President Barack Obama met on Tuesday with more than a dozen labor leaders to discuss immigration reform. The major unions, the AFL-CIO and SEIU, are lobbying for an easier path to citizenship because union membership has declined significantly over the past two decades along with contraction of U.S. manufacturing. A surge of new citizens, many of whom will seek unionized jobs, could boost their numbers.
The bipartisan framework for immigration reform introduced in Congress contains three components: a legalization program — and a possible path to citizenship — for those who are in the country illegally, stepped-up enforcement along the border, and measures to discourage employers from hiring workers who lack proof of legal residency.
A temporary guest worker program is favored by the business community and agricultural interests that depend on seasonal employment. Businesses are eager to come up with a legal system of immigration that can more quickly adapt to their constantly changing labor needs.
The key will be coming up with a system that can accurately gauge the demands of the labor market, sorting out actual labor shortages from cases in which businesses are simply unwilling to pay enough to attract legal residents.
The difficult part will be enforcing penalties for hiring illegal immigrants. There are never enough federal budget resources, and offering citizenship would cost the government money. Costs, of course, would increase. Once they became citizens, immigrants would be entitled to the same array of government benefits as other Americans.
Another reason enforcement would be hard is because the government doesn’t like to disrupt economic activities. Disruptions in the labor supply are the natural, unavoidable and even desirable consequence of strong border and workplace enforcement.
But the unions see immigration reform as an issue of worker empowerment. If undocumented immigrants undercut wages and job conditions for Americans — and many do, by tolerating low pay and abuse and bolstering an off-the-books system that robs law-abiding employers and taxpayers — it is because they cannot stand up for their rights.
“If we can free them so they can come out of the shadows, we can not only improve their lives, but all workers’ lives,” said Terence O’Sullivan, president of the Laborers’ International Union of North America.
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