House Republicans received a warm reception from immigration reform supporters last week after they released their plan for fixing the nation’s immigration system.
In the plan, members endorsed legal status for many of the nation’s 11.7 million undocumented immigrants, but specifically disavowed any “special path to citizenship” for the undocumented.
One group, however, wasn’t impressed: organized labor.
“A process that doesn’t even give people a green card and lead to citizenship isn’t something that ought to be applauded,” AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka told Fusion in an interview this week. “It’s really something that should be denounced and condemned.”
The AFL-CIO, the country’s largest labor group, has emerged at the vanguard of the push for immigration reform, denouncing deportations and taking a firm stand on citizenship for undocumented immigrants. Some immigrant rights groups have taken a more delicate approach to dealing with Republicans in the House, but the labor group has opted for a bulldozer over the welcome wagon.
Front and center is Trumka: he isn’t impressed by the effort from House Republicans and he doesn’t think White House is doing enough to stop deportations.
“If I had been president, I would have said, this system is broken,” he said. “When you help me fix the system, I’ll continue the deportations, but right now, it is unfair.”
The message from organized labor can be viewed several ways: they could be champions of reform. Or they could be a deal-killer.
Republicans certainly think unilateral action by President Obama to halt deportations — what Trumka is demanding — would put the brakes on any immigration legislation.
"There's widespread doubt about whether this administration can be trusted to enforce our laws,” Boehner said on Thursday. “It's going to be difficult to move any immigration legislation until that changes."
Trumka balks at the idea that organized labor could derail immigration negotiations.
“So the House does nothing, they throw out a few crumbs and if we don’t accept the crumbs, it’s us that’s killing reform?” he said. “No, it’s them.”
Immigration reform supporters have some reason to be skeptical of the AFL-CIO. In 2007, the group opposed a legislative plan drafted by a bipartisan coalition in the Senate.
Labor has since reversed its course.
There are plenty of reasons for unions to support immigration reform. If they can help dictate the terms of the bill, they can advocate for a guest worker program that will be less likely to undercut American workers. The worker program spelled out in the Senate bill is the ideal option for the AFL-CIO; they negotiated on its terms for months with the country’s biggest business lobby, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Immigration reform would also help energize the union base, which has been demoralized by state-level defeats, like a failed effort to recall Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker in 2012.
Despite the AFL-CIO’s past opposition to immigration reform, a wide range of activists now view the AFL-CIO as a vital ally.
Frank Sharry, the executive director of America’s Voice, a pro-immigration reform lobbying group, says that Trumka’s tough-talking approach is a strategic maneuver.
"You might say they are playing a bit of the bad cop, while others playing the part of the good cop,” Sharry, a veteran of the 2007 immigration fight, said. “But we are all on the same team."
Another labor outfit, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), split with the AFL-CIO seven years ago about whether to support a comprehensive immigration bill. But Medina doesn’t see anything like that happening this time around.
“The AFL and SEIU have been completely aligned since 2000 on what we need to get done, and we’ve never wavered on the issue of needing legalization and a pathway to citizenship,” Medina told Fusion. “So I expect that we’re going to continue working together, and the AFL continue to play an important role in the fight.”
Jordan Fabian is Fusion's politics editor, writing about campaigns, Congress, immigration, and more. When he's not working, you can find him at the ice rink or at home with his wife, Melissa.
Ted Hesson was formerly the immigration editor at Fusion, covering the issue from Washington, D.C. He also writes about drug laws and (occasionally) baseball. On the side: guitars, urban biking, and fiction.