How Bernie Sanders Cleared The Air On His Immigration Reform Stand

Sen. Bernie Sanders has taken some heat as a presidential candidate for seeming to not be a strong progressive ally on immigration reform. Last week, Sanders moved to clear the air.

Sanders (I-Vt.) pledged his support for comprehensive immigration reform this past Friday at the National Association of Latino Elected Officials conference in Las Vegas. His remarks put his views in line with fellow presidential contenders Hillary Clinton and Martin O’Malley.

Sanders sparked concerns among some activists when immigration reform went missing from his stump speech. This absence led Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.), a national leader on immigration reform, to question, “I don’t know if he likes immigrants because he doesn’t seem to talk about immigrants.”

Sanders left no room for confusion this time around, however, telling the story of his father, who emigrated to America from Poland when he was a teenager. “Brothers and sisters,” he exhorted, “their story, my story, our story, is the story of America and we should be proud of that story.”

Sanders declared support for expanding President Obama’s “deferred action” policy to protect not only undocumented immigrants brought to America as children, known as “DREAMERs”, but their parents as well. He also pushed for a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. “We cannot and we should not be talking about sweeping up millions of men, women and children, many of whom have been in this country for years,” he said.

Sanders has a long and complicated history with immigration reform. He was a vocal advocate for reform in both 2010 and 2013, voting for the DREAM Act and the Gang of Eight reform bill, respectively. He also pressured President Obama last year to issue an executive order protecting millions of DREAMERs from deportation.

However, in 2007, Sanders played a key role among a group of senators siding with labor to defeat an immigration reform bill due to a provision that would have expanded the guest-worker program.

Sanders had good reason to oppose the provision. The program allows corporations to bring in foreign workers for two years at a time, employ them with scant labor protections, and then force them to leave when the two-year period ends. While these migrant workers are only supposed to be hired in cases when American workers cannot be found for the jobs, this is rarely enforced.

Just ask Disney technician workers. This past year, hundreds of employees responsible for the behind-the-scenes wizardry at Disney theme parks were fired by the company. Their last task: training foreign workers brought in on guest-worker visas to do their jobs.

As Sanders put it in May 2007, “What concerns me are provisions in the bill that would bring low-wage workers into this country in order to depress the already declining wages of American workers. With poverty increasing and the middle-class shrinking, we must not force American workers into even more economic distress.”

There has historically been a lot of friction between immigration and labor groups, especially when comprehensive immigration reform bills come up for debate. But there needn’t be. Keeping millions of undocumented immigrants in this country without a path to citizenship is, as Secretary Clinton mentioned, akin to “second-class status.” It depresses wages for the poorest workers, Americans and undocumented alike, and leaves many immigrants working in slave-like conditions for little pay.

Immigration reform can and should be a win-win situation. By granting a path to citizenship to the millions of hard-working undocumented immigrants in America, we can provide a better future for those immigrants and build a stronger economy for all.

As with most other issues, Sanders views immigration reform through the lens of economic inequality – the exploitation of workers who deserve better. No one should have to, as he put it, endure “being paid starvation wages, living in severely substandard housing, and subjected to abusive labor practices.”

All of the major candidates for the Democratic nomination agree: The time is now to fix our broken immigration system.

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