Protecting Workers and Families from Exploitation and Deportation

By Richard L. Trumka

Trumka_photoChange for working people has been happening across the country for the last year.  From the fast food walkouts to the heightened activism of worker centers and the fight for rights for carwash, warehouse and domestic workers, the past few years have served up fresh displays of solidarity and the birth of a new kind of workers’ movement.

Fear of deportation enables unscrupulous employers to get away with paying low wages and subjecting immigrants to intolerable working conditions, which drives down pay and degrades work for all of us.

The significant role of immigrants in shaping and re-imagining this movement reminds us of a foundational truth: There is more that unites us than separates us. No matter where we were born, we share common values and pursue common visions. Many of us are connected by hard work and the dream of a fair chance to make our work pay and create possibilities for our families. And when we bring our voices together around what we share, we make things happen.

In California, many voices came together to blaze a path toward social and economic justice for all—raising the minimum wage, protecting the pay of farmworkers, preserving the carwash registry, incentivizing prevailing wages for construction workers, expanding access to drivers’ licenses and much more. The Domestic Workers Bill of Rights is a milestone, as are the state’s protections against retaliation when immigrant workers speak out about unfair wages or working conditions. And California took the lead in addressing the impact of immigration enforcement on workers and families by limiting the state’s cooperation with the federal Secure Communities program.

But, while we celebrate victories in California and nationally, including President Obama’s deferred action for DREAMers, and await comprehensive immigration reform with a workable path to citizenship, hundreds of thousands of working people are still suffering.

Their spouses and children are lost in the wilderness of America’s immigration system. They are the victims of deportation, a cruel policy that tears families apart, all for the “crime” of moving in search of work and the chance of a better life for their families.

Fear of deportation enables unscrupulous employers to get away with paying low wages and subjecting immigrants to intolerable working conditions, which drives down pay and degrades work for all of us.

Workers are regularly threatened with immigration enforcement as soon as bosses learn of stirrings of collective action for higher wages or better benefits. It happened to sanitation workers in Maryland, not 10 miles from the District of Columbia line. It happens every day.

I’m reminded of the signing of the armistice that ended World War I on November 11, 1918. Over the bloody years of that gruesome war, the world had sickened of carnage. New deadly and accurate weapons and old tactics had combined to decimate the young men of all the countries involved. On the morning of the last day of fighting, representatives of the fighting powers put pen to paper to stop the bloodshed at 5 a.m. But, it took another six hours for word of the war’s end to reach the front lines. And in those intervening hours, more than 10,900 soldiers were killed or wounded. Historians still marvel at that last spasm of violence in a war that had already claimed more than nine million lives.

Today, the horrors of deportation are a harsh contrast to the progress under way to embrace immigrants as full, contributing members of our workforce and community. We must stop the deportations now. As a society, we have too much at stake—and too much that connects us—to stand by as million of workers are kept invisible and millions of families are torn apart by an unjust immigration system.