News

Lecture connects immigration, labor reform

By: Mariah Rush

September 11, 2017

Originally published in The Observer.

As part of the Higgins Labor Program’s Research and Policy Series (RAPS), president of the North Central Indiana chapter of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) Tony Flora and executive director of La Casa de Amistad, Sam Centellas, delivered a lecture about immigration and labor reform at Geddes Hall on Friday.

Flora said the importance of community efforts cannot be underestimated.

“Most of [our] work is around effecting law and regulation and that realm of politics,” Flora said. “The AFL-CIO has been very vigorous about developing community relationships and coalitions.”

Many companies, Flora said, hire undocumented workers because they are aware of their undocumented status and therefore do not have to treat them according to labor laws and standards.

Centellas said bankrupt companies often involve CEOs who still make millions of dollars, and unemployment has nothing to do with undocumented workers taking jobs.

“If you’re unemployed, an undocumented Mexican worker is not oppressing you, the CEO’s of companies are the ones oppressing you, but they have convinced you that you’re being oppressed because of these Mexican immigrants coming to your town,” Centellas said. 

“Our goal is to achieve a society through shared prosperity, and we cannot have that shared prosperity when 11 million people in our country are in a below ground economy,” he said. “If you’re undocumented, you can’t go to your boss and say, “You didn’t pay me the overtime,” and the boss can say, “What are you going to do about it?” if they know you are undocumented. They can claim that they are being very generous, but the truth is, the undocumented workforce represents a drag on the economy — not because they are here being employed, but because they do not have full civil and labor rights.”

Flora said undocumented workers often receive no attention or remedy if they raise awareness about their unfair treatment.

“It seems like the ability to reform immigration law in America has hit a brick wall,” Flora said. “On the other hand, I’m going to be a little optimistic. I think we have a wonderful opportunity right now. Sometimes when a bad thing happens, it opens up an awful lot of doors, but there is going to be an ensuing crisis created by what the Trump administration has just done.”

Although Flora describes the current immigration climate as a “climate of terror,” he said coalitions serve as major proponents for immigration reform.

As executive director of La Casa de Amistad, Centellas helps many families with undocumented immigrants. Centellas said the Latino population is often misrepresented.

“They don’t want free,” Centellas said. “They want to pay for a service. They want to contribute.”

Centellas said controversy surrounding the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program affects his clients.

“You see it where a lot of people have read the stuff about DACA, and say ‘They are giving them six months, or they are rolling it out,” but no,” he said. “It’s garbage. It’s something they didn’t have to do. They could have put pressure on Congress to get this done without that happening.”

Centellas said many undocumented immigrants’ best chance at earning documentation may be to go back to Mexico and wait there for around 20 years before coming into the country legally. Undocumented labor and the associated abuse and low wages adversely affect the economy.

“A lot of times people think about immigration or immigration reform, and they forget that all of those problems impact everything,” Centellas said. “They say, ‘Oh, I hope those immigrants figure it out,’ but undocumented labor impacts everything. It impacts your family, your uncle’s company.” 

“That’s why we all have to care, not just because helping other people is fantastic and it’s what we should do,” he said. “But we also need to get people to understand that they are impacted by this, and so that’s why it’s important for people to get involved and to understand what is happening. That’s what is killing our labor market right now: this black market of labor with people who cannot advocate for themselves and move out of that position because of their documentation status.”