is it Enough?

Massachusetts Health Care for All

Greater Boston Interfaith Organization: Health Care

Eye on the Right

Missouri Eyes Endorsement of Christianity: A Missouri legislator is sponsoring a resolution singling out Christianity as the state's "majority" religion and demanding that "the majority's right to express their religious beliefs" be protected by allowing such things as voluntary prayer in schools. Of course, an individual praying in school without organized activity on the school's behalf already is protected. But when you're trying to divide Missouri, you should never let the facts get in the way.

Read more about the grandstanding in Missouri.


PLAN's policy department is looking for interns for Summer 2006. We're looking for students interested in public service with experience in policy advocacy or community organizing. For details, visit the Jobs & Internships Page.