06/21/2013 04:12 pm ET Updated Aug 21, 2013

Cardin Amendment Recognizes Public Service of Day Laborers

As the Senate debates how immigrants may qualify for legalization under its new immigration proposal, one amendment could pave the road to citizenship with community service, civic participation, and volunteerism.

This week, Senator Cardin introduced Amendment 1294, which would recognize the invaluable contributions immigrants have made to our country through volunteering and community service. Indeed, during times of great crisis, America's day laborers and other undocumented workers have a track record of coming forward to volunteer in service of our neighbors, our communities, and our country.

Last year, when Hurricane Sandy struck New York City, day laborers stepped up from all around the region to assist their fellow New Yorkers. As The New York Times reported, day laborers formed "volunteer brigades, helping other people chip away at the mountains of debris and accepting nothing in return except work gloves, face masks and safety information cards from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration."

These day laborers risked deportation and injury to support communities ravaged by Sandy and abandoned by government agencies. As one group of day laborers showed up to Far Rockaway, one of the poorest and hardest hit areas in New York, organizers of an emergency food drive thought they were looking for handouts. But after the workers told the crew they were there to help out as well, all the volunteers stood side by side to clean out and reconstruct the devastated neighborhood--the food drive operators happy to have assistance, the laborers gratified to be recognized as human beings and neighbors, as more than a piece of labor.

In Staten Island, a borough with a history of repeated anti-immigrant hate crimes, day laborers came together to support neighbors and fellow New Yorkers by clearing out moldy basements, distributing food to stranded residents, and moving staggering mounts of rubble. A special crew was organized to bring food up to elderly residents who were stranded in the top floors of their buildings, too weak or scared to come down. Their effort was praised by former Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis when she met with some of the day laborers on Staten Island.

Volunteering and community service, so central to American identity and values, is how we come together as equals--it's how we as individuals and communities express solidarity with one another during times of great crisis. Day laborers encountered considerable fear as they knocked on door after door in Coney Island, the Rockaways, and other devastated neighborhoods in New York. But when homeowners and residents realized the laborers had come to volunteer, they were welcomed inside with open arms--and a bit of shock. One resident, echoing many others, told the laborers they were her "angels," that she could not have salvaged her house without them, and that she was wrong to be surprised by their charity.

Senator Cardin's public service amendment would go a long way toward recognizing the contributions of undocumented workers--not only for the work they do, but also for their role in our communities, non-profit institutions, and faith-based organizations.

As it currently stands, the bill's legalization work requirement ensures, by definition, that many part-time employees, domestic workers, contractors, day laborers, and other contingent workers would be denied a path to citizenship. The public service amendment importantly expands the work requirement to recognize volunteering in addition to paid employment, allowing these contingent workers to remain on the path to citizenship while continuing to support local charities, faith-based groups, and other public service organizations.

In addition to encouraging future public service by immigrants, Senator Cardin's amendment recognizes the immeasurable contributions already made to American communities by day laborers and other undocumented workers.

Whether forming fire brigades to put out wildfires or heading south to help after Hurricane Katrina, day laborers have stepped forward whenever Americans needed help.

It is time for our immigration policy to acknowledge these past and future volunteers for who they really are--compassionate, hardworking members of our community who deserve to be recognized as such. Senator Cardin's amendment is an important step toward this recognition, opening a path to citizenship while building stronger communities.