Taking advantage of labor's about-face stance on illegal immigrants, Los Angeles unions are pushing to obtain legal status and citizenship for foreign laborers living here.
The Coalition for Immigration Reform, a group of more than 70 unions and community organizations started by local labor leaders including the Service Employees Union International and Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International plans to hold a series of town hall meetings on immigration issues this summer in several California congressional districts.
The effort comes as U.S. officials consider establishing a major guest-worker program with Mexico. The unions are working to convince lawmakers to provide residency to undocumented laborers in the U.S. before bringing in more people from abroad.
Organized labor traditionally has shunned illegal immigrants, claiming they took jobs away from American workers. But the AFL-CIO decided last year to end its long-standing policy of erecting sanctions against employers who hire undocumented workers.
"The AFL-CIO did a 180-degree turn," said David Koff, a spokesman for the hotel worker's union.
The union has invited Mexican Foreign Minister Jorge Castaneda, a major player in negotiations for a guest-worker program, to speak at its upcoming international convention in L. A.
When Mexican President Vicente Fox tours the nation this month, L.A. labor officials will lobby him to make legal status available to undocumented immigrants in the United States before establishing a guest-worker program.
Local labor leaders and immigrant advocates recently joined a delegation of union representatives sent to Mexico to meet with Castaneda and other Mexican officials.
"We made it clear to them that we would not support any type of guest-worker program that does not include first and foremost the regularization of as many undocumented workers as possible," said Juan Jose Gutierrez, a senior political organizer for the service workers who helped define the delegation's positions.
Ben Monterroso, a member of the delegation and director of the Organization of L.A. Workers, said the response of Mexican officials was encouraging. "They're willing and ready to continue working with us," he said.
A downturn in the Mexican economy could complicate matters as more workers look to the U.S. The Bush administration has been mulling over the problem of illegal border crossings, which gained national attention recently when 14 migrants died in the Arizona desert.
Some believe that making more visas available to Mexican citizens by establishing a new guest-worker program would reduce the number of illegal and often dangerous border crossings. The U.S. already has some guest-worker programs in place.
Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas, has proposed a guest-worker program that would allow Mexican citizens to accept employment in the United States on a year-to-year basis. But Gutierrez and others worry that such a proposal would keep illegal aliens from gaining citizenship. They support legislation that would allow immigrants living illegally in the U.S. to apply for permanent residence.
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