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Labor's Stand for Immigration Reform: An Interview with Eliseo Medina

September 8, 2010

by Daniel Altschuler

Over the last decade, organized labor has become a major player in the movement for comprehensive immigration reform (CIR).  With more members, resources and political clout than most other immigration reform supporters, union support has become a sine qua non for any potential legislation.  As part of an ongoing series of interviews on the current prospects for immigration reform, I spoke with Eliseo Medina, Executive Vice President of Service Employees International Union (SEIU), one of labor’s most outspoken advocates for immigration reform.  Mr. Medina spoke to me about various issues, including labor’s position in the pro-CIR movement, SEIU’s role in the boycott of Arizona, and the union’s efforts to increase Latino political strength throughout the country.

Altschuler: How has Arizona SB 1070 affected SEIU’s organizing strategy on immigration issues?

Medina: When SB 1070 was introduced, we spent a lot of time and energy trying to lobby the legislature, and then for the governor not to sign it. We felt it was unconstitutional, mean-spirited and divisive.  Unfortunately, we were unsuccessful.  From there, we switched to a strategy of trying to deal with the law and how it was introduced.  Our strategy built on the following components:

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Number one, challenge the law in the courts.  We joined with a number of other organizations in Arizona and nationally to file a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the initiative.

Number two, we joined with the NCLR [National Council of La Raza], the NAACP [National Association for the Advancement of Colored People], and a number of other groups supporting a boycott of Arizona, because we felt that the only way we were going to be listened to was if there was some economic pressure brought to bear on Arizona.  It became apparent to us that this was not a question of good, sound policy arguments, but rather a political and ideological battle.  If they weren’t going to listen to us with their minds, we felt maybe they’d listen to us with their pocketbooks.

The third thing we did was campaign to bring together different groups in Arizona that were interested not only in fighting 1070, but also empowering the Latino community to advocate for its own interests.  We put together a table of 501c3 and 501c4 organizations with the goal of reaching out to the Latino community, giving them the information they would need to come out and vote in November, and actually getting them to vote.  This would help us deliver a powerful message at the polls.

Because SB 1070 has begun to rear its ugly head [through potential copycat laws] in 21 or 22 other states, we’ve been working with partner organizations and individuals across the country, lobbying at the state level to stop legislation while trying to make the boycott as successful as possible in order to send a message to other states.

Altschuler: You mentioned the boycott.  Decades ago, you worked on an organizing effort that led to the California grape boycott. Now you find yourself in a movement boycotting the state of Arizona.  What lessons from your earlier boycott experience can you apply to the current effort?

Medina: Boycotts work, because economic pressure can really focus the mind.  They also allow the broader public to do something very specific in support of the movement and to express their opposition to SB 1070.  So we have organizations [that] have cancelled their conventions, musicians and artists who have cancelled their performances, individuals who have cancelled their vacations to Arizona—not going to that state is their statement.  A boycott is something that is very democratic, because it’s something in which everybody can participate.  They don’t have to be in the state of Arizona; they can be anywhere in the world and participate.  It helps to build a movement, while at the same time putting pressure on and ensuring that the message about this law is picked up. 

Altschuler: Let’s explore the labor politics of this issue as well.  Some say that the split within labor in 2007 was a critical factor in explaining the Senate Bill’s defeat.  To what extent do you agree with this assessment?

Medina: I don’t.  The labor movement has been, since 2000, united on the position that we need comprehensive immigration reform.  And even when we were having our differences with the AFL-CIO, we continued to work together on immigration reform and have activities together.  I think the reason the bill failed was not because labor had its differences, because we always do.  We’re not monolithic; we have different perspectives and opinions on different issues.  I think the reason the bill failed is the same reason we don’t have immigration reform today: there’s not enough power that’s been built up to deal with the political and ideological battle that the Republican Party and their allies have been running.

Altschuler: Senate sources have argued that a labor-business agreement on legal immigration is a precondition for any eventual bill.  Have labor and business made any progress on such an agreement?

Medina: If there were enough votes in the Senate and they said, “Labor and business need to get together,” we would have an agreement in 24 hours.  We have had numerous conversations.  The two big issues involved with immigration reform are: one, what to do with the 12 million people who are here with undocumented status?  Both business and labor agree that they ought to have the opportunity to legalize their status.  Two, what happens to workers that want to come here in the future?  That’s where historically there have been differences, because business would prefer something along the lines of the current H-2A programs.  We do not, because we don’t believe they offer enough protections to workers.  But, in numerous conversations I’ve had with business, I think they understand that business cannot be about protecting those employers who want to violate workers’ rights.  The business community doesn’t want to exploit workers; they just want to grow their businesses and make a profit.  So, what we’re saying is that anyone who comes here in the future should have the same labor rights as everybody else.  We shouldn’t have two tiers of workers.  And I think that we’re going to find broad agreement on that with business.  The reason that we haven’t nailed down an agreement is the uncertainty over whether there’s a chance of moving a bill; reaching an agreement would not be an obstacle.

Altschuler: Democratic supporters of CIR in the Senate have argued that they simply could not present a bill this year without any Republican supporters, as such a bill would be defeated by filibuster.  Do you accept this argument, or have Democrats taken their pro-CIR allies for granted?

