Labor’s Far-Right Problem: ICE and Border Patrol Unions Cheer Trump’s Immigration Crackdown

Sarah Lazare and Michael Arria

National Border Patrol Council President Brandon Judd testifies before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee's National Security Subcommittee in the Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill April 12, 2018 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

On June 21, Richard Trum­ka, pres­i­dent of the Amer­i­can Fed­er­a­tion of Labor and Con­gress of Indus­tri­al Orga­ni­za­tions (AFL-CIO), released a state­ment con­demn­ing the Trump administration’s immi­gra­tion enforce­ment over­reach,” includ­ing the forcible sep­a­ra­tion of chil­dren from their parents.

Noth­ing embod­ies our bro­ken immi­gra­tion sys­tem more than the unnec­es­sary pain and suf­fer­ing of our immi­grant broth­ers and sis­ters as fam­i­lies are torn apart at the bor­der,” wrote the head of the fed­er­a­tion, which is com­posed of 55 unions rep­re­sent­ing a total of 12.5 mil­lion workers.

Just eight days lat­er, the pres­i­dent of an AFL-CIO affil­i­ate — the Nation­al Bor­der Patrol Coun­cil (NBPC) — wrote a col­umn for Fox News force­ful­ly defend­ing Trump and argu­ing for more hard­line immi­gra­tion poli­cies, includ­ing a wall between the Unit­ed States and Mex­i­co. If fam­i­lies can’t enter ille­gal­ly, then they won’t be sep­a­rat­ed while the adults await tri­al and sen­tenc­ing,” wrote Bran­don Judd, head of the NBPC, which rep­re­sents 16,000 bor­der patrol agents.

This divide rais­es press­ing eth­i­cal ques­tions for the U.S. labor move­ment, whose ranks are filled with undoc­u­ment­ed work­ers demand­ing basic safe­ty and dig­ni­ty on the job, but which also includes unions rep­re­sent­ing U.S. Bor­der Patrol and Immi­gra­tion and Cus­toms Enforce­ment (ICE) agents. Those unions con­sti­tute the far-right pole of the labor move­ment — and of the U.S. polit­i­cal spec­trum — back­ing Trump and his hard­line immi­gra­tion poli­cies. In These Times spoke with union mem­bers, as well as immi­grant jus­tice activists, who say the white suprema­cist and xeno­pho­bic posi­tions of immi­gra­tion enforce­ment unions are an affront to the prin­ci­ples of jus­tice and sol­i­dar­i­ty that the labor move­ment should embrace as the undoc­u­ment­ed work­ers in its ranks face unprece­dent­ed attack.

There is no place for racism or xeno­pho­bia in the labor move­ment,” Sam Gutier­rez, an activist mem­ber of Amer­i­can Fed­er­a­tion of State, Coun­ty and Munic­i­pal Employ­ees (AFSCME) Local 2822, tells In These Times. We have to under­stand when we are fight­ing for our rights, we are also fight­ing for everyone.”

The NBPC and the Nation­al ICE Coun­cil, a union rep­re­sent­ing ICE employ­ees, have emerged as among the biggest cheer­lead­ers of Trump’s hard­line immi­gra­tion poli­cies. They endorsed him dur­ing the pres­i­den­tial elec­tion and have force­ful­ly defend­ed him in the press and lob­bied for his most aggres­sive immi­gra­tion poli­cies. Amid mount­ing pub­lic out­rage at fam­i­ly sep­a­ra­tions, Judd pub­licly defend­ed the pol­i­cy and called for more dra­con­ian actions, includ­ing the con­struc­tion of a wall along the U.S.-Mexico bor­der. The lead­er­ship of Nation­al ICE Coun­cil, mean­while, has pub­licly expressed frus­tra­tion that the pres­i­dent is too soft on immi­gra­tion and is open about its inten­tions to push the Trump admin­is­tra­tion fur­ther to the right.

Doing pub­lic rela­tions for Trump

The Trump administration’s zero-tol­er­ance” immi­gra­tion pol­i­cy, includ­ing the forced sep­a­ra­tion of more than 2,300 chil­dren from their par­ents at the bor­der, has pro­voked wide­spread pub­lic out­rage. Peo­ple have tak­en to the streets across the coun­try, occu­pied ICE deten­tion cen­ters and block­ad­ed court pro­ceed­ings. As the call to Abol­ish ICE goes main­stream, the Trump admin­is­tra­tion claims it will jail fam­i­lies togeth­er — yet, in real­i­ty, thou­sands of chil­dren are still separated.

