Giving Up on Congress, Immigrant Workers Stage Wave of Protests

David Bacon March 6, 2014

On Feb. 27, 2014, workers at a recycling plant in San Leandro, Calif. go on strike to protest an Immigration Customs and Enforcement Agency (ICE) inspection of company personnel records, intended to identify undocumented workers for termination.

For the last five months, com­mu­ni­ty and labor activists, most of them young, have sat down in front of bus­es car­ry­ing peo­ple to deten­tion cen­ters for depor­ta­tion. In Tuc­son, they obstruct­ed and chained them­selves to Immi­gra­tion and Cus­toms Enforce­ment Agency (ICE) bus­es. In San Fran­cis­co, a month after block­ing a bus car­ry­ing depor­tees to deten­tion, Dream­er” Ju Hong — a young immi­grant whose depor­ta­tion was deferred in the White House­’s exec­u­tive action two years ago — chal­lenged Pres­i­dent Oba­ma dur­ing a local speech. You have the pow­er to stop depor­ta­tion,” the pro­test­er told him.

In response to these actions and oth­ers like them, the cities of Los Ange­les and San Fran­cis­co have passed res­o­lu­tions demand­ing a mora­to­ri­um on depor­ta­tions; San Fran­cis­co is impos­ing a halt in immi­gra­tion-relat­ed fir­ings as well.

And the pres­sure is only inten­si­fy­ing. Last week, unions and com­mu­ni­ty orga­ni­za­tions closed down an inter­sec­tion in front of a Sil­i­con Val­ley super­mar­ket chain where hun­dreds were fired after an I‑9 audit: an ICE inspec­tion of com­pa­ny per­son­nel records, intend­ed to iden­ti­fy undoc­u­ment­ed work­ers for ter­mi­na­tion. The next day, immi­grant work­ers in one San Lean­dro, Calif. recy­cling facil­i­ty walked out of work when their employ­er and ICE threat­ened their jobs in a sim­i­lar audit.

These protests are a direct response to the depor­ta­tions and fir­ing that have inten­si­fied as a result of the Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion’s immi­gra­tion enforce­ment poli­cies. Over the last five years, thou­sands of work­ers have been fired through immi­gra­tion audits and the use of the E‑Verify data­base. In the same peri­od, about 400,000 peo­ple have been deport­ed every year — total­ing almost two mil­lion. Spe­cial fed­er­al courts, called Oper­a­tion Stream­line,” con­vene dai­ly, pass­ing quick judg­ment on the migrants led into the court­room in chains, and send­ing them to prison, jail or pri­vate­ly run deten­tion cen­ters.” More than 300,000 peo­ple each year spend some time in these immi­gra­tion prisons.

In Wash­ing­ton, D.C., some orga­ni­za­tions have con­tin­ued to pres­sure Con­gress to take a vote on the Com­pre­hen­sive Immi­gra­tion Reform leg­is­la­tion (S. 744 and H.R. 15). But the actions in the streets hard­ly men­tion the bills. Some grass­roots groups no longer sup­port them at all, because they con­tain increased enforce­ment mea­sures that would make fir­ings and depor­ta­tions even more wide­spread than they already are.

In fact, many com­mu­ni­ty orga­ni­za­tions and unions out­side of the coun­try’s cap­i­tal have large­ly aban­doned the idea that Con­gress can or will pass any laws that would end mass depor­ta­tions and safe­guard the jobs and labor rights of immi­grant workers. 

These grass­roots pro­test­ers instead want the Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion to imme­di­ate­ly use its exec­u­tive author­i­ty to stop depor­ta­tions and fir­ings, with­out wait­ing for Con­gress. Even belt­way groups like the Nation­al Coun­cil of La Raza, which until recent­ly insist­ed that the CIR bills were the only way for­ward, have demand­ed an end to mass depor­ta­tions.

At a ral­ly to sup­port the strik­ers in San Lean­dro, work­er Ampara Romo appealed to sup­port­ers, say­ing, I ask every­one to try to change the laws being used against us right now, because they are unjust and cause so much harm to fam­i­lies and our com­mu­ni­ty in gen­er­al.” When the recy­cling work­ers went on strike to protest fir­ings, they were call­ing for the right to live as equals, as full par­tic­i­pants in soci­ety, and to work with­out fear. 

The unions and groups sup­port­ing them — as well as those around the coun­try — seek an immi­gra­tion reform that ris­es from local­ly based actions and advances toward equal­i­ty. They reject the reforms in Con­gress because they cre­ate a sec­ond-class tier of peo­ple with few­er rights who are sub­ject to fero­cious enforce­ment. These pho­tographs show the deter­mi­na­tion and courage of immi­grant work­ers, their fam­i­lies and allies — going on strike against the prospect of los­ing their jobs, sit­ting down in the street in civ­il dis­obe­di­ence, and demand­ing a rad­i­cal change in immi­gra­tion policy.

