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Richard Trumka and Bruce Tunnell: Laboring in shadows

  • Published Sunday, Sep. 1, 2013, at 12 a.m.

For many Americans, Labor Day barbecues and picnics mark a nostalgic end to summer. It’s also a time to celebrate work and the people who do the work (and, of course, the people who want to work but can’t find jobs). This year, we remember especially that too many people labor in the shadows of our economy without access to the rights and protections that everyone deserves.

More than 11 million aspiring Americans attend school, work in our neighborhoods, raise families, own homes and dream of a better life. But their dreams will never be realized with the threat of deportation hanging over their heads and a path to citizenship so far out of reach.

While these immigrant workers struggle to become part of a country that benefits from their labor but doesn’t protect their rights, unscrupulous employers abuse the system by exploiting workers with little to no protections – and pay them less. This vicious cycle, in turn, lowers wages and working conditions for all American workers and makes it harder for businesses that play by the rules.

No one can deny that our current immigration system is broken, or that it depresses living standards for all workers. Across the country this Labor Day, people are calling for immigration reform that truly protects the rights of all workers.

At the beginning of August, 41 national leaders – representing a broad coalition of advocates who support worker protections, including a road map to citizenship – were arrested in a civil-disobedience action just outside the offices of members of the House of Representatives in Washington, D.C.

The message is loud and clear: If members of Congress continue to obstruct a vote on immigration reform, they will have to answer to a growing majority of Americans who support a path to citizenship as part of comprehensive immigration reform.

We saw this majority reflected in the diversity of faces that spoke up to ensure that a vote on comprehensive immigration reform was successful in the Senate. Faith leaders, conservatives and business owners took action, together with immigrant rights groups, community organizations, working families and labor and civil rights leaders.

The immigration legislation that passed with a solid, bipartisan majority in the Senate – while far from perfect – lays out a reasonable road map to citizenship for aspiring Americans, lifts up workplace standards and rights for all Americans, and strengthens border protections. This would boost the U.S. economy.

According to the U.S. Congressional Budget Office, modernizing our immigration system so that it is safer, more orderly and more humane would grow our economy and reduce the deficit by almost $1 trillion over two decades.

CBO also reports that a set of reforms that include an earned path to citizenship would create about 3,000 new jobs in Kansas and increase our economic output by $240 million in just one year.

Passing comprehensive immigration reform with strong worker protections, including a path to citizenship, is the economically and morally right thing to do.

Kansas’ representatives were elected to do what’s best for our state and our country. That includes taking a stance in favor of fixing our broken immigration system and ensuring that we no longer have millions of people working in the shadows.

Labor Day celebrates all people who work. Our country is watching, and the millions who have mobilized will continue to ramp up action until a path to citizenship is fully realized.

Richard Trumka is president of the AFL-CIO. Bruce Tunnell is executive vice president of the Kansas AFL-CIO.

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