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Labor hotline to stem immigrant exploitation

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Harry Keaney

Immigrants who experience discrimination or exploitation, whose payment is withheld by unscrupulous employers or who are concerned abut lack of safety in their workplaces will, next month, be able to call a new hotline.

This is one of the features of a new Commission on the Dignity of Immigrants, to be staffed by volunteers from the New York City Central Labor Council of the AFL-CIO with support from Catholic Charities Immigrant Services staff of the Archdiocese of New York.

Details of the commission were announced by the archbishop of New York, Cardinal John O’Connor, Sunday during his annual Mass in St. Patrick’s Cathedral for organized labor.

The cardinal, who had recently been hospitalized, said the commission was a response to the increasing problems being experienced by immigrants. New York City, he said, has had a long and "mutually beneficial relationship" with immigrants.

"They have made wonderful lives here for themselves and their families," the cardinal said. Yet those immigrants "whose work and toil undergird" the nation’s long period of prosperity sometimes find themselves excluded and mistreated, he said.

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The archdiocese’s Fr. Kevin Sullivan told the Echo he thought the formation of the new commission was a reflection of the reality of these good economic times in which there is still a lot of immigrants who face injustices, exclusion and exploitation.

"This is an attempt to reach out to them and help them express the difficulties they are facing and to be able to find some solutions," Fr. Sullivan said.

Remembering Liam Mason

Although the new commission will cater to all immigrants, young Irish immigrants are among those for whom good economic times, both in the U.S. and Ireland, mask the difficulties many endure. Indeed, the phrase "immigration reform," so common in the Irish community during the late 1980s and early 1990s, is now rarely heard.

The desperation that immigrants face was graphically illustrated in the Irish community last year when a 23-year-old County Monaghan man, Liam Mason, committed suicide in Van Cortlandt Park, in the Bronx, allegedly after having been exploited by a New Jersey contractor.

His friends said whoever was supervising Mason’s work took away his air ticket and his passport. Mason plunged into despair. Desperate to return home, and with no help at hand, he took his own life, hanging himself from a tree by his bootlaces.

Fr. Sullivan said that the archdiocese had its Irish outreach program for 10 years. But, he said, "We find that the similarities that immigrants face across the different ethnic groups is more than their differences."

The establishment of the commission is the result of discussions between the cardinal and the president of the New York City Central Labor Council of the AFL-CIO, Brian McLaughlin, concerning the plight of America’s newest immigrants.

"A share in the wealth"

According to a statement from the Central Labor Council, the cardinal and McLaughlin agreed that these "new New Yorkers" face discrimination, mistrust, exclusion and exploitation, not only in their workplace but in other critical areas such as housing and pay equity.

"We would like to see these new immigrants share in the wealth of an expanding economy, just as many of us — whose parents and grandparents came to this great land a century ago — are now able to enjoy," McLaughlin said.

The Central Labor Council will launch the new outreach effort on Columbus Day, Oct. 11. The campaign will include publicizing the hotline number on up to 50 prominently placed billboards around New York City and on posters at more than 400 parishes in the New York Archdiocese.

The commission will include at least six representatives from the clergy and six labor leaders who will monitor the work of the subcommittee and make recommendations to public policy makers. The commission hopes to make recommendations necessary to assist and protect the needs of the immigrant community. Commission volunteers will meet weekly with archdiocese staff to review cases and coordinate follow-up activities.

Even before this commission, however, Irish immigrants had the benefit of a number of outlets to which they could turn for help such as the Aisling Irish Center in Yonkers and the Emerald Isle Immigration Center. The Irish Immigration Center in Boston has its own hotline.

The Central Labor Council is the umbrella organization of more than 400 local labor unions whose membership includes more than 1.5 million workers in public and private sector jobs.

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