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Legislative update

Thursday, June 7th, 2007

Bloomberg reports that the Senate’s proposed overhaul of U.S. immigration law failed a critical test vote today.

The 33 votes to limit debate were 27 short of the 60 needed to move toward a final vote on legislation granting legal status to 12 million undocumented aliens. Democrats scheduled another vote for 7:30 p.m. Washington time. Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada said that if a second vote fails, “the bill’s gone.” He added, “What else can I do?”

One of the deal breakers was apparently a 49-48 vote on an amendment put forth by North Dakota Sen. Byron Dorgan to terminate the guest-worker plan in five years unless Congress renews it.

The guest-worker plan is a cornerstone of the fragile agreement worked out between Democrats and Republicans, which also would impose tougher sanctions on employers who knowingly hire undocumented aliens.
Negotiators today sought agreement on a list of amendments that Republicans would be allowed to offer, while Republicans tried to resolve concerns about Dorgan’s amendment, lawmakers said. In addition, Democrats were looking for changes in an amendment that would let immigration officials give information to law enforcement officials about applicants for legal status.

Another account of today’s immigration vote can be found in AP’s coverage
Newsday lists Senate votes by state.

Immigration debate resumes

Monday, June 4th, 2007

The immigration debate will reopen this week as Congress returns to session. While the proposed legislation is drawing a lot of heat, particularly from the Bush base, new polls seem to indicate that momentum for legislation to deal with immigration is gaining public support. On Friday, The new York Times reported that a New York Times/CBS News Poll that indicated that “two-thirds of those polled said illegal immigrants who have a good employment history and no criminal record should gain legal status as the bill proposes: by paying at least $5,000 in fines and fees and receiving a renewable four-year visa.”
And in a new Washington Post-ABC News poll, 52 percent of those polled indicated they would support a program giving illegal immigrants the right to stay and work in the United States if they pay a fine and meet other requirements. Opposition to that proposal was 44 percent. The Washington Post reports that the backers of the bill are optimistic:

“After a week at home with their constituents, the Senate architects of a delicate immigration compromise are increasingly convinced that they will hold together this week to pass an overhaul of the nation’s immigration laws, with momentum building behind one unifying theme: Today’s immigration system is too broken to go unaddressed.
Congress’s week-long Memorial Day recess was expected to leave the bill in tatters. But with a week of action set to begin today, the legislation’s champions say they believe that the voices of opposition, especially from conservatives, represent a small segment of public opinion. Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), who led negotiations on the bill for his party, said the flood of angry calls and protests that greeted the deal two weeks ago has since receded every day.”

That’s not to say that it will be smooth sailing. The New York Times indicates that there are about 100 potential amendments floating, many of which could disrupt the delicate balance that has been forged. There are a few significant challenges that lead the pack. Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey seeks an increase in the number of green cards available to families. And in an amendment that the New York Times editorial called “immigration sabotage” and an “amendment that could have been drafted by Kafka,” Senator John Cornyn of Texas seeks to broaden crimes that would bar eligibility, a proposal so broad and punitive in scope that it would effectively be a poison pill to the existing legislation.

Accuracy in media coverage

Thursday, May 31st, 2007

It was gratifying to see New York Times columnist David Leonhardt take on the issue of media accuracy and immigration in his recent column Truth, Fiction and Lou Dobbs. The public discourse about immigration can be heated enough without the TV talking heads stoking the fires.
Dobbs is an anchor at CNN with the station’s second largest audience; he also has a syndicated radio show and has authored books. In recent years, he has morphed from a conservative economist to a self-styled populist and champion of the middle class. One of his frequent themes of late has been his “war on the middle class” focusing on such issues as outsourcing, minimum wage, and job protection. He also has a taken a strong and prominent anti-immigration stance, demonizing undocumented workers and citing them as the source for wage suppression, crime, health hazards, and a host of other ills plaguing the middle class.
But as Leonhardt notes, Dobbs often gives a nod and a wink to the most racist of anti-immigration spokespeople who frequent his show. And he is frequently fast and loose with his facts – sometimes out and out wrong. Such is the case with his recent propagation of the idea that cases of leprosy are rising alarmingly largely due to immigrants, an assertion he has made repeatedly both on his show and in other media such as 60 Minutes.