In this cli­mate, Judd hit the media cir­cuit to defend Trump’s poli­cies, appear­ing June 19 on NPR, where he argued that the media is large­ly overblow­ing the hor­rors of the Trump administration’s immi­gra­tion poli­cies — and false­ly claimed that Bor­der Patrol agents are not sep­a­rat­ing fam­i­lies for mean­ing­ful amounts of time. In a June 30 appear­ance on Fox and Friends, Judd again cham­pi­oned Trump’s pro­posed wall, which he said is a result of the busi­ness exper­tise” Trump is tak­ing to the White House.” In a May 20 inter­view with Fox News, Judd defend­ed Trump’s descrip­tion of some immi­grants as ani­mals,” say­ing “”They’re worse than ani­mals, in my opin­ion. … Ani­mals do not treat oth­er ani­mals the way MS-13 treats oth­er human beings.”

Dur­ing this peri­od, the web­site and social media account of the NBPC looked near­ly indis­tin­guish­able from the web­site of white nation­al­ist pub­li­ca­tion Bre­it­bart, refer­ring to immi­grants as ille­gals” and choos­ing inflam­ma­to­ry head­lines for its posts. Bre­it­bart, inci­den­tal­ly, is where the union records its offi­cial podcast.

But the union’s pro-Trump pub­lic rela­tions efforts pre­date his pres­i­den­tial vic­to­ry. In March 2016, the NBPC broke with past prac­tice of not endors­ing pres­i­den­tial pri­ma­ry can­di­dates, and came out in sup­port of Trump. We think it is that impor­tant: If we do not secure our bor­ders, Amer­i­can com­mu­ni­ties will con­tin­ue to suf­fer at the hands of gangs, car­tels and vio­lent crim­i­nals prey­ing on the inno­cent,” said the union in its endorse­ment statement.

There is rea­son to believe Trump finds the alliance use­ful. In Jan­u­ary, Judd appeared in an offi­cial White House video, in which he says, The Trump admin­is­tra­tion has accom­plished more in one year to secure our bor­der than any oth­er pres­i­dents. … He wants to ensure the Amer­i­can pub­lic is safe. He wants to ensure that we can go about our dai­ly lives and not fear what might be com­ing across the border.”

On April 1, Judd went on Fox and Friends to call for even more hard­line immi­gra­tion poli­cies, crit­i­ciz­ing the poli­cies that allow some peo­ple to leave deten­tion facil­i­ties to attend immi­gra­tion court at a lat­er time. They need to pass laws to end the catch-and-release pro­gram that’ll allow us to hold them for a long time,” Judd said. Trump imme­di­ate­ly took to Twit­ter to echo Judd’s call, pro­claim­ing: Bor­der Patrol Agents are not allowed to prop­er­ly do their job at the Bor­der because of ridicu­lous lib­er­al (Demo­c­rat) laws like Catch & Release.”

The exchange prompt­ed the New York Times to write a head­line about Judd’s influ­ence: A Bor­der Patrol Agent (and Fre­quent Fox News Guest) Has Trump’s Ear on Immi­gra­tion.” Judd reit­er­at­ed the demands in April 12 in tes­ti­mo­ny before the U.S. House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives Com­mit­tee on Over­sight and Gov­ern­ment Reform.

Push­ing Trump fur­ther right

If any­thing, the ICE union is to the right of the NBPC — and of Trump. The Nation­al ICE Coun­cil, which says it rep­re­sents rough­ly 7,600 offi­cers, agents and employ­ees who work for the U.S. Immi­gra­tion and Cus­toms Enforce­ment,” endorsed Trump on the cam­paign trail but has grown frus­trat­ed with the Trump admin­is­tra­tion for not being aggres­sive enough on immi­gra­tion. In a Sep­tem­ber 2016 state­ment explain­ing its first-ever pres­i­den­tial endorse­ment, the union cit­ed Trump’s con­fronta­tion­al stance toward immi­grants: He has out­lined core poli­cies need­ed to restore immi­gra­tion secu­ri­ty — includ­ing sup­port for increased inte­ri­or enforce­ment and bor­der secu­ri­ty, an end to Sanc­tu­ary Cities, an end to catch-and-release, manda­to­ry detain­ers, and the can­cel­ing of exec­u­tive amnesty and non-enforce­ment directives.”

In Jan­u­ary 2017, the union cheered Trump’s deci­sion to build a wall along the Mex­i­can bor­der. Pres­i­dent Trump’s actions now empow­er us to ful­fill this life sav­ing mis­sion,” reads part of its joint state­ment with the NBPC. By Novem­ber 2017, how­ev­er, the union began pub­licly declar­ing that the Trump admin­is­tra­tion had betrayed” it by leav­ing Obama’s ICE team in place. That same month, its pres­i­dent Chris Crane wrote an open let­ter accus­ing Trump of inflict­ing a stab in the back to the men and women of law enforce­ment who we know you sup­port whole­heart­ed­ly.” Among his griev­ances, he cit­ed ICE man­agers order­ing their own offi­cers in the field not to wear bul­let-proof vests because ille­gal aliens might find it offen­sive.” The let­ter also cites alleged deal-mak­ing that ICE man­agers are mak­ing with so-called sanc­tu­ary cities.

