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Amnesty!

It was hardly your typical L.A. gathering. Four hundred workers marched in from the city’s street corners, mobilized by the Day Laborers Union. Hotel workers came from Palm Springs and farmworkers from the Central Valley -- all part of a throng of 20,000 immigrants who overflowed the Sports Arena last Saturday, chanting, “Que queremos? Amnestia, sin condiciones!” -- “What do we want? Unconditional amnesty!”

The crowd was the largest to have attended a series of hearings that the AFL-CIO has been convening across the country since March to demonstrate support for its proposal to extend a new amnesty to undocumented immigrants. Attendees heard a series of witnesses attest to the varieties of exploitation to which the undocumented are prey -- and a series of union leaders and Cardinal Roger Mahony attest to the formation of a powerful new coalition that has come together in support of immigrant amnesty.

The AFL-CIO‘s reversal in its position on immigration -- a process that began only last October when it repudiated its long-standing support for employer sanctions -- has already dramatically altered the political debate on immigration in Congress. Suddenly a handful of immigration bills have been introduced, ostensibly intended to legalize at least some people. Just a year ago, even discussion of limited amnesty was considered laughable among Beltway lobbyists.

To bolster its case for amnesty, the Federation has showcased the horror stories of a number of immigrant workers during its hearings, and Saturday’s was no exception. Ofelia Parra, a worker in Washington state‘s apple-packing sheds, described the mass termination of 700 undocumented workers in the midst of a Teamsters Union organizing drive, at the demand of the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

Carmen, a 17-year-old farmworker from the Central Valley, broke down in tears as she stood before thousands of strangers recounting how her lack of legal status kept her from going to college. “We can’t even move [to a bigger house] because we don‘t have a Social Security number to put down a deposit and turn on the utilities.” And day laborer Mateo Cruz, who cleaned restaurants for 40 days without ever being paid, told me how his employer “called the police and threatened to have me deported” after he’d objected. “I filed a complaint with the labor commissioner,” Cruz said, “and after two years, I‘m still waiting.”

Immigration amnesty for people crossing the border without papers is hardly a new idea in California. In fact, the first one followed San Francisco’s earthquake and fire of 1906, which destroyed the records keeping track 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,” Katie Quan remembers her parents telling her. They had to sneak in, because after the rails were laid, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 barred any further immigration from China. When the fire burned down San Francisco‘s City Hall a quarter-century later, it destroyed the immigration records of the city’s Chinese residents -- rendering all of them quite literally undocumented. In the general amnesty for San Francisco‘s Chinese community that followed, Quan’s grandfather became a legal resident. (Quan, a former garment-union leader who now works at the Center for Labor Research and Education at UC Berkeley, recalled her family‘s history during an earlier AFL-CIO hearing in Silicon Valley.)

The most recent immigration amnesty was contained in the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. It conferred legal status on about 3 million people who came to the U.S. before 1982. Those who’ve arrived without documents since then, however, have been trapped in the same illegal status the law fixed for those who came before.

The Urban Institute estimates there were as many as 5 million undocumented people in the U.S. just before the ‘86 amnesty -- a figure that dropped to 2 million to 3 million afterward. Today, most estimates place the number of undocumenteds around 6 million, but no one really knows. Neither sending the National Guard to patrol the high metal fence in Tijuana, nor beefed-up raids in immigrant communities, nor California’s Proposition 187 have been able to halt this flow of people.

The AFL-CIO‘s decision to back a general amnesty, however, has altered the political climate. “It’s really obvious that the change by the labor movement has made a whole new discussion possible,” says Victor Narro, a staff attorney at the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights in Los Angeles. The extent of the change can be gauged by the breadth of the organizational support for Saturday‘s hearing, for which the AFL-CIO secured the co-sponsorship of more than 60 churches and community organizations, from the Hermandad Mexicana Nacional (the National Mexican Brotherhood) to the Catholic Archdiocese, each bringing busloads of people to fill the arena.

“Labor can open some doors,” says Miguel Contreras, executive secretary-treasurer of the L.A. County Federation of Labor, “but we need community allies and a grassroots base. We have to build a rank-and-file movement for amnesty -- and this huge turnout shows not only that it can be done, but that politicians who want the Latino vote had better take note.”

