Progressives, union members are sharply split on immigration, poll shows

Neil Munro White House Correspondent
Font Size:

President Barack Obama will host a White House meeting today with progressive immigration advocates and the AFL-CIO’s leader, Richard Trumka, highlighting the deep divide among union leaders, workers and business leaders over immigration policy.

Shortly afterwards, the president is slated to meet with a panel of business leaders eager to import immigrant workers and customers.

The events are intended to tout Obama’s push for a rewrite of the nation’s immigration laws. AFL-CIO bosses say their highest priority in the controversial debate over immigration is to get citizenship for roughly 11 million illegal immigrants.

But union members are far more concerned about excluding low-wage immigrant workers, says a Jan. 29-30 poll of 1,000 likely voters by Rasmussen.

Approximately 90 percent of union members said the reduction of illegal immigration was important to them, while only 9 percent thought it was not important.

Unions members also split 51 percent to 47 percent against an amnesty for illegal immigrants, the poll showed.

The conflict is also already impacting the emerging immigration debate, partly because union and business leaders are trying to hammer out a side deal over labor behind closed doors.

So far, the two interest groups have agreed to back a conditional amnesty for the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants. But they’re still trying to negotiate business’ demands for a continued flow of low-wage immigrant workers.

Business wants ”a broader temporary worker program that wouldn’t be limited to seasonal [agricultural] workers or just high-skilled” experts, Randel Johnson, a vice president for labor issues at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said in a Feb. 4 National Public Radio broadcast.

Johnson said he wants some of the future immigrants to stay in the country.

The unions want “a way for the immigrants of the future to come to the United States,” but also want them to be covered by labor laws, said Eliseo Medina, the Mexican-born secretary treasurer of the Service Employees International Union.

Industry’s aversion to federal regulations is a potential deal-breaker for the unions, despite their shared interest in amnesty, said Roy Beck, founder of NumbersUSA, a nonpartisan group that wants to shrink the inflow of immigration workers.

“Even though [union leaders] they say they want this amnesty, I’m not sure they agree with [business-backed proposals] to greatly increase the number of legal worker and the numbers of guest workers,” he said. “I think there’s a decent chance they will end up not supporting this [pending immigration] bill.”

The task of reconciling the two groups’ interests “is a knotty debate,” Medina told NPR.

Medina’s SEIU union is one of the fastest-growing unions, and has almost 2 million members — many of them immigrants — working in health care, government agencies and property maintenance.

The SEIU has strongly pushed for amnesty, and is backing pro-amnesty groups, including United We Dream, partly for political reasons. (RELATED: Group demands amnesty for millions of illegal immigrants)

“If we reform immigration law, it will put 12 million people on the path to citizenship and eventually voting,” Medina said in a June 2009 speech. “Can you imagine … if we have 8 million new voters that care about our issues and will be voting, we will create a governing coalition for the long term, not just for an election cycle,” he said.

The SEIU is not part of the 11-million strong AFL-CIO, but the two groups frequently cooperate.

The AFL-CIO isn’t talking in public about the so-called “Future Flow” or immigrant workers. Instead, in public, it is only backing amnesty.

‘“Our top priority in the immigration debate is to make sure that all the people who are American — except on official documents — have a path to citizenship so they can have equality and so they can stand for themselves in the workforce,” AFL-CIO spokesman Jeff Hauser told The Daily Caller.

Hauser declined to discuss the AFL-CIO’s stance on future immigration, which is being strongly promoted by the business lobbies. (RELATED: Critic calls Americans for Tax Reform head Grover Norquist a “gun for hire” who doesn’t give a “damn” about workers)

The AFL-CIO’s focus on citizenship comes amid a downturn in membership among workers in the skilled trades, and despite a stalled economy that has flat-lined wages and left roughly 1 in 7 workers — or 20 million Americans — unemployed or underemployed.

Future immigrant workers could win an even larger share of the work now done by skilled tradesmen and women, hurting the AFL-CIO’s members, said Beck.

Currently, the nation now accepts roughly 1 million new legal and illegal immigrants each year.

For 100 years, the unions “has always stood on the principle of tight labor markets because that is was the best way to improve wage and conditions of American workers,” Beck said.

“Now they’re pushing for looser markets“ that reduce workers’ economic and bargaining power, he said.

The 2013 Rasmussen poll follows a huge 2010 poll of 7,046 union members by Zogby International for the Center for Immigration Studies, an immigration-reform group seeking to reduce the inflow of workers.

That poll showed that only 19 percent of union members strongly support a so-called “path to citizenship” for illegal aliens. The same poll showed that 37 percent strongly appose amnesty.

Also, 62 percent of union members wanted stronger enforcement of immigration laws to pressure illegal immigrants to return home.

In union households, only 10 percent supported higher immigration, while 72 percent said Americans can fill the open jobs.

Follow Neil on Twitter