In Feb­ru­ary, Crane released anoth­er let­ter to the White House crit­i­ciz­ing Trump’s immi­gra­tion strat­e­gy: We sim­ply can­not in good faith sup­port any leg­isla­tive effort on immi­gra­tion that does not include pro­vi­sions regard­ing immi­gra­tion detain­ers, sanc­tu­ary cities and the smug­gling and traf­fick­ing of chil­dren across U.S. bor­ders.” The union wants more mon­ey to detain peo­ple, as well as an end to catch and release.”

Anony­mous ICE employ­ees have also cre­at­ed a web­site that crit­i­cizes the lead­er­ship of ICE and the Depart­ment of Home­land Secu­ri­ty for not being tough enough on immi­grants, cit­ing arti­cles from Bre­it­bart. One typ­i­cal head­line reads, ICE Offi­cers forced to warn city offi­cials before mak­ing arrests; Crim­i­nals and Fugi­tives mag­i­cal­ly dis­ap­pear’ before they can be arrested.”

There are signs that the Trump admin­is­tra­tion has been influ­enced by the polit­i­cal efforts of these unions. In Jan­u­ary 2017, the pres­i­dent pub­licly thanked Judd and Crane, iden­ti­fy­ing them as two friends of mine.” Trump said, You guys are about to be very, very busy doing your job the way you want to do them.”

An unac­cept­able affiliation?

Both unions are char­tered by the Amer­i­can Fed­er­a­tion of Gov­ern­ment Employ­ees (AFGE), an AFL-CIO affil­i­ate. The AFGE hasn’t tak­en an offi­cial posi­tion on the bor­der cri­sis, but in the past, the bor­der patrol union has praised the AFGE, say­ing the NBPC’s par­ent union has gone above and beyond” in sup­port­ing it.

The NBPC is less pleased with the AFL-CIO and its stance on immi­gra­tion. In the FAQ on its web­site, the union jus­ti­fies its AFL-CIO affil­i­a­tion to its mem­bers by stat­ing that, if it dis­af­fil­i­at­ed, the union would be placed in trustee­ship by AFGE and lose its assets and sta­tus as the exclu­sive rep­re­sen­ta­tive of bor­der patrol agents. Although NBPC is opposed to the shame­less pro­mo­tion of ille­gal aliens by the AFL-CIO, the NBPC must work through inter­nal mea­sures to change the posi­tion of AFL-CIO or risk jeop­ar­diz­ing our sta­tus,” reads the sec­tion. (When asked for com­ment, the AFL-CIO referred In These Times to Trumka’s afore­men­tioned state­ment on the bor­der crisis.)

For some labor and immi­grant-jus­tice activists, the affil­i­a­tion is unac­cept­able. In 2016, the immi­grant jus­tice group #Not1MoreDeportation released a peti­tion call­ing on the AFL-CIO to ter­mi­nate the NBPC’s mem­ber­ship after the bor­der patrol union endorsed Trump. NBPC’s endorse­ment shines light on the dis­con­nect between Bor­der Patrol, immi­grant com­mu­ni­ties and the rest of the labor move­ment across the Unit­ed States,” reads the state­ment. By endors­ing Trump, Bor­der Patrol endors­es a racist, xeno­pho­bic and misog­y­nist cam­paign that advo­cates mass depor­ta­tion, tor­ture, state-sanc­tioned dis­crim­i­na­tion against Mus­lims, sub­or­di­na­tion of women, and more broad­ly under­mines the val­ues and goals of the labor movement.”

There’s a prece­dent for the AFL-CIO to expel unions for polit­i­cal rea­sons — although, trou­bling­ly, it has only been applied to pro­gres­sive unions: In 1949 and 1950, the CIO expelled 11 left-led unions, join­ing the lib­er­al Cold War con­sen­sus and align­ing itself with McCarthy­ism. The unions rep­re­sent­ed almost one mil­lion work­ers alto­geth­er and the ensu­ing strife ulti­mate­ly led to the CIO merg­ing with the Amer­i­can Fed­er­a­tion of Labor (AFL) in 1955. Some of the expelled unions were able to sur­vive out­side of the AFL-CIO. One, the Inter­na­tion­al Long­shore and Ware­house Union (ILWU), rejoined the AFL-CIO in 1988, but chose to leave again in 2013 after the AFL-CIO failed to pun­ish unions whose mem­bers had crossed an ILWU pick­et line.

