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Undocumented workers need legal rights

By Richard L. Trumka, Special to CNN
  • Richard L. Trumka: Too many employers like using hard workers who have no rights
  • A two-tiered work force with underclass of disenfranchised hurts all, he writes
  • Did an immigrant move your plant overseas? Or take away your pension? Trumka asks
  • AFL-CIO supports a fair path toward legalization for all undocumented workers

Editor's note: Richard L. Trumka is president of the AFL-CIO and former president of the United Mine Workers of America.

(CNN) -- By now it should be clear that we need a new national economic strategy for a global economy -- and we cannot talk about one without facing head-on our own contradictions, hypocrisy and history on immigration.

The truth is that in a global economy in the 21st century, we simply cannot afford to have millions of hard-working people without legal protections, shut off from economic gain. But the way we treat the immigrants among us is about more than economic strategy: It is about who we are as a nation.

Look around most of our communities and you'll see what's been built by Hungarians and Poles, Irish and Italians, African-Americans, Asian-Americans, Serbs and Croats, Jews and others.

My family came to this country -- to western Pennsylvania -- fleeing poverty and war in Europe. It wasn't easy. We were the last hired and first fired, the people who did the hardest and most dangerous work, the people whose pay got shorted because we didn't know the language and were afraid to complain. We got to the mines and the mills, and the people already there said we were taking their jobs, ruining their country.

In the end, the immigrants of my parents' and grandparents' generations prevailed, and built America. Yet today I hear from working people who should know better that immigrants are taking our jobs, ruining our country. When I hear that kind of talk, I want to say, did an immigrant move your plant overseas? Or take away your pension? Or cut your health care? Did an immigrant crash the financial system? Did immigrant workers write the trade laws that have destroyed so many jobs and industries?

The American dream is not that a few of us will get rich, but that all of us will have a fair shake.
--Richard L. Trumka

Our economic strategy must bring us together instead of driving us apart. Our strategy must help us be the kind of country we want our children to thrive in -- the home of the American dream. The American dream is not that a few of us will get rich, but that all of us will have a fair shake. Time to be with our families. The chance for our children to get an education and succeed. Laws that protect us, not oppress us.

Recently, the American dream brought a man named Elvino and his son Ramon here from Mexico. Experienced bricklayers, they were hired to work on a large housing development. They and 30 others worked for five weeks, and the contractor never paid them.

For too many immigrants, this is the American reality. Hard work rewarded with rip-offs and no justice.

Here's an unpleasant fact that is almost never talked about openly: Too many U.S. employers actually like the current state of the immigration system, a system where immigrants are both plentiful and undocumented, afraid and available. Too many employers like a system where our borders are closed enough to turn immigrants into second-class citizens, but open enough to ensure an endless supply of socially and legally powerless cheap labor. That system is intolerable for a democracy.

And we treat our relationship with Mexico as if it were a national security problem, solvable with military aid and a militarized border. It's a dangerous mistake. The failures of our relationship with Mexico represent a failed economic strategy not solvable with guns, soldiers and fences.

Fixing this broken immigration system is a crucial element of our broader economic strategy, to end our two-tiered work force and recognize that allowing an underclass of disenfranchised workers hurts all workers, everywhere. The labor movement and a broad coalition of faith-based and immigrants' rights groups have worked with former Labor Secretary Ray Marshall to put together a program for comprehensive immigration reform.

The AFL-CIO supports a fair path toward legalization for all undocumented workers who are working to realize the American dream. We are for the DREAM Act, which gives young people a future in the only country they know. We need an independent commission to determine our society's genuine need for more immigrants, and then we need to build a pathway that allows those immigrants to have secure rights from Day One. We're also for establishing real penalties for employers that break the law.

Today we see a dangerous drift toward a politics of hate. We should all fear Arizona's campaign to make anyone who might look like an immigrant live in fear. In the end, don't all of us who aren't Native Americans look like the immigrants and children of immigrants that we are? If we are truly going to build a world-class work force, we need to make sure every worker in America -- documented or undocumented -- is a stakeholder in our economy and protected by our laws.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Richard L. Trumka.