We need comprehensive immigration reform now

This city is abuzz over the politics of immigration, with excited, occasionally valid speculation swirling about Eric Cantor, calendars, last-minute deals, and the like.

That’s what Washington does.  That’s OK.  This newspaper and more than a few Twitter accounts probably wouldn’t exist without it.  But amidst the frenzy, and as prospects for anything legislative teeter on the edge, it’s vital to remember the issue itself, and why it is so important, now and in the future.

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We have a fundamentally failed immigration system.  The core ideals of our democracy have been undermined in two ways: one, by having millions of people living and working in the country without a path to citizenship, and two, by the stain of victims cruelly deported by the broken machinery

There are really only two responses.  One is comprehensive immigration reform.  The other is … well, there’s really only one response.  And it’s sitting right in front of us. 

On June 27th, 2013, 68 senators joined with nearly every responsible element in civil society, from faith leaders to the civil rights movement, from the business community to the labor movement, and responded to the crisis by passing a bipartisan comprehensive immigration reform bill.

The bipartisan bill didn’t just put a Band-Aid on a topic of conversation, but addressed with real seriousness the nation’s broken immigration system and ongoing deportation crisis. Washington DC was, for once, solving a problem.

The labor movement lauded the bipartisan Senate bill, and we committed ourselves to making sure that this sensible compromise bill became law.

We were not alone.  An exceptionally diverse group of forces spread across the country, educating the nation about the need for action.  Collectively, we ensured that workers of all backgrounds understood that employers exploiting immigrants undermined working conditions for all. And we made sure that everyone understood that wrecking families and communities was a moral catastrophe that must be ended urgently.

No one thought the Senate bill was perfect. Certainly, the AFL-CIO understands that democracy and problem solving require compromise, and the Senate bill reflected that imperative. We in the labor movement accepted aspects of the bill we know to be problematic because we knew that as a whole, the bill reflected our core policy commitments.

We were not alone. As the president said last year, “The bipartisan bill that passed today was a compromise.  By definition, nobody got everything they wanted.  And as Republican South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham said, "I consider this an astounding success. An astounding success. This is as good as it gets in the Senate.”

Three components were critical to that achievement, and explained why nearly every reputable component of civil society supported the bill:

(a) A clear and achievable path to citizenship, ensuring that our economy and social fabric were not undermined by a permanent underclass of non-citizens without rights or protections; 

(b) Strong protections for all workers against exploitive bosses, and

(c) A new type of employment based visa system based on labor market data, not the whims of exploitative employers. 

So here we are, almost a year later.  This is the bill.  This is the content legislators have in front of them.  These are the core principles, hard fought and well concluded, that define this issue.

It’s time to act.  It’s time for Speaker Boehner (R-Ohio) to do his job, and all House members to do theirs.

But if they fail to act, the core principles of comprehensive immigration reform aren’t going away.  The legislation enacted by the Senate last year is our guide, and we will remain steadfast in support of its principles next week, next month, next year.  In that regard, we renew our call for the administration to exercise its authority to uphold those principles by providing immediate, temporary relief and work authorization to all those who would qualify for citizenship under the bipartisan Senate bill.

Workers, immigrants in America, their families, the economy, and our democracy deserve no less a commitment.

Trumka is president of the AFL-CIO, the umbrella federation for U.S. unions, with 56 unions representing 12.5 million working men and women.

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