Immigration reform bill draws mixed review from 'big labor'

The FL-CIO, long a leader in seeking immigration reform, sees both good and bad in legislation passed by the Senate.

The bill would curb illegal border crossings while giving resident status to undocumented aliens who have established themselves in the United States.

The federation, while conceding the measure includes features it has long urged, wants the House to remedy defects in the Senate bill which, it says, ''could lead to a backdoor 'bracero' program'' that would let thousands of workers enter the country to work in fields for wages and under conditions below what would attract US workers.

''In 1982, during a period of enormous unemployment, it would be unconscionable to reauthorize in any way an enlarged bracero program,'' AFL-CIO legislative director Ray Denison warns House members, who are expected to take up their version of an immigration bill after Labor Day.

In the 1950s growers near the US-Mexico border brought in Mexicans - or braceros - to work in fields at lower wages and in generally poorer work and housing conditions than would be necessary in employing US workers. Growers in Florida and other coastal states also filled part of their labor needs by importing workers from the Caribbean.

Under heavy pressures from labor, civil-rights, and other groups, Congress in 1962 tightened up on the bracero program, slowing but not stopping the flow of aliens - legal and illegal - into the US.

There are an estimated 10 million to 15 million illegal aliens in the US. Many work in garment shops, restaurants and hotels, and in other industries that use large numbers of low-wage workers.

According the AFL-CIO, these workers ''here unlawfully and without the full protection of US laws'' create problems that should be attacked through the first major immigration reform in three decades.

Jane O'Grady of the AFL-CIO says that too many employers, interested only in low labor costs, find ''illegals are preferable to US workers because aliens are afraid to demand the minimum hourly wage, overtime pay, or protection under health and safety laws.''

Ms. O'Grady says they are ''exploitable and subject to harassment'' by employers who can threaten to report them. By working for less, she says, they depress labor standards of Americans and documented aliens (those in the US legally) and cut into their job opportunities.

The measure passed by the Senate would penalize employers who knowingly hire illegal aliens. The AFL-CIO says this is a step forward but that the sanctions are not as strong as it would like. For a first offense, an employer of four or more workers could face a $1,000 civil fine for each illegal worker employed. The fine would be doubled for further violations. Should a ''pattern of practice of violations'' develop, an employer would be subject to criminal misdemeanor penalties, including up to six months in jail.

Among other things, the Senate bill also takes a first step toward an effective identification system, which labor considers necessary. It calls on the administration to develop within three years a ''reliable'' system for varifying the identity of all workers, including US citizens, perhaps by mandatory ID cards for everyone.

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