- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 17, 2000

NEW ORLEANS The leaders of the nation's labor unions, in a major shift in their policy, yesterday called for amnesty for an estimated 6 million illegal immigrants to allow them to stay in the country, work and join a union.

Members of the labor federation's governing committee unanimously agreed to the new policy, which commits unions to press for the repeal of a 1986 law they say has made it difficult to unionize illegal aliens.

"The current system of immigration enforcement in the U.S. is broken," said Linda Chavez-Thompson, vice president for the AFL-CIO, the umbrella organization for 68 labor unions. "With this resolution, the AFL-CIO proudly stands on the side of immigrant workers."

While organized labor traditionally has seen illegal aliens as a threat to American jobs, its leaders now believe that they have become an exploited class, forced to work long hours in jobs most American do not want.

"If we are to have an immigration system that works, it must be orderly, responsible and fair," she said.

While U.S. labor law is intended to protect all workers regardless of their resident status, most illegal workers are reluctant to report employer abuses for fear of being deported.

The AFL-CIO also notes that illegal immigrants are increasingly working in sectors, like hotels, restaurants and farming, where the labor movement has been most active. Their presence in these industries often has made it difficult for organizers to wage successful collective-bargaining agreements.

Labor leaders now believe that the best way to preserve their movement is not to keep illegal aliens out, but rather to make them legal and encourage them to join unions.

They said current immigration law has failed. It doesn't stem the flow of new arrivals without documentation and places employers in a law-enforcement role.

In many instances, union officials said, unscrupulous employers have used threats of deportation to exploit illegal workers, knowing they will not complain.

"Employers often knowingly hire workers who are undocumented, and then when workers seek to improve working conditions employers use the law to fire or intimidate workers," Ms. Chavez-Thompson said.

For example, nine illegal Mexican hotel workers recently won a $72,000 settlement from their employer, Holiday Inn Express, after filing a federal employment discrimination claim accusing their employer of exploiting them because of their immigration status.

The workers claimed that hotel management knew that they were in the country illegally and reported them to the Immigration and Naturalization Service only after they voted to join a union and push for better treatment. Now the nine workers face almost certain deportation, although Attorney General Janet Reno is considering their request for amnesty.

John W. Wilhelm, president of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union, said the Holiday Inn Express case is just one example of a practice becoming all too common as more illegal immigrants seek employment, and more employers struggle to find people willing to work for low wages and few benefits. January's unemployment rate hit a 30-year low of 4.0 percent, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported.

The proposal also calls for an end to employer sanctions, a provision of U.S. immigration law that punishes employers for knowingly hiring illegal aliens.

Under the proposal, the labor federation is calling for new immigration laws that would protect those already here working illegally from firing or deportation if they try to unionize or complain to the government about violations of labor laws, including the minimum wage and safety requirements.

The AFL-CIO wants the new rules to replace a law passed in 1986 that set up the current system of enforcing immigration laws through employers, holding over companies the threat of punishment if they hire undocumented workers.

Mr. Wilhelm noted that the U.S. work force has changed dramatically in the past 10 years. While illegal immigrants in the 1980s were found primarily in places like California and Texas and in a few industries, illegal aliens now work all over the country and in any sector needing cheap labor.

Twenty percent of entrants into the work force last year were immigrants, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The federation estimates that 40 percent of U.S. population growth in the 1990s has come from immigration.

Mr. Wilhelm said about 75 percent of the 25,000 members of the hotel and restaurant workers unions are recent immigrants.

Labor leaders insisted that they are not seeking to open U.S. borders to immigrants who enter illegally.

Instead, they want to reform a system they believe is broken and establish laws to protect the rights of all workers and remove the threat of deportation.

Allowing a general amnesty for illegal immigrants would require congressional approval. Mr. Wilhelm, while acknowledging an uphill fight, said he believes that business groups might support the effort since they have been complaining of worker shortages.

A similar amnesty was passed in 1986 allowing 3.1 million illegal immigrants to stay in the United States. That law also held employers responsible for hiring illegal workers.

At the time, proponents of the amnesty said the change would stop the flow of illegal immigrants by filling available jobs with legal residents. Since then, however, nearly 6 million illegal workers have come across U.S. borders.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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