Federal employee unions generally are supportive of President Obama — except, of course, when he does things like freezing their basic pay rates for three years. On many policy issues, there’s not a lot of space between Obama, Democrats and the labor organizations.
That’s not the case now with two labor councils within the American Federation of Government Employees.
The National ICE Council and the National Citizenship and Immigration Services (CIS) Council are working to defeat the immigration bill the Senate is now debating. The ICE Council represents Immigration and Customs Enforcement employees, and the CIS Council’s members verify a person’s right to work in this country and determine the eligibility of those seeking to become citizens, among other duties.
Their opposition to the legislation is notable because AFGE has taken no position. Neither has the National Border Patrol Council, another AFGE unit that is directly involved with immigration and border issues.
In contrast, the AFL-CIO, which includes AFGE and 56 other unions, is a highly visible supporter of the legislation. AFL-CIO President Richard L. Trumka demonstrated that by standing behind Obama as he pushed the legislation during White House remarks Tuesday.
One thing all three councils are concerned about is having enough staffers to get the job done.
Obama spoke to some of those concerns in his speech supporting the bill, shortly before it passed a Senate procedural hurdle.
“We made border security a top priority,” he said. “Today, we have twice as many border patrol agents as we did in 2004. We have more boots on the ground along our southern border than at any time in our history. And, in part by using technology more effectively, illegal crossings are near their lowest level in decades.
“We focused our enforcement efforts on criminals who are here illegally and who are endangering our communities. And today, deportation of criminals is at its highest level ever.”
But ICE Council President Chris Crane and CIS Council President Kenneth Palinkas don’t buy it. They aren’t dissuaded by official stats that conflict with their positions — not an uncommon trait among ardent advocates in Washington debates.
“I think you can skew numbers any which way you want,” Palinkas said after the president spoke.
Added Crane: “I don’t think a whole lot of that information is really true. I think a whole lot of spin is involved on the part of the administration.”
Certainly, this administration, like all others, spins, but that doesn’t explain the National Border Patrol Council’s take.
“Yes, we do have more agents,” said Shawn Moran, vice president of the border patrol council.
But rather than working to defeat the legislation, the border patrol council is working to improve it.
“Every union is entitled to its opinion,” Moran said. “I understand where they are coming from, but we’ve chosen to take a different track on this and correct the problems that we see.”
It’s good to have more agents, but their effectiveness has been reduced by budget cuts that have resulted in fewer hours worked, according to Moran. He wants Congress to ensure that “administratively uncontrollable overtime” is not reduced. “The staffing levels need to be maintained,” he said. “The lower they drop the [overtime], the fewer Border Patrol agents are out patrolling.”
Crane and Palinkas have taken a more aggressive approach. A letter to Congress initiated by Crane, agreed to by Palinkas and signed by many county sheriffs, says the bill “provides no guarantee of increased border security, . . . does not address current failures of interior enforcement that will render any legislation ineffective” and “allows criminal aliens to continue to commit and be convicted of criminal offenses after receiving provisional legal status, as long as the individual’s convictions remain below the eligibility threshold.”
Obama must be wondering whether they’re talking about the same legislation.
“First of all,” he said, “if passed, this bill would be the biggest commitment to border security in our nation’s history. It would put another $6.5 billion — on top of what we’re already spending — towards stronger, smarter security along our borders. It would increase criminal penalties against smugglers and traffickers. It would finally give every employer a reliable way to check that every person they’re hiring is here legally. And it would hold employers more accountable if they knowingly hire undocumented workers. So it strengthens border security, but also enforcement within our borders.
“I know there’s a lot of talk right now about border security, so let me repeat — today, illegal crossings are near their lowest level in decades. And if passed, the Senate bill as currently written and as hitting the floor would put in place the toughest border enforcement plan that America has ever seen. So nobody is taking border enforcement lightly.”
Crane’s response: “We completely disagree with pretty much everything that is being said on this point.”
That's not likely to change.
Previous Federal Diary columns are available at wapo.st/JoeDavidson.