Democrats' message to Latinos at labor gathering: We're not Trump

Donald Trump has pushed some members of the Republican presidential field toward stronger anti-immigrant positions. So Democratic candidates are using a labor union convention to burnish their pro-immigration reform credentials.

John Locher/AP
Democratic presidential candidate, former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, speaks at a news conference in front of the Trump International hotel in Las Vegas on Wednesday, calling for unionization at the hotel owned by GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump.

The big three Democratic candidates for president are in Las Vegas this week to woo labor unions, whose support can mean not only votes but also vital support on the ground in a national campaign. 

It's still early in the campaign cycle for endorsements. Front-runner and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has already picked up some big ones from the American Federation of Teachers and the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers.

But she faces unexpectedly strong competition from Sen. Bernie Sanders (I) of Vermont, who is drawing big crowds here. Some 4,500 rallied to see him in Reno on Tuesday. Former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, well back in the polls, is also pitching for union support here. 

But there's another candidate in the mix here – Republican Donald Trump, whose assault on illegal immigration is raising the profile of the issue in both parties. 

The Nevada chapter of the AFL-CIO, which represents 12 million members nationwide, is holding its annual convention at the Luxor Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. Candidate appearances to the group have been closed to the news media, but Senator Sanders, commenting briefly to reporters after his meeting with the union leaders on Tuesday, emphasized the need to expand legal protections for undocumented immigrants and provide a pathway to citizenship.

“We are about keeping families together, not dividing them,” he said, according to the Las Vegas Review-Journal. “Comprehensive immigration reform is long overdue.”

The AFL-CIO also supports immigration reform and backed President Obama’s executive actions on to protect as many as 5 million undocumented immigrants from deportation. They are already facing legal challenges that could reach as far as the United States Supreme Court.

AFL-CIO leaders criticize the US immigration system for not properly protecting undocumented workers, which they say allows employers to drive down wages and working conditions for all workers around the country. There are at least 11 million immigrants estimated to be living in the country illegally.

“The brunt of the impact has been born by immigrant workers, who face the highest rates of wage theft, sexual harassment, and death and injury on the job,” the organization says on its website. “Our entire workforce suffers when we allow standards to erode as millions of workers struggle to support their families without the status to assert their rights.”

By contrast, Republican primary candidates are divided on the immigration issue, which many worry could further alienate Hispanic voters. But Mr. Trump, who launched his campaign with inflammatory remarks on illegal immigrants, has put the issue squarely on the GOP agenda, forcing his GOP rivals to talk about it and, in some cases, temper their support for immigration reform. 

Trump argues that toughening immigration laws will increase economic opportunities for domestic workers, including minority and female workers.

Stronger enforcement of the nation's immigration laws “will help reverse women’s plummeting workplace participation rate, grow wages, and allow record immigration levels to subside to more moderate historical averages,” he says, in a position paper posted to his website last weekend.

Sen. Jeff Sessions (R) of Alabama, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee's immigration subcommittee, endorsed Trump’s plan, saying in a statement that the plan “includes an emphasis on lifting struggling minority communities, including our immigrant communities, out of poverty, by preventing corporations from bringing in new workers from overseas to replace them and drive down wages.” Senator Sessions had helped Trump craft the policy in a mid-July phone call, The Washington Post reported.

Other Republican candidates have softened their approaches to immigration after Trump soared in the polls. Ohio Gov. John Kasich told CBS’s “Face the Nation” last Sunday that he would “finish the wall” along the US-Mexico border but also work to legalize the undocumented immigrants already in America. On Monday, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who had earlier endorsed comprehensive immigration reform, said that Trump's proposals on immigration were "similar" to his own.

Mr. O’Malley will be the last Democratic candidate to address the AFL-CIO convention. Both Sanders and Mrs. Clinton addressed the convention Tuesday. Both candidates received warm receptions, according to the Post.

But O’Malley is taking things a step further. After speaking at the Luxor, he held a news conference in front of Trump’s gold-plated hotel tower, flanked by workers trying to unionize there. O’Malley released his own immigration plan last month. The plan proposes using executive action to limit deportations and pressing Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform.

While labor unions have lost political clout in recent years, they remain a force in Nevada, which hosts the third preelection contest of the campaign, after the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary. Clinton won the Nevada caucuses during her 2008 presidential run with the help of significant labor endorsements.

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