The way the con­sti­tu­tion of the AFL-CIO is cur­rent­ly writ­ten, it would be dif­fi­cult to iso­late the Bor­der Patrol and ICE unions, since they’re with­in the AFGE, which also rep­re­sents oth­er fed­er­al and Wash­ing­ton, D.C.-based work­ers. How­ev­er, with a two-thirds vote at one if its con­ven­tions, the AFL-CIO could con­ceiv­ably amend the con­sti­tu­tion to say it can expel cer­tain chap­ters with­out expelling the whole affil­i­ate. The AFL-CIO also has the option of pres­sur­ing AFGE to stop char­ter­ing the Bor­der Patrol and ICE unions.

What­ev­er the best pro­ce­dur­al path, some rank-and-file union mem­bers say the labor move­ment must grap­ple now with the urgent moral ques­tions pre­sent­ed by the actions of bor­der patrol and ICE unions. As a fed­er­a­tion, we can­not con­done their behav­ior,” says Gutier­rez, whose union is part of the AFL-CIO.

Carl Rosen, pres­i­dent of Unit­ed Elec­tri­cal Work­ers West­ern Region, told In These Times that he prefers not to com­ment on the AFL-CIO ques­tion, since his union is not a part of the fed­er­a­tion. But he argues that the actions of bor­der patrol and ICE unions should prompt soul search­ing on the part of the labor move­ment. It’s extreme­ly unfor­tu­nate that these orga­ni­za­tions are tak­ing those sorts of posi­tions that are extreme­ly destruc­tive to the work­ing class and anti­thet­i­cal to what the labor move­ment ought to stand for,” he said. I think it is impor­tant for the labor move­ment as a whole to stand up on the side of jus­tice and con­demn orga­ni­za­tions tak­ing those positions.”

In a labor move­ment where oth­er law enforce­ment unions have his­tor­i­cal­ly gen­er­at­ed con­tro­ver­sy and inter­nal oppo­si­tion, at least one labor coun­cil appears to be encour­ag­ing immi­gra­tion enforce­ment agents to refuse orders. On June 26, Rusty Hicks, the head of the Los Ange­les Coun­ty Fed­er­a­tion of Labor, released a state­ment declar­ing, As L.A. labor, we call on imme­di­ate and com­pre­hen­sive reform of the U.S. immi­gra­tion deten­tion sys­tem. We com­mit to defend­ing and pro­tect­ing all immi­grants. We also com­mit to defend­ing and pro­tect­ing all work­ers who take a stand against orders they are asked to car­ry out in vio­la­tion of basic human rights.”

And in Feb­ru­ary, Jor­don Dyr­dahl-Roberts, an employ­ee at Montana’s labor depart­ment, quit his job after he learned that his agency was send­ing employ­ee infor­ma­tion to ICE. He called on oth­er gov­ern­ment employ­ees to do the same. So this is me, point­ing at you, and telling you to act,” he wrote in a Medi­um post. I’m espe­cial­ly telling you to take action if you find your­self as part of one of the agen­cies help­ing com­mit these atrocities.”

As the labor move­ment fends off attacks from Trump’s Nation­al Labor Rela­tions Board and attempts to orga­nize more work­ers, includ­ing undoc­u­ment­ed immi­grants, who are high­ly exploit­ed by employ­ers, its response to the cur­rent crack­down on immi­grants could impact its suc­cess mov­ing for­ward. Accord­ing to Amy Liv­ingston, a labor edu­ca­tor at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Min­neso­ta at Min­neapo­lis, The call for the labor move­ment to divest from Bor­der Patrol and ICE unions is a mean­ing­ful oppor­tu­ni­ty for the main­stream U.S. labor move­ment to stand with work­ers and com­mu­ni­ties of col­or by reject­ing white supremacy.”

Car­los Rojas Rodriguez is an orga­niz­er with Movimien­to Cosecha, which orga­nizes undoc­u­ment­ed work­ers to build col­lec­tive pow­er. He tells In These Times, Unions have a respon­si­bil­i­ty to pro­tect work­ers, and in the Unit­ed States we have one of the most diverse work­forces in the whole world. The recent state­ments made by the ICE and CBP unions defend­ing Trump’s anti-immi­grant and anti-work­er poli­cies are a betray­al to union values.”

Sarah Lazare is web edi­tor at In These Times. She comes from a back­ground in inde­pen­dent jour­nal­ism for pub­li­ca­tions includ­ing The Inter­cept, The Nation, and Tom Dis­patch. She tweets at @sarahlazareMichael Arria cov­ers labor and social move­ments. Fol­low him on Twit­ter: @michaelarria
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