In Los Angeles, in an election year, the demand for amnesty has clear political repercussions. According to Fabian Nuñez, the County Fed’s political director, fully 1 million of California‘s 1.1 million newly registered voters are Latino, and 44 percent of them are recent immigrants, many of them recipients of the last amnesty. Such local leaders as Assemblyman Gil Cedillo and former Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa were not only elected with heavy support from new immigrant voters, but are former immigrant-rights activists themselves.

Contreras emphasizes that L.A. labor doesn’t see immigration law in a vacuum. “Amnesty is a means to an end -- the elimination of poverty and a better redistribution of wealth. L.A. is a county in crisis: 50 wealthy families have assets of $60 billion, more than the wages of 2 million of the city‘s lowest-paid workers, who are mostly immigrants. But in the midst of this crisis, we also have a crisis of leadership. Elected officials see amnesty as too controversial. This hearing is a signal to them that amnesty is important to this community.”

It’s also a signal that poses a quandary for the Clinton administration, which seeks to appear Latino-friendly on the one hand while at the same not appearing to ease up on the immigration-enforcement program it‘s touted for the past seven years. At least partly to solve this problem, a meeting was convened in Washington in mid-April by Henry Cisneros, past Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and mayor of San Antonio, now CEO of the Spanish-language TV network Univision and a Democratic Party heavyweight.

The meeting sought to craft a compromise on the immigration issue -- one that clearly fell short of the general amnesty and repeal of employer sanctions for which the AFL-CIO is calling. Cisneros joined Republican (and fellow former HUD Secretary) Jack Kemp in calling for a lifting of the cap on the recruitment of foreign high-tech workers (long a demand of Silicon Valley executives), in return for which, they predicted, some limited immigration reforms could move through Congress as well. Those reforms include extending to Haitians and other Central Americans the same liberal procedures accorded Cubans and Nicaraguans who seek asylum, allowing late applicants for the last amnesty to receive one now, moving the registry date for amnesty forward from the old one of January 1, 1982, and removing a provision that forces undocumented workers to return to their countries of origin, often separating their families for years, just to apply for legal status.

The number of people eligible for legalization under these proposals depends on the new registry date, but no one denies it would fall far short of the estimated 6 million undocumented immigrants currently in the country. Some immigration activists, while acknowledging the importance of those reforms, are wary of the deal, fearing it will cut short the effort to achieve a broader amnesty.

A number of immigrant workers, however, have voiced reservations for another reason. The computer industry’s scheme to recruit more foreign high-tech workers, the H-1B visa category, is a form of contract labor tying workers‘ immigration status to their employment. If contract workers are fired, they not only lose their job but can lose their right to stay in the U.S. as well.

“I was hired by a software company in Los Angeles that sponsored my visa,” Kim Singh, a former H-1B worker, told the AFL-CIO’s Silicon Valley hearing. “In every paycheck the company would deduct 25 percent of my salary. When I questioned this practice, I was told that I would get this money when I left. But I never got it.” At another company in Torrance, Singh‘s H-1B co-workers labored seven days a week with no overtime. A third company in Silicon Valley rented an apartment for Singh and three other contract workers for $1,450 a month -- then deducted $1,450 from each of their paychecks.

While Singh was able to change jobs and eventually obtain a normal visa, “other programmers stayed at the company because the employer had their passports and they were intimidated.”

“Why aren’t the companies training workers here for those jobs?” asks AFL-CIO executive vice-president Linda Chavez-Thompson, who presided over Saturday‘s hearings. While H-1B workers are paid considerably more than the minimum wage, “it still is like the old bracero program,” she asserts. (That program brought Mexican farmworkers into the U.S. to work in near-slavery conditions.) “Companies use this to keep workers in a position of dependence. And because they’re often hired under individual contracts, U.S. labor law says they don‘t even have the right to organize.”

In Congress, however, there’s overwhelming support for giving Silicon Valley employers (a major and potentially immense source of campaign contributions) the workers they want. Nor is support for H-1B confined to high-tech. Growers have bills in Congress to expand their “guestworker” program, and remove restrictions protecting workers. The garment industry and others dependent on immigrants also want contract labor.

The political problem for labor, according to its political strategists in Washington, is that some employer support is necessary to get a pro-immigrant bill through Congress. But if the price for that support is a series of contract labor programs, immigrant workers could wind up more chained than ever.

“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.“