THE BLOG
04/19/2006 12:55 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Protect Our Borders -- And Our Workers

As the debate about immigration reform rages on, we have to remember what this issue is not about. It's not about race. It's not about fear. Instead, it's about making sure that all workers -- including immigrants -- are empowered to stand up for their basic workplace rights.

There's no question that we must do a better job protecting our borders, and the Teamsters support legislation that contains smart border security measures. But that does nothing to address the millions of undocumented workers already here. And let's face it -- they are here to stay. Big business should not be allowed to continue reaping the rewards of their cheap labor.

That's why Congress must create a path toward legalization for America's undocumented workers. Doing nothing only allows employers to take advantage of workers' undocumented status - keeping wages low and unions out.

Consider this: Managers threaten to call immigration authorities in 52 percent of all union organizing efforts involving undocumented workers, according to research by Cornell University professor Kate Bronfenbrenner.

Statistics like that don't just hurt undocumented workers. They hurt all workers. Undocumented employees become too afraid to bargain for better working conditions and form unions. As a result, all workers face downward pressure on their wages.

I know it might be too much to ask the Republican leadership to consider the human factor, but that's key here as well. Millions of vulnerable immigrants toil in our nation's most dangerous and demanding jobs. And they spend their workdays in a state of fear.

For instance, when immigration authorities recently showed up at the Port of Long Beach, dozens of independent truck drivers simply abandoned their vehicles. Human Rights Watch documented managers at a Nebraska meatpacking plant telling workers that if they voted for a union they would be deported. And in a well-publicized case in Minneapolis, the INS arrested eight Holiday Inn Express workers just after they elected to join the hotel employees' union. (The employer had tipped off the authorities.)

These scare tactics would never work if undocumented workers didn't live in constant fear. Congress must step up to the plate and offer protections for all workers regardless of their immigration status.

In the meantime, we're left with the situation described by an Arkansas poultry employee to Human Rights Watch: "They have us under threat [bajo amenaza] all the time. They know most of us are undocumented--probably two-thirds. All they care about is getting bodies into the plant. My supervisor said they say they'll call the INS if we make trouble."

All people working in this country should be afforded the same workplace protections. Granted, these rights need strengthening and we have plenty of work ahead of us. But let's start with protecting all workers in this country, because we all will benefit.