Ramping it up for immigration reform

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Labor advocates for immigration reform wasted no time hitting the halls of Congress after the Senate voted 82-15 to take up work on an immigration reform bill. On June 12, AFT members and leaders from seven states visited their senators from California, Maryland, New Mexico, New York, Texas, Wisconsin and West Virginia to press for passage of S. 744, the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act, without allowing amendments that will poison the comprehensive reform provisions.

"We are at a crossroads in history," said Louis Malfaro, secretary-treasurer of the Texas AFT and an AFT vice president. "The work we do now is critical. It's up to us to hold these folks accountable." He and fellow Texans Montserrat Garibay, vice president of Education Austin, and George Rangel, executive vice president of Alliance AFT, spoke to staff members in the offices of Texas Republican Sens. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz.

Immigration Lobby

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), a moving force for comprehensive immigration reform, greeted and briefed the labor delegation before the lobbying visits began. From the start of the process, he said, he's made it clear that "we won't have a bill that labor opposes. It will be a pro-labor bill."  (In photo, Schumer, left, greets George Rangel, of Alliance AFT and René Lara, political director of the Texas AFL-CIO.)

"The minute the 11 million undocumented workers come out of the shadows," he added, "they will have the right to organize."

Schumer took a question from Baltimore Teachers Union member Julita Lizardo, a Filipino English and special education teacher from Morrell Park Elementary/Middle School, who was recruited to teach in Baltimore eight years ago. The star teacher holds a doctorate and is working on an H1B visa that expires next year and trying to secure an EB2 visa, extended to workers with exceptional abilities. She is married and has two children now in high school. Her daughter dreams of attending Johns Hopkins University.

Jualita Lizardo, Baltimore Teachers Union member

The school district diligently has filed petitions on behalf of Lizardo (pictured) and other colleagues recruited to teach at the same time, she explained. They have been turned down.

"After all we have contributed," she told Schumer, "I fear that next year, I will have to leave." She is looking for assurance that the immigration bill will address the option of immigrants being able to petition for themselves.

As senators discuss changes to S. 744, "no one has to worry," said Schumer. "We'll take amendments, but nothing that will jeopardize the core provisions of the bill."

He encouraged unionists from Florida to give a message of support to wavering Republican Sen. Marco Rubio. "Tell him, 'you'll have his back.' The message today is 'Labor is watching. Citizenship is a workers' rights issue.' "

Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.) also addressed the group. He is one of the Gang of Seven that is drafting a bill on the House side, which is expected to be completed in the next week or two. He thanked labor and noted its essential role in getting final legislation passed. "You have to be tough going forward," he said. "You cannot let any [Democrats] leave the fold."

In office visits, AFT members shared their stories of how fixing the broken immigration system will personally affect them and the people they serve.

Garibay, a National Board for Professional Teaching Standards-certified teacher, just got her citizenship in November, she told Chip Roy, chief of staff for Sen. Cruz. It is heartbreaking and detrimental to see her students' parents "deported every day," she said. She asked Roy to encourage Cruz, the son a Cuban immigrant and a darling of the conservatives, to "come to the table, roll up his sleeves, be a great leader and get a deal."

"We will mobilize everyone in our communities to improve the lives of everyone in our communities," she added.

Immigration Lobby

In a visit with Sen. Ron Kind (D-Wis.), Michael Rosen, president of Local 212 of Milwaukee Area Technical College and one of his members, Christine Neumann-Ortiz, executive director of Voces de la Frontera, discussed how provisions on worker visas affect dairy farmers in the state. (All are pictured at right with Wisconsin AFL-CIO secretary-treasurer Stephanie Bloomingdale.)Kind's staff member, Elizabeth Stower, reiterated the senator's support for the Dream Act, and Dreamers' access to tuition assistance and financial aid.

Jonathon Saiz, a kindergarten teacher from AFT New Mexico, met with Democratic Sen. Tom Udall's staff and expressed the importance of passing a bill to ensure that the education of his students, half of whom are children of immigrants, not be disrupted by threats of their parents' deportation.

The AFT's lobby day was part of a broader push organized by the AFL-CIO. All told, labor immigration reform advocates came from 27 states. At an AFL-CIO briefing before the Hill visits, AFL-CIO president Rich Trumka (pictured below) described his work with the Chamber of Commerce to hammer out a labor-business agreement that the bipartisan "Gang of Eight" senators who drafted the immigration bill could use.

Immigration Lobby

Labor is fighting aggressively to get immigration reform signed into law by August, if possible, Trumka promised. "The bigger vote we get in the Senate, the more likely we are to get a bill through the House.
"These workers are citizens in every way but name,” he said. "This is our chance to fix a broken system that has been used to drive down the wages of every worker out there."

In the coming weeks, the AFT will be notifying affiliate leaders to have members call their representatives on this issue. Find more resources, keep up with breaking news and learn about actions by visiting the AFT's American Dream online tool kit. [Barbara McKenna, Derrick Figures/photos by Michael Campbell.]

June 14, 2013