AFL-CIO: Obama’s Immigration Actions Will Raise Wages, Protect Workers

Bipartisan appeals made to continue working for comprehensive solution in 2015

By Roy Maurer Dec 17, 2014

President Barack Obama’s executive actions granting work authorization to nearly 5 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States will increase tax revenues, improve wages and reduce exploitation, according to an official representing labor unions.

Elizabeth Shuler, secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO, said the president’s plan will benefit all workers. “It is important to understand that an estimated 8 million of the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. are currently working. Allowing five percent of our national workforce to struggle to support their families without full rights and protections is wrong, and it creates a dangerous environment where wage theft, sexual harassment, and death and injury on the job are all too common,” she said.

Shuler and other witnesses testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee Dec. 10, 2014, mostly debated the executive actions’ constitutionality, but there were also bipartisan calls for getting back to work on a comprehensive immigration reform solution.

‘Status Quo’

Calling employer manipulation and abuse of undocumented workers the “status quo,” Shuler testified that “the sad reality is that unethical employers understand that immigrants without legal protections can’t complain about working conditions. And when employers can hire undocumented workers with a wink and a nod and then fire them when they seek to organize a union or complain about unpaid wages or unsafe working conditions, it is not just undocumented workers that suffer, but their U.S. citizen co-workers as well.”

Shuler said that in addition to workers being protected from employer abuses like wage theft, the executive actions will increase payroll taxes by $3 billion in the first year and nearly $23 billion over five years. And the spillover effect of reduced wage theft will benefit everyone, according to Shuler. She cited the White House Council of Economic Advisers, which estimates the president’s plan will increase annual wages for U.S.-born workers by 0.3 percent by 2024.

Shuler made clear that while the AFL-CIO supports the executive actions, “we continue to urge Congress to pass comprehensive, common sense immigration reform,” which would encompass the following principles:

  • An independent commission to assess and manage future flows of new workers into the country based on labor market needs.
  • A secure and effective worker authorization mechanism for employers.
  • Rational operational control of the border.
  • Improvement, not expansion, of temporary worker programs.
  • A broad and inclusive pathway to citizenship.

She reiterated the AFL-CIO opposition to the expansion of temporary worker programs, “which suppress wages and conditions by creating a captive workforce without full rights and protections. … Guest worker programs must not be used as a way for employers to bypass or replace U.S. workers with vulnerable temporary workers. We will actively engage in the rulemaking process to ensure that new workers will be hired based on real labor market need and afforded full rights and protections.”

Appeals for Reform in 2015

During the hearing, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, called for “resolving these problems the right way,” through passage of legislation. Hatch was one of several Republicans who voted with the Democratic majority to pass a comprehensive immigration reform bill (S. 744) in the Senate in 2013. “I believe strongly that we can make real progress on immigration reform despite the president’s action,” he said. Hatch said that employers in the technology sector were “left holding the bag” under Obama’s immigration plan, and that his I-Squared bill, introduced in January 2013, would make the changes necessary to temporary and permanent high-skilled employment visa programs, allowing the tech sector access to high-skilled talent.

“I’m calling on everyone … to make more progress on immigration reform,” he said.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., a co-sponsor of Hatch’s I-Squared legislation, said issues at the border and a path to citizenship will also need to be addressed.

Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., who voted in favor of the Senate’s comprehensive bill, said that while the president’s action will make it more difficult for Congress to move on the issue, he would like to try to “put legislation on his desk.” Flake said he thought it was unlikely that immigration reform will be in a comprehensive bill going forward, and more likely to be piecemeal after the president’s action.

Fight over Immigration to Continue in 2015

At last count, 24 states, led by Texas, are suing President Obama over his executive actions on immigration, alleging that the president violated constitutional limits on his power. Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Maine, Michigan, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, North Carolina, South Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, West Virginia and Wisconsin have signed on to efforts to dismantle the president’s plan.

On Dec. 16, 2014, a federal judge in Pennsylvania ruled that Obama’s actions are an unconstitutional breach of the separation of powers. The decision by Judge Arthur J. Schwab of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania came in the context of a criminal proceeding and not as a direct challenge to the president’s action, but it is nonetheless the first judicial decision to address the issue. Schwab in his decision said the creation of threshold eligibility criteria under the program takes it beyond the limits of prosecutorial discretion, and the constitutionality of the action can’t be defended simply by saying that Congress didn’t act.

On another front, Congressional Republicans set up a challenge with the White House over the plan in the recently passed omnibus appropriations bill funding the federal government through fiscal year 2015.

The Department of Homeland Security, which administers most of the immigration programs and enforces many of the immigration laws, will be cut off from funding Feb. 27, 2015.

House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, vowed an immigration fight at that time. “We are setting up a direct challenge to the president’s unilateral actions on immigration, when there will be new Republican majorities in both chambers [of Congress],” he said.

Eligible undocumented workers will be able to start applying for deportation relief and work permits by February 2015 under the expanded Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. By May 2015, parents of U.S. citizens and legal resident children will also be able to apply.

“We are very confident that this is completely legal and it is going to be carried out,” said Cecilia Munoz, Obama’s chief domestic policy adviser, in a telephone news conference.

Roy Maurer is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

Follow him @SHRMRoy

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