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America should build bridges — not walls


(July 7, 2016) — Three days ago we celebrated our country’s 240th birthday. It was a day for picnics, family, rest, and reflection.

Given the vitriol of the presidential race and the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling on DAPA (Deferred Action on Parents of Americans), this Fourth of July made me think of our country’s immigrant past.

immigrants-19th-centuryTo be honest, the U.S. has had mixed feelings about immigrants throughout our history. We have at times had open borders and at other times closed borders. We have encouraged immigrants, excluded and expelled immigrants, interned and enslaved immigrants. But regardless of changing positions and policies, there is no denying that we are a country of immigrants. Our culture, food, and language are an amalgam of our immigrant past and present.

I am a second-generation born American. My mother’s family fled Croatia from the tyranny of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and settled amidst the steel mills along the Monongahela River in southwest Pittsburgh, Penn. My father’s family left Sweden to find work in the coal mines north of Pittsburgh. Both families brought a rich history of culture, food, values and a sense of optimism about America.

Two weekends ago, my wife and I were visiting a daughter in Los Angeles. Entering her apartment building I was first struck by the various aromas of dinners on the stoves of neighboring apartments. It brought back strong memories from the 1950’s and ’60’s from my Grandma Goldie’s apartment building in the Yorktown section of Manhattan. In Grandma’s building, filled with Slavic immigrants, it was the aromas of stuffed cabbage, goulash, and apple strudel; in our daughter’s building, it was the aroma of Pad Thai, carne asada, and curry.

immigrants-flag-ellis-islandLooking at the names on the directory of our daughter’s building told the new but familiar story: Nguyen, Sen, Morales, Woods, Garcia, Marino, Zhang, Liu, Johnson, Wong and Cruz.

What all these names have in common is that they are all American, documented or undocumented, by way of many lineages and paths. Each adds their skills, humor, talents, pride, and dreams to the canvass of America.

Through the portion of their rent payments that pay property taxes and the sales tax they pay on purchases they support water, sewage, and local roads, libraries, public schools, the port of L.A., and state services.

But most importantly, they contribute — just like my immigrant family did — their values, sense of community, willingness to be inclusive, and a desire to be a part of something big and filled with optimism and opportunity: the American Dream.

So in spite of immigration policies that change with the political winds and the nativist rhetoric of Donald Trump, what has always been the best of America is when we build bridges to connect our differences rather than walls to separate our common values and dreams.

supreme-court-frontUnfortunately, the U.S. Supreme Court offended these common values and sense of optimism in their DAPA decision on June 23, 2016. In a 4-4 decision, the short-handed court upheld the injunction by a conservative Texas judge to block President  Obama’s executive action expanding the deferred action program through DAPA, which would have granted about 5 million undocumented parents of American children the ability to receive two-year renewable work permits and relieved them of the daily fear of families being separated through deportations.

Deferred action does not confer citizenship or permanent residency. It would have created a temporary reprieve from the fear of deportation and a temporary legal right to work.

Even though past presidents of both parties have had the executive authority to make decisions concerning immigration, our divided Supreme Court has denied this authority to President Obama and has sent a chilling message to immigrant workers and their families. That message is you can continue to live in the shadows of our society at your own peril.

I can’t imagine waking up every morning wondering whether I would see one of my family members at the end of the day. Family unity, the dignity of work and compassion are all values that we hold dear in America; but apparently not for all. Justice does not extend to all workers and families.

MayDay004The labor movement has been working on comprehensive immigration reform since the beginning of this century, starting with immigrant worker hearings in 2001 and the immigrant worker freedom ride in 2002. We have lobbied for legislation, held rallies and marches, and been arrested in the name creating a permanent path to citizenship for the hard-working, taxpaying immigrant workers that have come to the United States to share with us all the things that make America great.

It is long past the time to end the mass deportations and to pass comprehensive immigration reform. Even if we can’t take back both the Senate and the House in the 2016 elections, electing a Democratic President who will nominate a fair and balanced justice to the Supreme Court is a first step towards creating a more rational immigration policy and recognizing the contributions past, present and future of immigrants in America.

Every one of us has an immigrant background — even those who crossed the land bridge between Asia and America 10,000 years ago. We are a nation of immigrants and we need justice for all.

15-Jeff-JohnsonJeff Johnson is President of the Washington State Labor Council, AFL-CIO, the largest labor organization in the Evergreen State, representing the interests of more than 600 local unions and approximately 450,000 rank-and-file union members.

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