Union Declares Itself a “Sanctuary,” Promises to Protect All Members

Porfirio Quintano

As President Trump was preparing to bar Syrian refugees and bolster his deportation force, the National Union of Healthcare Workers was convening members across California to discuss how best to protect each other. (National Union of Healthcare Workers/ Facebook)

This arti­cle was first post­ed by Labor Notes.

I had no mon­ey and spoke no Eng­lish when I ille­gal­ly crossed the bor­der into Cal­i­for­nia 23 years ago, but I worked hard and fought for the right to stay here.

Had I made that har­row­ing jour­ney this year, I’m sure I’d be deport­ed right back into the crosshairs of the Hon­duran government’s death squads that had tar­get­ed me and many oth­er com­mu­ni­ty organizers.

Instead I quick­ly won a grant of polit­i­cal asy­lum — and lat­er received full Amer­i­can citizenship.

I know I’m one of the lucky ones. At the San Fran­cis­co hos­pi­tal where I work, nine out of 10 mem­bers of my union are for­eign-born. We nev­er ask any­one about their immi­gra­tion sta­tus, but I know sev­er­al green card hold­ers who are get­ting ready to apply for cit­i­zen­ship now that their place in Amer­i­ca seems less secure.

Peo­ple might think the Bay Area is one big pro­tec­tive cocoon for immi­grants, but that’s not the case. The sub­urb where I live is not a sanc­tu­ary city. And my elect­ed coun­ty sher­iff con­tracts with the Depart­ment of Home­land Secu­ri­ty to house peo­ple await­ing depor­ta­tion hearings.

Who can my co-work­ers count on if Immi­gra­tion and Cus­toms Enforce­ment (ICE) agents come look­ing for them or their fam­i­ly mem­bers? Our union, thankfully.

Pro­tect­ing each other

As Pres­i­dent Trump was prepar­ing to bar Syr­i­an refugees and bol­ster his depor­ta­tion force, the Nation­al Union of Health­care Work­ers was con­ven­ing mem­bers across Cal­i­for­nia to dis­cuss how best to pro­tect each other.

These weren’t always easy con­ver­sa­tions, but we emerged with a con­sen­sus that we would declare our­selves a sanc­tu­ary union” and that pro­tect­ing our mem­bers from Trump’s depor­ta­tion drag­net would be as high a pri­or­i­ty as defend­ing them from man­age­ment retaliation.

To ful­fill that mis­sion, our union is part­ner­ing with a Bay Area immi­gra­tion rights law firm to advise and rep­re­sent mem­bers and their rel­a­tives at risk of depor­ta­tion. We’re also edu­cat­ing mem­bers on their rights. Every­one has the right not to answer ques­tions from immi­gra­tion agents, and the right to deny agents entry to your home unless they have a signed warrant.

Like­wise, we are review­ing our records to make sure we aren’t pre­serv­ing any data that could reveal a member’s immi­gra­tion sta­tus, and we are refus­ing to vol­un­tar­i­ly share any infor­ma­tion about our mem­bers with ICE officers.

Stand­ing up to the state is not some­thing I take light­ly. In Hon­duras, I worked as a com­mu­ni­ty orga­niz­er for human rights orga­ni­za­tions that helped peo­ple resist land seizures and oth­er unlaw­ful acts. I saw lawyers, orga­niz­ers, and union lead­ers killed by drug deal­ers, police offi­cers, and gov­ern­ment-backed thugs.

When a sol­dier at a gov­ern­ment check­point in 1994 made it clear that my life also was in dan­ger, I fled to the U.S., leav­ing behind my wife and young daugh­ter. We were reunit­ed lat­er that year after I was grant­ed asylum.

I don’t think that Amer­i­ca under Trump will devolve into the Hon­duras I left behind. But for many of us, it’s a much scari­er place than it used to be.

Defend­ing patients too

By declar­ing itself a sanc­tu­ary, our union isn’t just mak­ing us feel safer — it’s giv­ing mem­bers a safe space to dis­cuss what’s hap­pen­ing in our coun­try and help make a difference.

Dur­ing the union meet­ing I attend­ed in San Fran­cis­co ear­li­er this year, two mem­bers ques­tioned becom­ing a sanc­tu­ary union, fear­ful that we would be pro­tect­ing crim­i­nals.” It fell to me and anoth­er mem­ber to explain that our goal wasn’t to hide our undoc­u­ment­ed broth­ers and sis­ters, but to guar­an­tee them a fair hearing.

I wish every­one in our union agreed that our country’s immi­gra­tion laws are unfair, and that there should be a path toward legal­iza­tion for undoc­u­ment­ed peo­ple. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, that’s not the case. But with the Trump admin­is­tra­tion push­ing for expe­dit­ed depor­ta­tions that bypass immi­gra­tion courts, we can all ral­ly around the prin­ci­ple that every­one has the right to qual­i­ty rep­re­sen­ta­tion and due process.

We have anoth­er goal in becom­ing a sanc­tu­ary union: to make our work­places sanc­tu­ar­ies, as well. We are encour­ag­ing the hos­pi­tals, clin­ics, and nurs­ing homes where we work to adopt poli­cies that pro­tect patients and care­givers alike. That includes employ­ers refus­ing to share infor­ma­tion with immi­gra­tion agents and refus­ing to let them inside health care facilities.

A Feb­ru­ary arti­cle in the health care jour­nal STAT report­ed that one Bay Area clin­ic serv­ing most­ly immi­grant patients had seen appoint­ment can­cel­la­tions dou­ble, because patients feared putting them­selves at risk for depor­ta­tion. Though ICE has a pol­i­cy to avoid actions at sen­si­tive areas includ­ing health care facil­i­ties, schools, and places of wor­ship, in Feb­ru­ary agents removed a Sal­vado­ran woman from a Texas hos­pi­tal where she was await­ing treat­ment for a brain tumor. Anoth­er alleged ICE raid occurred at a church-run hypother­mia shel­ter in Virginia.

Many of our mem­bers will nev­er march against Trump or protest a law passed by a Con­gress that’s 3,000 miles away — but they’ve nev­er been shy about stand­ing up for their co-work­ers and their patients. If our employ­ers won’t shield our co-work­ers and patients from a racist pres­i­dent, they should expect a fight from this sanc­tu­ary union.

Por­firio Quin­tano is an envi­ron­men­tal ser­vices aide at Sut­ter Health’s Cal­i­for­nia Pacif­ic Med­ical Cen­ter and an elect­ed rank-and-file mem­ber of the Nation­al Union of Health­care Work­ers’ exec­u­tive board.
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