'Odd Fellows' Work Together On Overhauling Immigration

Two people, who are not normally allies, are working together to support changes to immigration laws. Renee Montagne talks to Eliseo Medina, who is with the Service Employees International Union, and Randel Johnson, who is with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

The movement to overhaul the nation's immigration system is gathering steam. A bipartisan group of senators and the White House have put forward proposals for comprehensive reform.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Those plans would give undocumented workers a way to come out of the shadows and become legal. They would create a better system for foreigners who want come to the U.S. in years to come, and they would beef up border security.

MONTAGNE: We're going to hear now from two people who are not normally allies but have come together in support of immigration reform. Eliseo Medina is with the Service Employees International Union, which has about two million members. Randel Johnson is with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which represents about 300,000 American businesses. Welcome to both of you.

ELISEO MEDINA: Thank you very much for inviting us.

RANDEL JOHNSON: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: I want to start though by asking you something: Have you been allied on any other issue closely before? I mean you know each other.

MEDINA: I think that this is certainly a case of odd fellows. While we may disagree on a number of other issues, on this one we are lock step and working on fixing this system.

MONTAGNE: I would just say one thing. This particular moment and this particular issue seem to define the devil is in the details. You both are nodding on that. Why don't we start with you, Randel Johnson at the Chamber of Commerce. What are some of the details that will matter a lot to your members and businesses, which are various sizes?

JOHNSON: First of all, we should note that just conceptually the Chamber supports, recognizes the problem with the undocumented and we do have to provide some way - pathway for legalization for the undocumented. What we're working with the SEIU and some other unions on is the issue of so-called temporary worker programs and how do you structure those when an employer can show there's not a U.S. worker available for a certain job.

MONTAGNE: Well, let's talk then. Let me bring you in, Eliseo Medina. Let's talk about what we began with here, which is the whole question of temporary workers and how workers are in a sense processed.

MEDINA: We have 11 million people working in our economy and they have no rights. They live in the shadows, subject to arrest and deportation. The second question, of course, is how do we make sure that the immigrants are the future, come to this country in a legal, safe and orderly manner, to make sure that we don't find ourselves in 20 years in the same problem with another 11 million people in undocumented status.

MONTAGNE: Which, by the way, many over these years, since 1986, and Ronald Reagan's program, have said that's the problem. As soon as this amnesty, which was a good word back then, you know, went into effect and everybody was brought in to the fold and legalized, the flow of undocumented workers was never shut down...

JOHNSON: (Unintelligible) address that, Eliseo.

MEDINA: Yeah, and it seems to me - here's the problem. The 1986 law that was signed by Ronald Reagan had one big problem, and that is that it did not provide a way for the immigrants of the future to come to the United States in a safe and legal manner. And because it didn't provide for that, it just basically said, well, once I get here, let's try to figure out if we can punish employers who hire them. And the fact is that in many industries, businesses rely on immigrant workers. And if there's not a way for them to come here, then what you are doing is basically creating an underground economy, and it don't work.

MONTAGNE: Randy Johnson, that would include, I presume, your businesses that are within the Chamber of Commerce.

JOHNSON: Right. We don't know what those numbers are necessarily and which employer, because given the whole nature of the paperwork system and verification, often employers hire immigrants who have false documents, so they don't know that they're obviously illegal, because that would be an illegal hiring. But I do want to come back to Eliseo's point about the problem with the '86 act. The '86 act did not have those avenues Eliseo was talking about. And so it left jobs unfilled often and therefore that fed into the so-called job magnet where people crossed into the country illegally because those jobs were available here in the country. But if employers can fill those jobs, when U.S. workers are not available through a secure temporary worker program, then that job magnet will disappear and there won't be that incentive for people to cross into the country illegally.

MEDINA: And in terms of making sure that they are not utilized to lower standards for American workers...

MONTAGNE: Pay and benefits.

MEDINA: ...is that you have to make sure that they have a guarantee wage. You have to make sure that they are protected by our health and safety laws. Because if they cannot, then they will be utilized for undermining standards for everybody. And that's why we think that this system for fixing our broken immigration system has to be a comprehensive approach.

MONTAGNE: But those temporary workers then are the future. You're saying that they wouldn't be on a path to citizenship. They would be a special group?

JOHNSON: I think the kind of things we're talking about with the unions is a broader temporary worker program that wouldn't eliminate the so-called seasonal workers or just high-skilled. But to your point, it would have an avenue of sorts that some number of those who come in temporarily - and Eliseo would agree with this, I think - could transition under certain criteria into permanent residency.

MONTAGNE: Between your two groups - businesses and the union - what is the biggest sticking point?

JOHNSON: Well, I would say it really does come down to those boring details, such as how many hoops and hurdles would an employer have to go through to document that they have in fact recruited a U.S. worker before they can use one of these new temporary worker programs. Sometimes an employer's going to need a worker relatively quickly, but should they then be required, have to advertise for a U.S. worker for 120 days before they could use this new temporary worker program? That may sound trivial, but in fact when you're an employer, those details become very important, and so therefore they're very important in our negotiations.

MEDINA: There's no disagreement, I believe - and Randy will speak for himself - with the Chamber on the question that the 11 million workers who are here ought to be able to legalize their status, have an opportunity to become full-blown citizens. But when we start talking then about what about the future, that's got a - a subject of a lot of debate because of our respective views of who we represent. You know, I was a farm worker. I worked for the Farm Workers Union. And one of those jobs that I did, as I was in Florida, and one of the things that I found out when I got there is that these sugar cane companies were importing thousands of Haitians, Jamaicans and St. Lucians. And what we found in talking with these workers, that they were not being paid according to the contract, that employers would actually mess with the books, not actually document the number of hours worked so that it would appear that they were actually making the contractor rate when in fact they were not. When they told us this and then we tried to begin to intervene, the next thing we knew, these workers were deported because their visa was dependent on the employer. Those are the kind of abuses that we want to avoid and we need to fix this in this legislation. We should not create a situation where we have workers that are on second and third-class status and have no way of defending themselves.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for joining us.

MEDINA: Thank you so much, Renee.

JOHNSON: Thanks, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Randel Johnson is a senior vice president at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, specializing in immigration and labor issues. Eliseo Medina is secretary-treasurer of the Service Employees International Union.

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