Medina: The reality is that there is no bill that will pass—given the current rules of the Senate—without 60 votes.  So the question then becomes a strategy question: do you present a bill that’s going to fail?  And is that helpful or harmful to the overall effort?  We’ve never pushed the Democrats to push a bill that we know is going to fail.

I would like the Democrats to be far more pro-active than they have been, but, overall, I lay the failure of reform right on the doorstep of the Republican Party.  They’re the ones who have been pushing anti-immigrant measures.  They’re the ones who have refused to support immigration reform. There are 41 senators that belong to the Republican Party—not one has come forward to say, “I want to fix this problem.” And then they also crow loudly that the reason that we need SB 1070 is the failure of the federal government, as if they had no part in it.  It’s totally ridiculous.

Altschuler: In March, RIFA organized as many as 200,000 people to rally on the Washington Mall.  But one source in the Senate declared this a waste of time, as Senator Graham had already pulled out of the bill at that point.  At this stage of the game, can protest and civil disobedience have an impact, or will they just alienate Democratic allies?

Medina: Democrats have got to know that this is an issue that not’s going away.  The same thing holds true for the Republicans.  What they don’t understand is that all of these activities are continuing to grow and nurture the movement, because people are not going to give up.  They’re going to continue being active.  And every day without immigration reform means more and more people who are suffering the consequences.  Most of them are our relatives, our co-workers, our friends—people we know, because we live in these communities.  We’re going to get immigration reform—not because it’s the right thing to do, but because they have to respect the community and its growing political clout.  That’s what we’re focused on—how to grow that clout.  Because, at the end of the day, change happens through the ballot box in this country.

Altschuler: How concerned should Democrats be about the prospect of Latinos staying away from the polls in November?

Medina: You know, Democrats ought to be thanking their lucky stars that there are Republicans, as far as the Latino community goes.  Because the Republicans are making crystal clear to the Latino community why they cannot afford to stay home.  When you look at SB 1070, the argument about the 14th Amendment, you see all these Republican gubernatorial candidates continuing to attack immigrants as part of their agenda.

The Democrats, though, should not rest easy thinking that somehow people are going to be automatically for them because of the Republicans being bad.  The more time passes, voters are going to become more discerning.  They will not only focus on people that are against them, but also on people that don’t do anything to earn their support.

Altschuler: A recent Mother Jones piece noted SEIU as one of the country’s largest campaign contributors in 2010.  To what extent is the union using these contributions to push action on immigration?

Medina: At our convention in 2008, we laid out three major things that we wanted to get done in this country.  One was universal health care, two was labor law reform, and three was immigration reform.  We got health care done—it’s not perfect yet, but it’s a huge step forward.  Now we’re focusing on the last two.  There’s no way we’re going to fix the economy in this country unless we change the labor laws and immigration law.  We’ve got five or six percent of the US labor force that’s undocumented.  There’s no way that you can make things better for workers as long as you’ve got that many people in the shadows being used by scumbag employers that drag things down for everybody.  So, immigration is not only the right thing to do morally and ethically; it is also a critical thing to do for the purposes of improving conditions for workers in this country.  This is our top priority.

Altschuler: Some critics have argued that the pro-CIR movement hasn’t learned to expand its base, and that it remains weak because it primarily preaches to and mobilizes “the choir.” How do you respond to that critique?

Medina: First of all, I would say that I don’t know what picture they’re looking at; they might have wandered into the wrong theater.  You look at who has come out to support CIR: Mayor Bloomberg had a news conference with the heads of a whole host of Fortune 500 companies; we had the National Baptist Convention participate in news conferences in support of CIR; we had the Greater Houston Partnership—which is not exactly Berkeley, California—coming out very strongly for immigration reform.  I think the movement has expanded beyond just immigrants; it’s now become an issue that’s been embraced by everyone.  And I think that SB 1070, interestingly enough, has also brought the African-American community on board.  They really understand, because of their history, how laws that legalize racial profiling can be used against you.  The NAACP and many of the other groups—that before had been supportive—are now becoming much stronger supporters and participants in the struggle.

So, are we there yet?  No.  Do we have all the power we need?  Absolutely not.  But are we on the right road?  Absolutely.  And, for the long term, this is going to be a tremendous service to this country.  Because, as part of this struggle, you’re going to see the broadest coalition that’s come together on any issue in recent history.

Altschuler: You’ve been a vocal critic of the Obama administration’s enforcement policies.  How do you respond to Democrats who say that they need to get tough on enforcement to have any chance of ultimately passing CIR?

Medina: It is a real mistake for the current administration to continue with the enforcement-first approach that the Bush administration had been following.  It hasn’t solved anything.  Right now, they’re spending 18 billion dollars a year on border enforcement—18 billion dollars!  They’ve got about 21 or 22 thousand border patrolmen, and we haven’t fixed this problem.  And the reason is that all that the government is doing is more about politics than fixing the problem.

Daniel Altschuler is a contributing blogger to www.AmericasQuarterly.org.  He is a Copeland Fellow at Amherst College and a doctoral candidate in Politics at the University of Oxford, where he was a Rhodes Scholar. His research focuses on civic and political participation in Honduras and Guatemala.

Tags: SB 1070, Service Employees International Union, National Council of La Raza, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People

To speak with an expert on this topic, please contact the communications office at: communications@as-coa.org or (212) 277-8384.
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