OAK­LAND, CALIF. — Jamie Her­rera is a work­er at a recy­cling facil­i­ty in Oak­land, where employ­ees went on strike on July 30, 2013 to protest bad wages, unsafe work­ing con­di­tions and ICE audits. Pre­vi­ous­ly, Her­rera had been a skilled union work­er at a local foundry. He lost his job there because of an ear­li­er I‑9 audit; the Depart­ment of Home­land Secu­ri­ty accused him of lack­ing legal sta­tus and forced his employ­er to fire him.

EAST PALO ALTO, CALIF. — Roge­lio Mar­quez was fired from the Mi Pueblo Lati­no super­mar­ket chain in last year’s mas­sive I‑9 audit. Accord­ing to employ­ees, Mi Pueblo used the audit and DHS immi­gra­tion enforce­ment actions as a means to ter­ror­ize its work­ers when they began to orga­nize a union. On Feb. 26, 2014, Mar­quez speaks in front of the Mi Pueblo mar­ket in East Palo Alto at the start of a ral­ly demand­ing a mora­to­ri­um on depor­ta­tions and firings.

EAST PALO ALTO, CALIF. — The assem­bled crowd of com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers and stu­dents at Mi Pueblo includes many who received tem­po­rary legal sta­tus when Pres­i­dent Oba­ma grant­ed it to the Dream­ers in an exec­u­tive order in 2012. They demand this pro­gram of deferred action” be extend­ed to their fam­i­lies, as part of a broad­er mora­to­ri­um on deportations.

EAST PALO ALTO, CALIF. — Immi­grants, work­ers, union mem­bers, peo­ple of faith and com­mu­ni­ty activists block an inter­sec­tion in front of the Mi Pueblo market. 

EAST PALO ALTO, CALIF. — In an act of civ­il dis­obe­di­ence, Sil­i­con Val­ley immi­grant rights activists, includ­ing labor orga­niz­ers Fred Hirsch and Ger­ar­do Dominguez, and Father Jon Pedi­go, sit down in the mid­dle of an inter­sec­tion. Com­mu­ni­ty sym­pa­thy for the demon­stra­tors is so strong that the police even­tu­al­ly decid­ed not to arrest anyone.

SAN LEAN­DRO, CALIF. — On Feb. 27. 2014, work­ers at a recy­cling facil­i­ty walk out to protest the com­pa­ny’s deci­sion to fire employ­ees accused of not hav­ing legal immi­gra­tion sta­tus. They also blocked trucks haul­ing trash from enter­ing the facil­i­ty. Work­ers say the com­pa­ny was pay­ing $8.30 an hour; San Lean­dro’s liv­ing wage ordi­nance requires $14.17. After five employ­ees filed a suit over the wage theft, they say, the com­pa­ny used the threat of immi­gra­tion enforce­ment to retal­i­ate. Maria Grana­dos, one of the suing work­ers, points out, One month after we sued them they start­ed call­ing peo­ple into the office to say there were prob­lems with our doc­u­ments. Some of us have been there 14 years, so why now?”

SAN LEAN­DRO, CALIF. — The strik­ing immi­grant recy­cling work­ers are sup­port­ed by com­mu­ni­ty lead­ers from a dozen orga­ni­za­tions and unions. Although the employ­ees had no union con­tract, they were assist­ed in the strike by the Inter­na­tion­al Long­shore and Ware­house Union Local 6 and ILWU orga­niz­er Agustin Ramirez. Accord­ing to the work­ers, the temp agency that employs them threat­ened to fire any­one who par­tic­i­pat­ed in the walk­out, but the work­ers demand­ed the agency respect their right to strike.

SAN LEAN­DRO, CALIF. — Rev. Pablo Morataya leads work­ers in a prayer to give them courage dur­ing the strike. A bus car­ry­ing fasters from the nation­al Fast for Fam­i­lies cam­paign stopped at the strike to join them. The fasters, who are lead­ing a charge to demand a mora­to­ri­um on depor­ta­tions, spoke at the ral­ly about the impor­tance of stop­ping the fir­ings; in turn, the work­ers demand­ed a mora­to­ri­um on depor­ta­tions as well.

SAN LEAN­DRO, CALIF. — Work­ers and sup­port­ers stand block­ing the com­pa­ny dri­ve­way. After an hour, the com­pa­ny sent them home, but agreed to pay them for the day and allowed them to go back to work the fol­low­ing day. The next week, how­ev­er, orga­niz­ers say the work­ers list­ed as undoc­u­ment­ed in the I‑9 audit were all fired.

David Bacon is a writer, pho­tog­ra­ph­er and for­mer union orga­niz­er. He is the author of The Right to Stay Home: How US Pol­i­cy Dri­ves Mex­i­can Migra­tion (2013), Ille­gal Peo­ple: How Glob­al­iza­tion Cre­ates Migra­tion and Crim­i­nal­izes Immi­grants (2008), Com­mu­ni­ties With­out Bor­ders (2006), and The Chil­dren of NAF­TA: Labor Wars on the US/​Mexico Bor­der (2004). His web­site is at dba​con​.igc​.org.
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