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Published: Friday, 5/2/2003

FLOC urges help for immigrant workers


WASHINGTON - Supporters of immigrant workers' rights, including members of the Toledo-based Farm Labor Organizing Committee of the AFL-CIO, yesterday urged Congress to consider legislation revamping the nation's temporary foreign worker program.

About 50 FLOC members journeyed on a bus overnight from Toledo to participate in a May Day effort that also was designed to push for granting legal residence status to the estimated 8.5 million “undocumented'' workers now living in the United States.

The FLOC members from Toledo joined with other FLOC members from North Carolina and Minnesota, as well as dozens of members of the Service Employees International Union, to talk with lawmakers and then participate in a rally across the street from the U.S. Capitol.

“What we really are asking for is that they begin a debate on these issues,'' said Beatriz Maya, a FLOC spokeswoman. “This is not only about the rights of immigrants, it's also about the labor needs in the United States.''

Baldemar Velasquez, founder and president of FLOC, added that the lawmakers he talked to yesterday seemed genuinely interested in the “Freedom Act,'' the legislative proposal crafted by his group and the National Coalition for Dignity and Amnesty for Immigrants.

“We've had piecemeal efforts in the past to try to deal with immigration,'' Mr. Velasquez said. “We need to focus on the whole picture.''

Under the proposal, immigrants would be allowed to come to the United States if they had been hired for a job. They would then be allowed to live in the United States for up to three years while working at that job or another job, and still be able to freely travel back and forth to visit their families in their homeland.

After three years, the temporary workers could apply for permanent U.S. residency and eventually for citizenship. “Undocumented,'' or illegal, immigrants now holding jobs in the United States would be allowed to follow the same path to legalization under the proposal.

Under current immigration law, many immigrant workers here legally are governed by the “guest worker'' law, which ties them to one particular employer. If employees complain or try to push for better working conditions, the employer can just deport them, Mr. Velasquez said.

After yesterday's congressional education effort, the next step for the immigrant rights advocates is to persuade lawmakers to introduce the “Freedom Act,'' so that Congress could set hearings on it, Mr. Velasquez said.

Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D., Toledo) was among the lawmakers who met with FLOC members yesterday. In a statement after that meeting, Ms. Kaptur said she is particularly interested in working with Mexican officials to address the problem of immigration smuggling, which she believes has been exacerbated by the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

“I have made several appeals to Presidents Bush and Fox to establish an "Intercontinental Organization on Working Life and Cooperation in the Americas" to address NAFTA's effect on job loss, immigration, and standard of living in our countries,'' Ms. Kaptur said.

“The growing scourge of continental labor smuggling is abhorrent and a direct result of exploitative working conditions that feed on powerless people.''

Immigration issues have generally been on the legislative back burner since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks spurred an effort to tighten the nation's borders. But Republican lawmakers, interested in wooing the large bloc of Hispanic voters, have recently indicated their willingness to consider revamping immigration policy.

Supporters of labor rights for immigrant workers argue that their legislation actually would help national security by making it safe for the estimated 8.5 million illegal aliens now here to identify themselves.

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