Magazine article The American Prospect

Civics Lessons from Immigrants: What Happens to the Working-Class Political Voice When Many of Its Speakers Aren't Citizens? (A Special Report on Immigration and Work)

Magazine article The American Prospect

Civics Lessons from Immigrants: What Happens to the Working-Class Political Voice When Many of Its Speakers Aren't Citizens? (A Special Report on Immigration and Work)

Article excerpt

The United States has always relied on immigrant workers, but in the last few decades their numbers have risen to a new peak. By 2000, roughly one in eight U.S. workers, or 17 million people, were foreign-born. That's up from about one in 17 in 1996, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. From 1996 to 2000, thanks to the economic boom, the number of jobs in the United States rose by 6.7 million; immigrants filled just under half of those. Pay scales typically follow this hierarchy: native-born American citizens, naturalized American citizens, legal immigrants and permanent residents, guest workers and finally undocumented workers. Overall, foreign-born workers earned about 76 cents for every dollar earned by U.S.-born workers in 2000.

But the impact of immigrant workers goes beyond economics; it has political consequences for all workers. Because noncitizen immigrants can't vote, a large fraction of the working class ends up without a political voice, exploited by employers and resented by many native-born workers.

In the face of this vicious circle, the response of many immigrants has been creative, even inspiring. Despite their lack of the franchise, many immigrants have been adapting classic American models of civic participation and inventing new ways of being heard. In the workplace, immigrants are turning to unions, and vice versa. Many immigrants' groups are also joining get-out-the-vote and registration campaigns, and often helping to mobilize support for candidates even if they can't vote themselves. Many remain politically active in their home countries.

In some cities, including Chicago, New York and the Washington suburb of Takoma Park, Md., immigrants have won the right to vote in certain local elections, particularly for school boards. Others are educating their fellow immigrants about their rights and responsibilities, and teaching them English. They've created membership organizations that provide financial help and moral support. There is a movement to have their consulates issue IDs that U.S. banks will accept in lieu of Social Security numbers. Immigrants are also pressing their homeland governments to lobby the United States for better treatment of their compatriots, here and at home.

Since the AFL-CIO embraced immigrants in 2000, reversing long-standing policy, several affiliate unions have intensified organizing and outreach efforts. The 1.5-million-member Service Employees International Union (SEIU) delivered 1 million postcards to the White House last fall with a plea to legalize immigrants. The nonpartisan Center for Immigrant Democracy, which the SEIU founded in 2001, wants to mobilize newly enfranchised citizens, as well as "established" Americans who vote infrequently. Its get-out-the-vote slogan is, "My family votes 100 percent." The center and the Spanish-language television network, Univision, are planning to broadcast a presidential pre-primary debate in December focusing on issues important to immigrants: education, legalization, housing and living wages.

The Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union (HERE) is spearheading an Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride this fall, inspired by the Freedom Riders of the civil-rights movement. Immigrants and foreign-born citizens will board buses in nine cities on Sept. 20 and travel to Washington and New York to focus public attention on immigrant rights and reform.

The Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees (UNITE!) has campaigned for college-aid assistance for undocumented immigrants who came here as children, as well as for funding to reduce the backlog in citizenship applications. In North Carolina, Latino and African American poultry workers are lobbying for better wages and working conditions. And the multiethnic Omaha Together One Community is supporting better working conditions for meatpackers.

APPROXIMATELY 140 IMMIGRANT WORKER CENTERS NAtionwide provide services and teach legal rights and leadership skills, according to Janice Fine, who is studying immigrant work centers for the Economic Policy Institute. …

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