Friday, March 24, 2000

Coalition aids immigrants

Also aims to ease shortage of workers

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        SPRINGDALE — Several Tristate organizations that have worked independently have formed a coalition whose goals are to ease a projected regional labor shortage of 53,000 workers and improve the lives of thousands of immigrants.

        The initiative — the Immi grant Legalization, Education and Employment Project (ILEEP) — includes representatives from religious, educational, social service and industrial groups. It is led by labor organizers with the Southwest Ohio Regional Council of Carpenters and is in keeping with new AFL-CIO policy.

        In a shift in stance toward immigrants, the national labor group in February called for the repeal of a 1986 law it said has made it hard to unionize or improve conditions for undocumented workers.

  An estimated 4,000 illegal Hispanic immigrants are working in construction in the Tristate, many in residential building taking place outside the Interstate 275 loop.
  About 75 percent of the immigrants in this area are Hispanic. Some parts of the region have experienced influxes of Russian immigrants.
  There are an estimated 20,000 to 60,000 illegal immigrants working in the region; 65 percent are ages 18-32.
  For information about the Immigrant Legalization, Education and Employment Project (ILEEP), call the Southwest Ohio Regional Council of Carpenters, 772-1555, or the Springdale Chamber of Commerce, 346-5712.
        The AFL-CIO also wants amnesty for the estimated 5 million to 6 million workers and their families who are in the United States illegally or have only temporary legal status, but opposes increases in the number of immigrants allowed to come to the United States and work legally.

        The regional coalition is working with several dozen drywallers and house framers who work in the Tristate. Attorneys for the workers approached the carpenters union, which helped a legal worker set up a company to employ the other workers. The workers are becoming union members.

        “There are now 65 people who are in the process of becoming legal, who will be paying taxes, who will have a pension and who we've taken away from coyotes,” or companies that employ illegal immigrants at below-market wages, said Robert Lese, a carpenters union organizer and executive director of the coalition.

        “We're changing their situation from being slave labor to being part of the communi ty.”

        Participants also will be eligible for English classes and other educational opportunities, as well as cultural diversity training to help them adjust to U.S. culture.

        The local effort is the first of its kind nationally, say organizers, who also are lobbying members of Congress to make Southwest Ohio a pilot area where immigrants would be granted amnesty. Coalition members will go to Washington, D.C., in April to present the program to the congressional Hispanic Caucus.

        It's tough to crack the code of silence that defines rings that traffic in illegal workers, union officials say. The workers don't want to risk losing salaries that are far below U.S. scale, but represent a fortune in their homelands. Agricultural workers in Guatemala, for example, earn about $1.50 a day.

        Many roofers and drywallers who are undocumented workers are paid $5 or $6 an hour for jobs that pay a prevailing wage of $19 and $20. Subcontractors who employ them pocket the difference and do not pay federal, state and Social Security taxes or pay into the unemployment and worker compensation systems, say union organizers and U.S. immigration officials.

        The regional program works with legal and illegal immigrants. They undergo a skills assessment that directs people interested in the building trades into apprenticeship programs.

        People without interest in construction jobs would be directed to health-care and high-tech industries, and service industries facing critical labor shortages.

        Unemployment nationally is at 4.1 percent. Unemployment figures in the Tristate are lower, close to 3 percent.

        A recent study by the University of Cincinnati estimates that 14 percent of Tristate employers were hesitant to expand because of the labor shortage. The labor shortage is projected for 10 years out.

        Illegal immigrants are referred to a legal team, which researches their eligibility to become documented workers, said David Monger, a carpenters' union official and coalition director. “That will open other doors,” he added.

        The carpenters union has 5,000 members and 700 apprentices in 21 counties, 15 in Ohio and six in Northern Kentucky.

        Patrick Elersic, officer in charge of the Immigration and Naturalization Service in Cincinnati, declined to comment Thursday on the coalition or its program. Opponents of organized labor reached Thursday said that they were not familiar with the coalition's program and could not comment.

        Other coalition members include Cincinnati State Technical and Community College; Princeton City Schools; the Springdale Chamber of Commerce; Goodwill Industries; and Su Casa, the Archdiocese of Cincinnati's Hispanic Ministry Center in Carthage.

        Many immigrants here working illegally send money back to relatives in their native lands, supporting as many as five to seven families with their U.S. earnings, said Margaret Singer, a Su Casa official.


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