“The invasion of illegal aliens is threatening the health of many Americans,” Mr. Dobbs said on his April 14, 2005, program. From there, he introduced his original report that mentioned leprosy, the flesh-destroying disease — technically known as Hansen’s disease — that has inspired fear for centuries.
Mr. Dobbs argues that the middle class has many enemies: corporate lobbyists, greedy executives, wimpy journalists, corrupt politicians. But none play a bigger role than illegal immigrants. As he sees it, they are stealing our jobs, depressing our wages and even endangering our lives.
That’s where leprosy comes in.
According to a woman CNN identified as a medical lawyer named Dr. Madeleine Cosman, leprosy was on the march. As Ms. Romans, the CNN correspondent, relayed: “There were about 900 cases of leprosy for 40 years. There have been 7,000 in the past three years.”
“Incredible,” Mr. Dobbs replied.
Mr. Dobbs and Ms. Romans engaged in a nearly identical conversation a few weeks ago, when he was defending himself the night after the “60 Minutes” segment. “Suddenly, in the past three years, America has more than 7,000 cases of leprosy,” she said, again attributing the number to Ms. Cosman.”

Leonhardt followed up to verify this information with James L. Krahenbuhl, the director of the National Hansen’s Disease Program, an arm of the federal government, only to learn the cited “facts” were totally wrong. The 7000 cases of leprosy cited occurred over a span of three decades, not the three years that Dobbs asserted. But despite having aired this false and damaging claim on several occasions, neither Dobbs nor CNN have issued a correction or retraction. In fact, Dobbs’ defensiveness when confronted about the matter sent Leonhardt to the archives to examine show transcripts, where he discovered other instances of false information being disseminated about immigrants. Here’s a case in point:

“For one thing, Mr. Dobbs has a somewhat flexible relationship with reality. He has said, for example, that one-third of the inmates in the federal prison system are illegal immigrants. That’s wrong, too. According to the Justice Department, 6 percent of prisoners in this country are noncitizens (compared with 7 percent of the population). For a variety of reasons, the crime rate is actually lower among immigrants than natives.”

Leonardt also discusses how the line between news and opinion/advocacy blur frequently on his show. Dobbs often plays to emotions and fears, fanning the fires of hatred and discord by giving a forum to white supremacy sympathisers and using highly charged terms such as “invasion.”
Mr. Dobbs should do a better job of getting his facts straight and should turn the rhetoric down a few notches. CNN should do a better job of drawing a line between news and opinion. Both should take pains to correct the record for their damaging errors. And kudos to David Leonhardt for holding Dobbs’ feet to the fire. Reasonable people can disagree on matters surrounding the immigration issue, but there should be no place for inflammatory rhetoric and factual distortions – particularly from those who we trust for our news.

Edgar Velázquez: Maimed at work, then deported

Friday, May 25th, 2007

The Providence Journal featured a troubling story this past Sunday, which was just brought to our attention. For those of us who work in workers comp, the terrible story of Edgar Velázquez: Maimed at work, then deported* is one that is played out all too frequently in the nation’s workplaces.
Edgar Velázquez is an undocumented Mexican worker who crossed the border after paying a coyote $1800. He found his way to Rhode Island to join family. According the this story, William J. Gorman Jr., owner of Billy G’s Tree Care, hired Velázquez despite knowing that he was an “illegal immigrant,” paying him an hourly rate under the table. Velázquez says that he was not provided any protective equipment to handle the chain saws that he used on his job, yet here’s what OSHA recommends for chainsaw safety: head protection, face/eye protection, hearing protection, leg protection, foot protection, hand protection.
Had Velázquez been wearing head or face protection, perhaps the injury he sustained when the chainsaw bounced off a fence and sliced through his face might have been prevented or mitigated. The surgeon who performed emergency reconstructive surgery on Velázquez, called the injury “devastating.”
Since the injury, Gorman has flatly denied that he employed Velázquez when family and treating physicians tried to find out about insurance. Gorman also denied any knowledge of Velázquez when contacted by the reporter who wrote this story.
When Velázquez showed up at the hearing that was scheduled to determine his eligibility for workers comp to cover his medical care and wage replacement, immigration agents were waiting for him. He was arrested and within a few days, driven over the Mexican border and dropped off. The story states that his former employer was on hand for the hearing, and approached Velázquez’ attorney Maureen Gemma, saying, “You’ll never guess what happened … I just saw your client walking up to the courthouse and Immigration snatched him up. … I think it was Immigration. It had to be.” Gemma said Gorman was obviously amused.
Perhaps Mr. Gorman is less amused now that this story is coming to light.
According to RI law and the law in most states, worker immigration status is not a bar to workers compensation benefits. But Billy G’s Tree Care isn’t insured for workers compensation, according to state records, and never has been. Mr. Gorman’s attorney thinks that his client may not be required to carry workers compensation. We are not so sure about that, but we do think it’s a good idea that Mr. Gorman has an attorney. If the facts are correct, he is violating a host of other federal and state employment laws and avoiding payroll taxes. Mr. Gorman’s attorney thinks that the relationship between Velázquez and Gorman was not one of employee and employer, but independent contractor and sole proprietor. We are not so sure about that, either. Mr. Gorman, on the other hand, apparently disagrees with this assessment since he has denied any relationship with Velázquez whatsoever.
This is a fairly clear example of the exploitation that immigrant workers face at the hands of unscrupulous employers. They are hired with a nod and a wink and paid under the table. Safety precautions are ignored and labor laws are violated. Statutory benefits are denied. This type of exploitation is no small problem – many think it as nothing short of modern day slavery.
The debate about immigration is so heated that even matters of basic human decency and common sense are often jettisoned. We’ve heard the argument “…but he was illegal” ad nauseum. Whether worker status is legal or illegal is a separate issue entirely. Employers should not be allowed to exploit and abuse employees, period. This matter should be of concern to all, if not on the grounds of morality, then just good business sense. Velázquez is the first and most obvious victim of injustice here, but not the last. By avoiding taxes, benefits, and insurance, unscrupulous employers have an unfair competitive edge over honest employers who do the right thing. Workers have no records, no benefits, and no protection. And when workers are injured or killed on the job, somebody else pays the bills. The rest of us bear the financial burden that exploiting employers shirk.
Because his situation has come to light, many people are advocating for Velázquez and trying to see that he gets justice. For every story that gets this attention, there are untold more that will never receive a public airing. There is quite a lot of passion around the issue of “illegal immigrants,” but far too little passion around the issue of “illegal employers.”
Thanks to Karen Lee Ziner for her good reporting on this story and to Cathleen Caron of the Global Worker Justice Alliance for alerting us about the article.
* If you have trouble accessing the article, try this link from MIRA.

