Patricia Campos-Medina spoke barely a word of English when she arrived from El Salvador at the age of 14—but within four years, she had won a full scholarship to Cornell, where, after stints as the assistant national political director for the Service Employees International Union, director for the New Jersey State Council of UNITEHERE, and the national legislative director of UNITE, she now co-directs the Union Leadership Institute. Becoming a labor leader was a natural choice, Campos-Medina says, for a young immigrant who had seen both America’s promise, and the continuing struggle of its workers. “I always had this sense of responsibility,” she says. “If you’re given so much opportunity, you have to fight to give it to other people too.”
Campos-Medina’s parents came to America as undocumented immigrants, fleeing the violence then gripping El Salvador, and worked a string of low-paying jobs—her father in construction and restaurants, her mother cleaning hotel rooms. The money they sent home allowed Campos-Medina and her siblings to attend a private school in San Salvador, far from the guerrillas menacing their hometown in the mountains. “Because of their sacrifices, coming here undocumented, we had a more privileged life than others growing up,” Campos-Medina says. “I didn’t know then the sacrifices they were making, but we were never in want of food or clothes or education.”
After fighting for nine years to win political asylum, Campos-Medina’s father finally gained an employment visa through the restaurant where he worked, and was able to bring his children to the United States legally. Campos-Medina found herself living with her parents and three brothers in a cramped one-bedroom apartment, often crowded with friends and family arriving in the United States to escape the Salvadoran civil war. “We always thought of the United States as this place of abundance, but it wasn’t quite how I’d imagined,” she recalls.
Campos-Medina was struck by how hard her parents worked, and by how little they got in return. She remembers seeing her father, unable to afford doctors, lying on the floor to ease his aching back, or her mother fretting about missing shifts due to work-related injuries. But when Campos-Medina offered to help, her father insisted she focus on her schoolwork. “I’d say ‘I can go to work, I can get a job at the mall,’ and he’d say, ‘No, in this country your job is to study,’” she recalls. Campos-Medina heeded her father’s advice, but when she got to Cornell, she began planning a career working to protect people like her parents. “I wanted to fight the good fight,” she explains.
Immigrants and the labor movement are natural allies, Campos-Medina argues, and not just because so many immigrants wind up in blue-collar jobs. “Immigrants are renewing the American dream. We’re the one who believe that dream, and who come here to embrace it and fight for it,” she says. Immigrants believe that by working hard, they can build better lives for themselves and others, Campos-Medina says. “That belief in the promise of America, in the promise that good jobs build better opportunities for all of us is what unions are all about,” she says.
Immigrants are renewing the American dream. We’re the one who believe that dream, and who come here to embrace it and fight for it.
Union members should support immigration reform because of that ideological kinship, but also out of simple self-interest, Campos-Medina says. Giving legal status to undocumented workers, and stemming the influx of undocumented workers by streamlining employment-based immigration, would allow unions to represent the entire workforce, giving them a stronger hand in negotiations, Campos-Medina argues. “It will make it easier for American workers to demand better wages and standards, because we’ll all be negotiating from the same place,” she says. “Right now we have a whole workforce of 11 million who are basically in the shadows.” Bringing immigrants out of the shadows, and to the negotiating table, would ultimately mean better jobs and better pay for everyone. “We need a real proposal for regularizing those undocumented workers, and integrating them into the economy,” she says.