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Top labor boss says Trump is right about broken immigration system, but wrong about fix

by Benjy Sarlin /
AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka testifies before the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee about how infrastructure affects the unions he represents during a hearing in the Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill February 1, 2017 in Washington.Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images file

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WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump has vaulted immigration to the top of his agenda, arguing in speeches, interviews, and tweets that immigrants — both legal and illegal — take jobs from American workers and drag down wages.

He isn’t the only one interested in this issue. For decades, labor unions have been major players in the immigration debate, where leaders have long argued the current system hurts workers. They’ve just pushed for a very different response.

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Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, has joined other labor groups in pushing for legal status for undocumented workers and an overhaul of legal immigration. In 2013, he negotiated a compromise with the Chamber of Commerce on work visas that lawmakers incorporated into the “Gang of Eight” bill that passed the Senate.

Trumka sat down with NBC News on Thursday to discuss the president’s proposal and labor’s role in immigration reform. Below is our conversation, edited for content and clarity.

NBC News: The president used his State of the Union speech to push for a deal on DREAMers, the wall, and legal cuts to immigration. Is this a framework you could accept?

TRUMKA: No, not the framework he put forward. We got a lot of ways to go.

I agree with him on one thing: The immigration system in the country is broken and needs to be fixed. We have a long-term fix and a short-term fix. The first thing we have to fix is DACA and [Temporary Protected Status recipients] because of what’s about to happen. But trying to create a "merit-based system" that splits up families and gives more control to employers isn't going to fix the system, it's going to make it worse.

Right now when an immigrant comes into this country [to work], they don't have their green card, the employer has their green card. That gives that employer tremendous leverage. If they work in unsafe conditions and they start to complain about it, then they whack them, they get rid of them, and use the green card to bring in somebody else. The point is that the system is broken because workers have too little power.

The president is making the case that the overall immigration levels we have hurt existing workers. What do you make of the idea we’d be better off with fewer immigrants in total?

If you took all the immigrants out of the economy right now, you'd quite frankly debilitate it. It's not that they're hurting the economy, they're actually making the economy run. They do their job every day, they pay their taxes, they do everything on the right side. It’s working, except they don’t have rights, so they get taken advantage of and that hurts the rest of us. It’s them being taken advantage of, not the fact that they're there.

When Trump talks about “merit-based” immigration, what do you think he means?

I don't know precisely what he means and if I did today, I'm not sure I'd know tomorrow what he means. I think he probably means Norwegian and European college-educated people coming into the country. But if you get a specifically merit-based system, Rich Trumka's grandparents wouldn't have made it into this country. I wouldn't be here, and chances are neither would you.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions and his former top aide, Stephen Miller, now a senior White House policy adviser, led opposition to the last big immigration bill in 2013 because they said it would exploit American workers. Your argument was that it would stop exploitation. You guys are invoking the same workers, what's the difference in your philosophy?

We believe in these workers and we think they should have all of their rights and a path to citizenship. They want to exclude all of those workers, and they think by excluding those workers somehow the country gets better.

Look, I'm a first-generation American, my parents came to this country with my grandparents, so I understand how we contributed and immigrants are contributing. They don't see it as something to be celebrated like we do. They see it as something to create fear.

The AFL-CIO opposed a comprehensive immigration bill in 2007 and supported one in 2013 after negotiating with business groups. What were some of the provisions on the second bill that made you feel comfortable backing it?

It wasn't everything that everyone wanted, but it was a workable solution we all agreed to.

We made them bring [foreign workers] in at the prevailing wage, so no matter what visa it was, they weren’t used to undercut wages in the industry. They’d also be used only if there was a shortage.

We also created a commission to determine if there really are shortages in an industry. A lot of times they say, "We can't get workers." Well, if you ask for a welder for $8 an hour, you won’t get a quality welder, you go to $25 an hour and you will get welders. We eliminated that and said you had to bring them in at the prevailing wage, and that this commission would decide whether there’s a shortage or not.

Organized labor has changed a lot over the years in how it approaches illegal immigration. Why has a path to citizenship for unauthorized workers become such a big priority in the last decade?

One, I think we have a moral obligation to help these workers. But even if you don't buy all that, there’s an economic reason. We can't raise wages in this country unless we fix the immigration problem. When I say "fix it," I mean prevent those immigrants working here from being exploited, cheated and made to work in unsafe conditions, because every time you try to raise wages up, they'll be used to drive wages down.

We were all over the place when we came to this issue, and we worked through it. We came up with principles we could agree with, because we know those workers are not our enemy. Those workers make some of the best union members, they help us, they contribute to the economy, they contribute to the society, they make us richer.

A lot of Trump supporters would agree these workers are being exploited by businesses. But they’d say that's why we should deport them, install an e-verify system, and ramp up Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

I think there are some things we can look at in border security and say, "Yes, we’d agree to that." We agreed in the last compromise to have an e-card so you could verify that and stop the flow of illegal immigrants into the country and make it more manageable and at the same time take care of the undocumented immigrants here and give them a pathway to citizenship.

Do you think the administration might be interested in some of your ideas? Is there room for cooperation?

I don’t know, I hope so. I know we have the ability to do bipartisan stuff in the Senate, we had [Senators Lindsey Graham, Marco Rubio, and John McCain] on the 2013 compromise. I don't know if Rubio will play or not, given his finger in the air about presidential politics. He sure should, because if he wants to show leadership this is a chance for him to do it to solve a problem that's really hurting the country.

Senator Marco Rubio has suggested the White House proposal is too complicated, and they should focus on DACA and border security first. Is that the right approach?

It makes it far more likely to happen.

CORRECTION (Feb 4, 2018, 08:45 a.m. ET): An earlier version of this article misstated the day of NBC News' interview with Richard Trumka. It was Thursday, not Friday.

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