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Public Employee Unions Take Issue With Immigration Overhaul

May 29, 2013
Originally published on May 29, 2013 7:18 pm

A bill that would overhaul the nation's immigration laws is headed to the Senate floor early next month, where it will need all the friends it can get to pass. The measure would give the estimated 11 million immigrants in the United States illegally a path to citizenship, as well as tighten border protections.

The bill has split organized labor. Unions with workers likely to benefit from the proposed changes, including the farm workers' union, support the measure. But the public employee unions that represent immigration workers are expressing concern and, in some cases, vocally opposing the law.

The many proposed changes are causing some trepidation among the workers who are on the front lines of the issue — for instance, the agents at the border-crossing stations. Colleen Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, which represents those agents, says U.S. Customs and Border Protection is already understaffed and underfunded.

"The idea that it could be stretched thinner to cover any new responsibilities would really just be irresponsible for the country," she says.

Kelley says her union has not taken a formal position on the Senate measure, and hopes lawmakers will address her concerns.

But other unions representing immigration workers have been far more confrontational.

Probably the most prominent opponent among organized labor is Chris Crane, the head of the 7,600-member union that represents deportation agents, officers and employees of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

"Whether it be our current immigration laws or future reforms, all will fail as long as individuals can pick and choose which laws enacted by Congress will be enforced," Crane told the Senate Judiciary Committee at a hearing earlier this year.

Crane says the bipartisan Gang of Eight senators who drafted the outline of the immigration overhaul failed to seek his union's input. He has a political agenda as well: Crane is an outspoken critic of the Obama administration and his superiors at ICE, which has made him a favorite of conservative opponents of the immigration measure.

Among his membership, he has conducted two votes of no confidence in ICE Director John Morton. And though the Obama administration has deported record numbers, Crane accuses ICE leadership of creating a backdoor amnesty by prioritizing whom it deports.

"ICE is crumbling from within. Morale is at an all-time low as criminal aliens are released to the streets, and ICE instead takes disciplinary actions against its own officers for making lawful arrests," he says.

Crane has been joined in his opposition to the immigration overhaul by the head of the National Citizenship and Immigration Services Council, Kenneth Palinkas. Palinkas' 12,000-member union represents workers who conduct immigration and citizenship interviews.

Palinkas says his union was not consulted about the proposed changes either, and he has concerns about the workload they will put on his members. Palinkas says U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has been turned into an approval machine.

"It compels the officer to go on this assembly line, much like Lucille Ball back in the day with those chocolates," he says. "[It's] just, 'Go get this job done.' You're not given enough time to adjudicate. We don't have the manpower. People [are] not properly trained. So we're not really even ready to take over the responsibility."

Palinkas has joined with Crane in a letter to Congress saying lawmakers should oppose a bill that will make the current immigration system worse, not better.

Palinkas says he is not anti-immigrant.

"They're entitled to try to obtain a better life. Nobody's denying that," he says. "We just want to make sure that we just don't wave a magic wand and give this greatest benefit of all to people that really don't merit it."

The union opposition to the immigration overhaul has been talked up by senators like Alabama Republican Jeff Sessions who are already opposed to the bill. It's not clear yet how much weight it will carry when Congress returns to the issue next week.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block. A bill to overhaul the nation's immigration laws heads to the Senate floor early next month, and there, its fate is anyone's guess. The measure would tighten border protections and give the estimated 11 million people here illegally a path to citizenship. The bill has split Democrats and Republicans alike and it has split organized labor.

Unions with workers who would likely benefit, including the Farm Workers Union, support it but the public employee unions that represent immigration workers are vocally opposed. NPR's Brian Naylor has that story.

BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: It's not surprising that there is some trepidation about the many proposed changes to immigration law among the workers who are on the front lines of the issue. For instance, the agents at that border crossing stations; they're represented by the National Treasury Employees Union. NTEU's president, Colleen Kelley, says customs and border patrol is already understaffed and underfunded.

COLLEEN KELLEY: So the idea that it could be stretched thinner to cover any new responsibilities would really just be, you know, irresponsible for the country.

NAYLOR: Kelley says her union hasn't taken a formal position on the measure and hopes her concerns will be addressed by lawmakers. Other unions representing immigration workers have been far more confrontational. Probably the most prominent opponent among organized labor is Chris Crane. He's the head of the 7,600-member union that represents deportation agents, officers and employees of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE.

He appeared before a Senate judiciary committee hearing earlier this year to testify against the proposed changes.

CHRIS CRANE: Whether it be our current immigration laws or future reforms, all will fail as long as individuals can pick and choose which laws enacted by Congress will be enforced.

NAYLOR: Crane says the gang of eight senators that drafted the outline of the immigration overhaul failed to seek his union's input, and he has a political agenda as well. Crane is an outspoken critic of the Obama administration and his superiors at ICE, which has made him a favorite of conservative opponents of the immigration measure. He's conducted two votes of no confidence in ICE director John Morton, among his membership.

And even though the Obama administration has deported record numbers, Crane accuses ICE leadership of creating a backdoor amnesty by prioritizing whom it deports.

CRANE: ICE is crumbling from within. Morale is at an all-time low, as criminal aliens are released to the streets and ICE instead takes disciplinary actions against its own officers for making lawful arrests.

NAYLOR: Crane has been joined in his opposition to the immigration overhaul by the head of the National Citizenship and Immigration Services Council. Kenneth Palinkas is head of the 12,000-member union, which represents workers who conduct immigration and citizenship interviews. Interviewed on his cell phone, Palinkas says his union was not consulted about the proposed changes either and he has concerns about the workload they'll put on his members.

KENNETH PALINKAS: It compels the officer to go on this assembly line, much like Lucille Ball back in the day with those chocolates, and you know, you just go get this job done. And you're not given enough time to adjudicate. We don't have the manpower. People have not been properly trained, so we're not really even ready to take over the responsibility.

NAYLOR: Palinkas says U.S. Customs and Immigration has been turned into an approval machine. He's joined with Crane in a letter to Congress saying lawmakers should oppose a bill that will make the current immigration system worse, not better. Palinkas says he is not anti-immigrant.

PALINKAS: They're entitled to try to obtain a better life. Nobody's denying that. We just want to make sure that we just don't wave a magic wand and give this greatest benefit of all to people that really don't merit it.

NAYLOR: It's unclear how much weight union opposition to the immigration overhaul will carry. It's been talked up by senators like Alabama Republican Jeff Sessions, who are already opposed to the bill. Congress returns next week to take up the fight. Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.