On Friday, June 26, workers from the Ruprecht Company’s meatpacking factory in Mundelein, Illinois, walked off the job in a spontaneous strike against a pending immigration audit. Several weeks later, eight Ruprecht workers, three of whom are members of UNITE HERE Local 1, have been apprehended by immigration authorities.
In a statement, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) said the eight workers were picked up after the department discovered the workers had records that fall within its priorities for arrest during a routine immigration audit. ICE claims the workers’ past charges include drunk driving, theft and felony fraud. But organizers argue that the audit and subsequent arrests, which took place while a group of Ruprecht workers were in union negotiations and followed the filing of two unfair labor practices (ULPs) could violate ICE’s own rules against interfering in workplaces that are in the midst of labor disputes.
According to a December 2011 memorandum between ICE and the Department of Labor, “ICE agrees to refrain from engaging in civil worksite enforcement activities at a worksite that is the subject of an existing DOL investigation of a labor dispute.” The memorandum opens the door to several exceptions to this pledge, including national security issues, but primarily creates a space for ICE and the DOL to consider individual cases.
Dan Abraham, organizing director for UNITE HERE Local 1, says the department should heed its own edict. “ICE should stay out of the workforce when there is collective bargaining, and immigration audits should not be conducted in workplaces where there are unfair labor practice charges pending,” he says.
ICE contends that it “plays no role in any ongoing labor disputes when conducting investigations involving an employee’s eligibility to work lawfully in the United States.” But an immigration audit can have consequences that weaken a unionized workplace. Tim Bell, an organizer with the Chicago Workers’ Collaborative who is not involved with the Ruprecht case but is a longtime organizer with immigrant workers, says he has seen several cases where an audit has caused unionized employees to either quit their jobs for fear of deportation or be apprehended as a result of the audit.
The result, says Bell, is “the union loses its members and the company figures out ways to replace those workers,” often with temp workers.
Whether the eight workers are eligible for relief under some of the Obama administration’s prosecutorial discretion or deferred action programs is unclear. In November 2014, immigration authorities divided ICE priorities for deportation into three categories, with individuals who had felonies at level one, the “highest priority” for apprehension and removal for the department. Some immigrants who are in deportation proceedings may qualify for asylum under the Obama administration’s Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents (DAPA) plan, but the order has been stalled amidst a legal battle around its constitutionality.
By the estimation of the detained immigrants, however, the enforcement priorities don’t appear to make a significant difference, says Hena Mansori, supervising attorney of the National Immigrant Justice Center’s Adult Detention Project.
“There is not really any difference we see between ICE detaining people who are priorities one, two or three. There is a huge chunk of people we see [in deportation proceedings] who may have one misdemeanor,” she says. “The problem is that if the only thing that DHS is looking at is a person’s crime, they are not actually taking into account other circumstances in the person’s life.”
One such person is Mauro Barrera, who his coworkers allege was arrested on his way home from work at Ruprecht. (ICE says that none of the apprehended immigrants were stopped at the workplace itself).
Ana Bahena, Barrera’s sister-in-law, says that the mitigating circumstances in Barrera’ case are not only his children, who live in the Chicago area, but also that he participated in the walkout despite not being unionized.
“I think he is being targeted for his leadership,” Bahena says.