Why Defending Workers’ Rights Means Fighting ICE’s Deportation Machine

Michael Arria

Members from federal, state and local law enforcement agencies wait to shoot during the 4th Annual Bowling Pin Shootout at the Rod and Gun Club here Friday, July 22, 2011. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Andrew Satran)

Last month, Cal­i­for­nia Labor Com­mis­sion­er Julie Su dis­trib­uted a memo instruct­ing her staff to turn away any Immi­gra­tion and Cus­toms Enforce­ment (ICE) agents who show up at labor offices with­out a fed­er­al war­rant. This action came in response to three recent cas­es in which ICE sought work­ers’ infor­ma­tion short­ly after they filed claims against their employ­ers. Su told The Los Ange­les Times that, in two of these cas­es, ICE offi­cials showed up at the employ­ees’ labor hear­ing. In case ICE con­tin­ues to show up at such hear­ings, Su pro­vid­ed sug­gest­ed scripts to guide the inter­ac­tion. Would you please leave our office? The Labor Com­mis­sion­er does not con­sent to your entry or search of any part of our office,” reads one por­tion of the text.

ICE’s tar­get­ing of labor hear­ings falls into a much broad­er pat­tern of work­place immi­gra­tion raids. The sec­ond term of the George W. Bush admin­is­tra­tion saw a boom in such poli­cies, with author­i­ties car­ry­ing out hun­dreds of sweeps tar­get­ing work­ers. In May of 2008, hun­dreds of Home­land Secu­ri­ty agents swooped into Postville, Iowa and arrest­ed 389 employ­ees at a kosher meat­pack­ing plant. Near­ly 300 of those work­ers spent five months in jail before being deport­ed. In a town with a pop­u­la­tion of just 2,300 peo­ple, this meant that more than 10 per­cent of all res­i­dents were incar­cer­at­ed as the result of one raid. They don’t go after employ­ers. They don’t put CEOs in jail,” said Postville Com­mu­ni­ty Schools super­in­ten­dent David Strudthoff at the time. “[This] is like a nat­ur­al dis­as­ter — only this one is man-made. In the end, it is the greater pop­u­la­tion that will suf­fer and the work­force that will be held accountable.”

While Barack Oba­ma deport­ed more peo­ple than any oth­er pres­i­dent, the tac­tic of tar­get­ing work­ers fluc­tu­at­ed on his watch. Data from ICE indi­cates that work­place immi­gra­tion arrests peaked for Oba­ma in 2011 — but nev­er reached the lev­els seen under Bush. The Nation­al Employ­ment Law Project’s (NELP) Haey­oung Yoon told In These Times that, while we haven’t seen wide­spread exam­ples of work­place raids under the Trump admin­is­tra­tion, this doesn’t mean they’re not com­ing even­tu­al­ly. These efforts take a lot of time to plan,” said Yoon.

Under­scor­ing Yoon’s point, 55 undoc­u­ment­ed work­ers were detained in Feb­ru­ary in a series of Mis­sis­sip­pi restau­rant raids. After the arrests, ICE pub­lic affairs offi­cer Thomas Byrd said that the fed­er­al search war­rants were part of a year-long inves­ti­ga­tion.

State orga­ni­za­tions like the Illi­nois Busi­ness Immi­gra­tion Coali­tion are train­ing employ­ers to pre­pare for the pos­si­bil­i­ty of such sweeps. NELP and the Nation­al Immi­gra­tion Law Cen­ter have cre­at­ed a help­ful guide for busi­ness­es con­cerned about ICE raids, which includes details on how to keep agents out, what to do if they enter and what actions can be tak­en after they leave. Employ­ers and their employ­ees have rights when it comes to immi­gra­tion enforce­ment in the work­place,” wrote NELP staff attor­ney Lau­ra Huizar short­ly after the guide was pub­lished. Employ­ers can and should take steps now to pro­tect those rights and do what’s best for their busi­ness and their teams.”

In Cal­i­for­nia, where almost half of the state’s farm­work­ers are undoc­u­ment­ed, there have been recent leg­isla­tive efforts to com­bat work­place raids. The SEIU-spon­sored Immi­grant Work­er Pro­tec­tion Act (AB 450) is a bill, intro­duced this March, that would require all employ­ers to demand a fed­er­al war­rant if ICE shows up. The leg­is­la­tion, which was intro­duced by San Fran­cis­co Assem­bly­mem­ber David Chiu, would also pre­vent busi­ness­es from hand­ing over per­son­al employ­ee infor­ma­tion unless they were subpoenaed.

But what is to be done about employ­ers who will­ing­ly col­lude with ICE? While explain­ing her memo, Julie Su told the Los Ange­les Times that she sus­pect­ed busi­ness­es of tip­ping agents off to labor hear­ings, events where only the employ­er and employ­ee would be aware of the sched­uled time. Ear­li­er this year, Jose Flo­res, a 37-year-old Mass­a­chu­setts man, was arrest­ed by ICE short­ly after a work­ers’ com­pen­sa­tion meet­ing. Flo­res’ lawyers believe that the arrest might have been retal­i­a­tion from Flo­res’ employ­er, Tara Con­struc­tion, look­ing for a way to get out of pay­ing out the claim. Stephen Mur­ray, a lawyer for Tara Con­struc­tion, insists that his client made no con­tact with ICE and had no rea­son to believe Flo­res’ was undocumented.

A recent inves­ti­ga­tion by ProP­ub­li­ca and NPR reveals that this is hard­ly an iso­lat­ed case. Their review focus­es on Flori­da, where a 2003 law made it ille­gal to for work­ers to file com­pen­sa­tion claims using false iden­ti­fi­ca­tion. In the 14 years since, at least 130 injured work­ers were arrest­ed under the law. At least one in four of those work­ers was detained by ICE or deport­ed. State fraud inves­ti­ga­tors have arrest­ed injured work­ers at doc­tor’s appoint­ments and at depo­si­tions in their work­ers’ comp cas­es,” reads the report. Some were tak­en into cus­tody with their arms still in slings.”

The report also points out that the Flori­da mod­el could be a pre­view of wide­spread things to come under the Trump admin­is­tra­tion. If this is true, then the labor move­ment could end up tak­ing a clos­er look at Tom Cat Bak­ery in Queens, where a Home­land Secu­ri­ty inquiry and promise of sub­se­quent fir­ings sparked rad­i­cal protests. Employ­ers who open­ly col­lude with Trump’s depor­ta­tion machine might soon be tar­gets of the same resistance.

Michael Arria is the U.S. cor­re­spon­dent for Mon­doweiss. Fol­low him on Twit­ter: @michaelarria.
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