“I‘m not convinced there is a labor shortage,” says Eliseo Medina, executive vice-president of the Service Employees International Union and one of the main AFL-CIO leaders pushing for the new immigration policy. “We don’t support lifting the cap on H-1B. If companies were willing to pay fair wages, they‘d have all the workers they want.
”What we do need,“ he continues, ”is workplace enforcement of worker-protection laws, instead of employer sanctions. We want a general amnesty, covering all the people who are here now. In addition, 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. So as long as people continue coming, we need to deal with that. One idea is a rolling date, so that people who have been here a certain amount of time could apply for amnesty. The AFL-CIO hasn’t adopted this yet -- so far we‘re just talking.“
Despite its limitations, Medina called the Cisneros meeting, which he attended, ”a good first step,“ because it brought together a widely disparate group of employers and unions, political conservatives and immigrant-rights advocates.
”This is the time to be bold,“ urges John Wilhelm, president of the Hotel Employees & Restaurant Employees International Union, who, like Medina, was a leader in the campaign to persuade the AFL-CIO to reverse its position. ”I’m not against incremental steps, but we have to push amnesty and get rid of sanctions.“ Wilhelm still marvels at labor‘s about-face on immigration. ”If someone had told me three or four years ago that we’d be taking this position today,“ he says, ”I‘d have thought they were out of their minds.“
That describes pretty well the experience of at least one speaker at the L.A. hearings -- the grandfather of the immigrant-rights movement, Bert Corona. In one of the most emotional moments of the huge rally, Corona was helped across the stage, in steps made halting by his age, and given credit for years spent trying to convince the labor movement that defending immigrants was in its best interest.
Corona started campaigning against employer sanctions and immigration raids in the 1960s. For decades, he got a cold shoulder from the AFL-CIO’s former national leaders. During those years, a rally like Saturday‘s hearing would have been inconceivable. Corona would certainly never have been an honored guest.
”There is no mine, no bridge, not a row in the fields nor a construction site in all the United States that hasn’t been watered with the tears, the sweat and blood of immigrants,“ Corona reminded the huge crowd in Spanish. ”We demand an amnesty for the workers who have made the wealth of this country possible. Amnesty is not a gift, but a right, for those who have contributed so much.“