Several of the nation's top labor leaders are calling on President Obama to stop deporting immigrants until Congress passes an immigration overhaul bill that grants a pathway to citizenship for millions of people living in the United States illegally.
"When we have a bill for 11 million immigrants to become full Americans, we should not be, in the middle of this, deporting them," said Tefere Gebre, director of the Orange County Labor Federation.
He spoke at a news conference Tuesday in support of immigration reform at the start of the third day of the AFL-CIO convention in downtown Los Angeles.
The nation's largest federation of labor has made immigration overhaul a priority this year, throwing its support behind a bill passed earlier this year in the Senate that would allow most of the immigrants here without permission to apply for citizenship.
The labor group has in recent months launched an attack against Republican leaders in the House, who have vowed not to bring the Senate bill to a vote. GOP leaders have said they will consider instead a series of small-scale immigration bills.
While Obama supports the Senate bill, several labor leaders said they were disappointed that he has not put a halt to deportations while the fate of immigration reform is being decided.
Deportations have reached record levels under Obama. In 2012, more than 400,000 immigrants were returned to their home countries -- more than were deported during any year of George W. Bush's presidency.
Gebre, who came to the United States from Ethiopia as a teenager, said separating families is out of line with the American dream.
"That America I dreamed about never separated children from their mothers," he said. "The America I dreamed about did not separate people by saying, 'You're legal, you're illegal.'"
Gebre's labor federation represents many immigrant workers in Orange County who are in the country illegally. Other labor groups with large numbers of immigrant members, such as unions representing car wash workers and hotel employees, also have made immigration reform a priority.
Bhairavi Desai, director of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, said Tuesday that immigrant workers already have earned citizenship.
"When people are working 60 to 70 hours a week in back-breaking conditions, nobody should have the gall, especially sitting in the fancy halls of Congress, to look at an immigrant worker and tell them that they have not earned this day," she said.
"If capital can travel freely, then why can't the working class?" she said.
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