By Mark Gruenberg
PAI Staff Writer
WASHINGTON (PAI) - There are now two separate bills that have been adopted in the House and Snate that offer widely differing paths to immigration reform.
It's a matter of huge importance to the building trades, where it's estimated that 14 percent of all U.S. construction workers are undocumented workers.
Given the divergence in opinion on the overall immigration issue, perhaps one of the biggest developments amounted to another snub for workers, both native and immigrants. By a 57-40 vote, the Republican-run Senate on May 23 killed an amendment to the immigration bill that would have strengthened workers' rights for both immigrant workers and native-born workers. (See the sidebar article). Senators passed the bill without the pro-labor amendment.
The amendment's drafter, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), argued that immigrants have no labor rights, and that allows unethical employers to exploit them, under threat of deportation, and use the threat of importing undocumented workers to drive down native workers' wages and working conditions, he added.
"History shows us that it is not enough to pass good labor laws if we do not also make a strong commitment to enforcing these laws. Beyond anything we have provided in the bill, the most important step we could take to help American workers and immigrant workers alike would be to improve our enforcement of the critical labor protections that have been a part of U.S. law for decades," Kennedy told his colleagues.
He continued, "We have laws on the books that protect the safety of American workers. Yet each year over 5,700 workers are killed on the job, and 4.3 million others become ill or injured. We have laws on the books that prohibit child labor. Yet there are about 148,000 illegally employed children in the U.S. today."
Furthermore, Kennedy said, "We have laws on the books that give workers a voice
on the job to protect their fundamental right to organize and join a union. Yet each year more than 20,000 workers are illegally discriminated against for exercising these rights in the workplace.
"These appalling statistics persist because our efforts to seek out and punish employers who violate the law are laughably inadequate. We find and address only a minuscule fraction of the number of violations that occur each year. Even when we do try to enforce the law, the penalties for breaking it are so low that employers treat them as a minor cost of doing business."
Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), a frequent labor and Kennedy ally, "reluctantly" opposed the pro-worker amendment.
"This represents a sweeping change to the Fair Labor Standards Act and to OSHA. In particular, it increases certain penalties five- and tenfold. It increases civil fines under OSHA and criminal penalties under OSHA without any record as to whether such increases are necessary. There have been no hearings on this bill," Specter said.
The House bill, seen as harsher to the illegal workers, makes them and those who help them felons. The Senate "tried mightily to pass comprehensive immigration reform, but failed," said Laborers President Terry O'Sullivan.
The Senate bill would provide a slow path to eventual "green cards" for millions of the 11 million-12 million undocumented workers now in the U.S. Those here five years or more could apply for documentation but only after paying some $3,250 per person in fines and fees and after proving they followed U.S. laws and paid their taxes.
The Senate bill says that undocumented workers in the U.S. from 2-5 years would have to return to border cities and apply for readmission. Those here under two years, estimated at 2
million, would be deported. So would those with felony convictions, including drunken driving.
The Senate bill also calls for more border enforcement, a 370-mile fence, a 200,000-per-year "guest worker" program.
There is little chance that this issue will be settled any time soon.