Report from Arizona: Immigration and Workers' Rights

Phoenix, AZ--“The harvest is abundant but the laborers are few,” the Lord tells us in the Gospel last Sunday, “so ask the master of the harvest to send out laborers for his harvest (Luke 10:2).” It’s an observation that takes on a curious double meaning in Arizona, the 2010 flashpoint in our ongoing debate over America’s response to the phenomenon of illegal immigration and the related abuse of undocumented workers. After all, according to the Pew Hispanic Center’s Portrait of Unauthorized Immigrants in the United States, some 25 percent of American farmworkers are undocumented migrants. Mexico has been sending laborers for our harvest for decades; the abundance of American agriculture is in no small way a product of the long hours and poorly paid toil of immigrant workers, many of them lacking legal status and especially vulnerable to exploitation.

In recent years a disproportionate number of these workers--and the much larger numbers who find work in residential construction, hotels and restaurants, child care and janitorial work--have entered from Mexico via Arizona, fueling a backlash in the state that has culminated in the now-famous SB1070. This legislation makes violating federal immigration regulations a form of criminal trespass in the state of Arizona, and obliges state and local officials to take a number of actions to identify and arrest illegal aliens. The legislation’s most notorious provision directs law enforcement officers engaged in a lawful stop to verify the immigration status of any individuals who they reasonably suspect to be unlawfully present in the United States. Critics across the USA seized on this last tenet and forecasted a wave of racial profiling in the Grand Canyon State.

On the ground in Arizona the Catholic Church and the labor movement have helped lead the opposition to SB1070 from the start. “Nothing we have seen has unified the faith, immigrant, and labor organizations like SB 1070” said Ben Monterroso, a Service Employees International Union (SEIU) staffer. “What we do or don’t do here will be followed all over the country.”  Monterroso and the SEIU are working with local community organizations on a massive voter registration effort aimed at boosting the voter participation of immigrant Latino citizens.

In the spring, as Arizona legislators considered the measure, the Arizona AFL-CIO urged them to reject the “omnibus anti-immigrant bill” and leave immigration enforcement to the federal government. Similarly, all three Arizona bishops signed a statement “On Legislation Impacting Vulnerable Populations” (pdf download) urging that SB1070 and its companion HB2632 be withdrawn. The bishops expressed special concern that undocumented immigrants fearful of deportation would now avoid cooperating with state and local police in the investigation of violent crimes. (The police themselves, interestingly, were divided on the issue. The police chiefs shared the concerns of the Bishops; the trade union representing the officers, the Fraternal Order of Police, supported the legislation and took offense at critics who feared racial profiling might ensue.)

The Catholic Church and organized labor have led interesting parallel lives in America. Both teach solidarity and social justice where the dominant culture often endorses unbridled greed and selfishness. And both share a common immigrant experience. If the American establishment has historically been Protestant, the nation’s working classes have ever been filled with Catholic immigrants or their children and grandchildren, a rich stew of Irish and Italians, Poles and Portuguese, and so many others. These were the men and women who filled the church pews and union halls.

The Church’s advocacy for immigrants is fairly longstanding, and its contemporary Justice for Immigrants campaign is an indicator of the depth of its commitment. American organized labor, on the other hand, is a more recent convert to the cause.

For over a century, the AFL-CIO (and its predecessor, the AFL or American Federation of Labor) tended to favor tight restrictions on immigration. Many on the political left have been quick to assume that racism was the driving force behind the AFL’s (and for that matter, Arizona voters’) opposition to immigration. I’m not so sure. Increasing the supply of a commodity is a good way to drive down its price, and that is not a good thing if you represent people who have nothing to sell but their labor. While the impact of undocumented workers on our economy is a complex topic, experience suggests what many academics suspect: illegal immigration puts significant pressure on the low end of the labor market. In one city after another, native-born workers with limited skills or academic qualifications have seen economic niches in food service, hotel, or building services shrink as the pool of undocumented and temporary immigrant workers grew around them.

Yet in early 2000, about 10 years before SB1070 hit the floor of the Arizona legislature, American union leaders announced a dramatic shift in their position on immigration. Punitive and restrictive immigration measures had backfired, they concluded, creating a pool of millions of undocumented workers fearful of asserting their rights--rights to fair pay, safe workplaces, and to organize in trade unions. Thereafter the AFL-CIO would campaign for some path to legal status that would allow these workers to come out of the shadows and join their American (native-born and immigrant) counterparts in the pursuit of economic justice. Since that time trade union leaders and Church officials have regularly engaged in joint efforts to blunt anti-immigration initiatives and to support comprehensive immigration reform.

In Arizona, trade union and Church opposition to SB1070 since passage has been vigorous but uncoordinated--not just between Church and labor but even within both camps. The SEIU has been a strong supporter of the “boycott Arizona” movement; the Arizona AFL-CIO is understandably not enthusiastic about a strategy that could put even more Arizona workers on the jobless rolls in the midst of the Great Recession. Activists at the dynamic St. Francis Xavier parish in Phoenix spearheaded  “Compassion for All,” an initiative to put repeal of SB1070 before the voters in November. Many politically seasoned Catholics, however, avoided the effort, fearing that a resounding defeat at the polls could set back efforts to amend the law and prevent more such measures from passage. (The effort came up short of signatures and will not appear on the ballot.)

And there is a sense in which none of this addresses the core issue of social justice in play. After all, the real problem in America is not that the harvest is abundant but the laborers are FEW, so much as it is that the harvest is abundant but the laborers are DEAR. We have become accustomed to getting our food, home improvements and child care at prices that are incompatible with a living wage for the workers who produce them. When American-born workers resisted this proposal--either by organizing in trade unions or simply by shunning the work--we, in essence, went shopping abroad for workers who would provide these goods and services on our terms. But our Catholic faith teaches us that every worker, wherever born, is entitled to a living wage. Are we prepared to pay the price for our principles in real dollars?

Clayton Sinyai

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Beth Cioffoletti
7 years 2 months ago
"the harvest is abundant but the laborers are DEAR."

Very well said, Clayton. 

Thank you.

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