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Richard Trumka Headshot

Who Are You Calling Names?

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"Wop." "Hunkie." "Polack." "Kike."

When I was a kid growing up in Nemacolin, Pa., those are some of the slurs people used for us.

Why? Because our parents or grandparents came to this country from somewhere else, fleeing poverty and war, seeking opportunity and hope. As a kid, every person I knew who was older than 50 spoke broken English.

Those names hurt. But they also determined almost everything about us -- where we would live, where we would worship, where we would go to school, where we could work.

It wasn't easy. We were the last hired and first fired, the people who did the hardest and most dangerous work, the people accused of taking jobs away from others who had been here longer, the people whose pay got shorted because we didn't know the language and were afraid to complain.

But from the mines and the mills, the immigrants of my parents' and grandparents' generation built America.

Today, we have a new generation of immigrants. And the names and accusations are just as ugly. I hear it all the time. I even hear it from people close to me. "Those immigrants are taking our jobs. They can't speak English. They're taking over the country."

I couldn't disagree more, but I know where they're coming from -- an American economy in tatters, rampant unemployment, foreclosures, disappearance of health and retirement benefits.

They're anxious and angry. I'm angry, too.

There's justifiable anger at seeing our economy, our way of life, our security trashed. And it's being used by people who have a real stake in maintaining our economic disaster to turn working people against one another.

Many working men and women -- including union members -- were pretty confused that I would be speaking out on behalf of today's immigrant workers, as I did last week at the Cleveland City Club. But I can honestly say to them: An immigrant worker did not move your plant overseas. An immigrant did not take away your pension. A Mexican or Salvadoran or Guatemalan worker did not cut off your health care. His wife didn't foreclose your home. Her children did not crash our financial system.

Blaming immigrant workers for our economic catastrophe is like blaming shrimpers for the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

BP was too greedy to drill that well safely. And many U.S. employers are too greedy to pay workers a living wage, or comply with health, safety and labor laws. They've got exactly the immigration system they want -- plenty of workers living and toiling in the shadows, borders that are closed enough to turn immigrants into second-class citizens and criminals but open enough to ensure an endless supply of socially and legally powerless cheap labor.

Gripped by our own economic insecurity, it's often hard to see immigrants as mothers and fathers who are just trying to make a living and take care of their families -- people pursuing the same goals and dreams the rest of us have. Maybe it's easier to identify with or side with the rich and powerful.

I'm afraid too many working people are forgetting the painful legacy of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). It destroyed jobs and industries in this country. It destroyed jobs and industries in Mexico. It increased inequality and eroded workers' rights on both sides of the Rio Grande. Except for the people who are still profiting from cheap plants with low-wage labor and weak environmental and labor protections, it hurt us all. But Mexican workers are being blamed for the results.

We're not going to fix the U.S. jobs and economic crisis as long as we permit a two-tiered workforce and a two-tiered society, with recent immigrants who are easy to abuse, easy to underpay and too intimidated by our broken immigration system to demand better.

Border fences, military patrols and un-American laws like Arizona's aren't going to fix that.

We need a new national economic strategy for a global economy that focuses on creating good jobs and making trade fair, not just "free." But part of that strategy must be comprehensive immigration reform that brings workers out of the shadow economy, provides a path to legalization for hard-working, tax-paying immigrants, determines society's genuine need for more immigrants so corporations who just want cheap labor aren't calling all the shots and extends legal protections -- including the freedom to form unions and to be paid fair wages -- to every person employed in this country.

That will get us much closer to a healthy economy than calling names ever will.