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Public Employee Unions Take Issue With Immigration Overhaul

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 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

NPR News' Brian Naylor is a correspondent on the Washington Desk. In this role, he covers politics and federal agencies.