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Commentary | PERSPECTIVE ON LABOR

Immigrant Workers Deserve Legal Status and Respect

The American economy is continuing to grow, not in spite of them but with their help.

June 08, 2000|ROGER MAHONY | Cardinal Roger Mahony is archbishop of Los Angeles

The recent strike by Los Angeles-area janitors provided encouragement to other workers seeking to share in the region's unprecedented economic growth. Yet it is unclear whether the success enjoyed by janitors will translate into support for other, more controversial policy goals. A significant test lies ahead: legalization of immigrant workers.

Earlier this year, the executive council of the AFL-CIO unanimously passed an ambitious resolution to seek "amnesty" for immigrant workers who do not have legal status. The action was a courageous move by organized labor, under the leadership of John Sweeney, and brought a powerful and influential ally to the debate on immigration policy.

Organized labor's commitment to seek changes in immigration law is an affirmation of the stories and struggles of immigrant workers across the country who all too often face a double bind. First, their jobs are susceptible to the usual twists and turns of an economy that often sees low-wage, low-skilled workers displaced by sudden changes in the market. Also, immigrants are particularly vulnerable to discrimination and harassment by unscrupulous employers who are willing to exploit the labor of immigrants--especially those without legal status--who they know are reluctant to seek legal recourse.

The American economy is growing, not in spite of immigrant workers but with their help. Farm workers and garment workers put food on our tables and clothes on our backs. The state's robust tourism industry is supported by busboys, dishwashers, cooks, maids and janitors. In return for their efforts, immigrant workers deserve the protections that permanent residency and the enforcement of workplace rights would afford them.

In particular, the United States Catholic Conference has committed to work with the AFL-CIO to advocate new policies that include:

* the legalization of immigrant workers and their families, especially those who come to the United States fleeing oppression and destitution and who make significant contributions to our country;

* greater respect for both the civil and workplace rights of immigrant workers, regardless of their legal status;

* U.S. foreign and economic policies that better address the conflict, poverty and denial of human rights that pressure people to come to this country;

* a reexamination of how immigration laws are enforced in the workplace, including the repeal of employer sanctions.

Congress can take an immediate, short-term step toward a broad legalization program by allowing those who have been in the United States since 1986 to become lawful permanent residents. Additionally, Congress should correct a 1997 law that allows Nicaraguans and Cubans to apply for permanent residence when they arrive here but leaves other similarly situated but less politically popular groups without similar access.

Over the longer term, our elected leaders should reconfigure our national immigration policies to reflect and preserve the enormous contributions immigrant workers make to our nation.

Legalization has broad benefits. It would permit immigrants to participate more fully in our nation's civic and political life and would protect them from exploitation and abuse. It would promote family unity by allowing immigrant parents to obtain legal status and remain here with their children, many of whom are citizens. Moreover, it gives employers a stable and reliable force of workers who are invested in both their jobs and their community.

If recent history is any indicator, however, the drive for legalization will rekindle a heated and emotional public debate in Congress and in our communities. Just as California's anti-immigrant Proposition 187 was a watershed moment in the immigration debate across the country, this new chapter in immigration policy reform will refocus attention on the role that immigrants play in our society.

On Saturday, supporters of this new legalization drive will gather at the Los Angeles Sports Arena to hear the testimony of workers and gain the commitment of community groups, religious leaders, union leaders and elected officials to advocate for changes in U.S. immigration law. This forum is a first step in realizing broader policy goals that support immigrant workers.

The Archdiocese of Los Angeles will support this forum because the Catholic Church affirms the rights and responsibilities of each human being to participate in the political, social and economic life of the community. An essential prerequisite to those rights and duties is legal status and citizenship.

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