Tracking the aftermath

Wednesday, May 23rd, 2007

Hello to the readers of Working Immigrants. While Peter is traveling, I will be following some of the news stories about the immigration law – or any other related matters that I might find – and posting them here. I’m not the topic expert that Peter is, but my colleagues and I at Workers Comp Insider do keep our eye on issues related to immigrant workers and post on the topic from time to time.
Finally, an immigration bill is on the table, although we are now at the point in the process when Otto Von Bismarks’s famous quote comes into play: “People who enjoy sausage and respect the law should not watch either being made.”
The New York Times reports that the Immigration Bill Clears Its First Hurdle in Senate. To invoke cloture, 60 votes were needed and the measure had 69 votes. With Memorial Day looming, a decision was made not to continue debate post-holiday. The Times reporters noted that “The many obstacles that must be overcome before the bill becomes law were evident in the passionate speeches on the Senate floor in advance of the vote.”
It didn’t take long for critics from both sides of the aisle to be taking their case to the media, with Jeff Sessions of Alabama, Jim Bunning of Kentucky, and David Vitter of Louisiana spearheading the opposition. While there are critics on all fronts, The Washington Post discussed the particular rift that that the legislation is opening in the GOP.
The Los Angeles Times looks at the bill through the lens of how it might impact both businesses and immigrant families, summarizing a few key provisions of the legislation:

“The proposed shift is included in a massive immigration reform bill unveiled last week by Sens. Edward M. Kennedy, a Democrat, and Jon Kyl, a Republican. It would introduce a point system immediately as a basis for the 140,000 permanent visas awarded annually for workers and, after about eight years, increase that number to 380,000. Point systems are used in countries such as Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom.
Under the proposed system, green card applicants could earn a maximum of 100 points. Job qualifications would account for nearly half the points, with the highest numbers assigned for specialty or high-demand occupations such as engineering, as well as smaller credits for technical expertise, a U.S. job offer, U.S. work experience and youth. Educational background could add 28 points, while those who speak fluent English could earn 15.
Family connections could bring 10 more points, but only for applicants with 55 points or higher.
For families, the Senate proposal would eliminate most of the backlog of 4.5 million relatives waiting for green cards over eight years. In a provision that has sparked outcry among immigrant rights groups, however, the bill’s May 2005 cut-off date would leave out 800,000 applicants, according to Karen K. Narasaki, president of the Asian American Justice Center in Washington.
… After the backlog is reduced, family-based visas subject to numerical caps would drop from about 226,000 annually to 127,000. The system would eliminate preferences entirely for adult children and siblings of U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents.
The proposal would also place a cap of 40,000 on parents of U.S. citizens for the first time. Only spouses and minor children of U.S. citizens would continue to have unlimited access to green cards.”

Employment Eligibility Verification System
One point of controversy for critics is in the proposed Employment Eligibility Verification System (EEVS). Technology publications are interested in the issue of mandatory employment verifications, which expands the current voluntary system that now has about 17,000 participants checking employees against Social Security and immigrant data. CNet news and PC World weigh in with discussions on concerns surrounding this component.
Upcoming
On Thursday 5/24/2007, the Subcommittee on Immigration, Citizenship, Refugees, Border Security, and International Law of the U.S. Representatives will be holding a hearing on immigration reform with an emphasis on Labor Movement Perspectives. The witness list has not yet been named – follow the developments on this hearing.