AFL-CIO Calls for Amnesty for Illegal U.S. Workers


Claiming U.S. immigration policy is “broken and needs to be fixed,” the AFL-CIO on Wednesday called for a new amnesty for millions of undocumented workers and the repeal of the 1986 law that criminalized hiring them.

The position, adopted unanimously by the federation’s executive council at its winter meeting in New Orleans, represents a dramatic shift for the AFL-CIO, which backed the so-called employer sanctions law 15 years ago.

At the time, immigrants were viewed by many labor activists as competitors for jobs or potential strikebreakers. The demographics of the U.S. work force are very different now, with foreign-born workers dominating many industries and accounting for a large share of new union members.


The Immigration and Naturalization Service estimates that 275,000 workers enter the country illegally every year, and that 6 million now live here--about the same number who lived in the United States in 1986, when the last amnesty law was passed as part of the Immigration Reform and Control Act.

While the prospects for actual legislation are unclear, labor leaders noted that many new voters are immigrants and legislators are looking for ways to court them.

“The world has changed, and it hasn’t just changed for unions,” said John Wilhelm, president of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union, who chaired a committee of 12 unions that wrote the resolution. “I’m not so sure people aren’t rethinking earlier views. From a cold political perspective, if the labor movement and the immigrant communities and churches can generate sufficient momentum, I’m not so sure that we can’t be successful.”

Coming at a time of widespread labor shortages, the union’s proposal is likely to be supported by business groups, some of which have independently called for a new amnesty. Business generally opposed the original employer sanctions law.

The labor federation, which represents about 13 million union members, has scheduled four forums across the country, including one in Los Angeles on May 10, to take testimony from immigrants and consider legislative strategies.

Several California labor groups had pushed for a new AFL-CIO immigration policy at the group’s national convention in October, but few expected the response to be as swift or as strongly worded.


The three-page resolution, written by a committee that included unions representing janitors, truck drivers, teachers, government employees and screenwriters, describes the current immigration system as “poorly constructed and ineffectively enforced,” allowing some employers to “knowingly exploit a worker’s undocumented status in order to prevent enforcement of workplace protection laws.”

The resolution also called for whistle-blower protection for illegal immigrants who complain about labor law violations as well as the creation of job training programs for new immigrants. And it opposed any expansion of the current guest worker program.

Along with general amnesty for “millions” of undocumented workers, the resolution said legal status should be granted immediately to 500,000 Central Americans and Haitians who were denied refugee status in the 1980s and 1990s. In addition, the resolution said that the 350,000 immigrants who were denied amnesty under the 1986 law and the 10,000 Liberians who fled civil war in their home country should also be granted legal status.

The combination of amnesty for current residents and penalties for employers who hired undocumented workers in the future was intended to put an end to illegal immigration, but many researchers now believe the law actually fueled even more of it.

In some industries, particularly in California, undocumented workers account for 50% or more of the work force.

There have been increasing calls for a new amnesty recently, but the AFL-CIO resolution is the most prominent and sweeping.


Last month, a bipartisan coalition of senators introduced legislation that would grant limited amnesty to farm workers, but only if they agreed to continue working in agriculture for five more years. The legislation will probably come before the Judiciary Committee in May, said a spokesman for Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla).

Several of those involved in drafting the AFL-CIO resolution had bitter memories from 1985, when the previous policy was adopted. “It caused many of us great pain,” said Linda Chavez-Thompson, now the federation’s executive vice president. “We were great foot soldiers, but we weren’t appreciated. . . . The movement itself has changed so much since then. Now you see the faces of immigrants everywhere.”

The resolution is in part a pragmatic response by unions that have begun organizing more aggressively, and found that some employers threaten or fire undocumented workers who support the union.

One case that helped speed the federation’s action involved six hotel housekeepers in Minneapolis who were arrested by immigration agents in October, shortly after voting in favor of union representation. It was later learned that the agents were called by a hotel manager.

Although the workers won a settlement of $72,000 through the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, they are still slated to be deported, despite the intervention of churches and community groups.

“That really brought to the forefront what the problem was,” said Eliseo Medina, vice president of the Service Employees International Union, who was among the early proponents of the new policy. “That showed in a very stark way what the situation is today, and helped bring a sense of urgency to the matter.”