Workplace Fairness

Menu

Skip to main content

  • print
  • decrease text sizeincrease text size
    text

For Farmworkers, the Fight for the 8-Hour Day Isn’t Over

Share this post

Climate Change Could Make Borrowing Costlier for States and Cities |  Florida Phoenix

Federal labor laws exclude farmworkers from overtime pay and other protections. After years of advocacy by farm labor groups, lawmakers in Oregon, Washington and Colorado are working to change that.

Oregon state Rep. Ricki Ruiz grew up the son of two farmworkers, and he remembers his family’s struggles vividly.

“We almost faced eviction five times because we didn’t have enough money for rent,” said Ruiz, a first-term Democrat. “We didn’t go to the grocery store; we went to the food bank. We didn’t have extra clothes.”

Ruiz hopes to change that situation for farmworkers in Oregon. He sponsored a bill that will mandate that farmworkers be paid overtime for any work beyond 40 hours a week.

“If this legislation was passed when I was a kid, we would have had less stress in our family and my parents wouldn’t have had to work 80 hours a week,” he said. “This will be life-changing for farmworkers. They will be able to make a living wage and support their families.”

The effort in Oregon follows bills passed earlier this year in Washington and Colorado to grant overtime pay to farmworkers. Lawmakers in Maine are considering a similar measure.

Currently, federal and most state laws exempt farmworkers from the overtime protections guaranteed to most other workers. Labor advocates say that precedent was set by the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938, which was written to exclude Black field workers in order to win the support of Southern Democrats. Today, 83% of the nation’s farmworkers are Hispanic, according to the U.S. Department of Labor’s National Agricultural Workers Survey.

“The exclusion of farmworkers was rooted in racism and made possible by the feeling that it wasn’t necessary to protect African Americans,” said Bruce Goldstein, president of Farmworker Justice, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy and support group. “It’s hard to believe that the exclusions of farmworkers from overtime pay and labor rights would continue if the majority of farmworkers were Caucasian.”

Nearly half of all U.S. farmworkers lack legal status, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Just more than a quarter of farmworkers are U.S.-born, according to the agency’s numbers. The Economic Policy Institute, a left-leaning research think tank based in Washington, D.C., estimates about 10% are foreign workers in the United States on H2A temporary visas. The average farm wage was $13.99 an hour as of 2019, roughly 60% of the average non-farm wage. “The bias in agriculture is that labor needs to be as close to slavery as you can get it.”

Some lawmakers interviewed by Stateline said the overtime bills they sponsored would apply to workers on H2A visas, while others said theirs would not. The disparate rules in federal and state laws show the need for federal action, farmworker activists say. Some lawmakers also have proposed whistleblower protections because undocumented workers are unlikely to report wage theft if they fear retaliation.

Edgar Franks, a labor leader who picks raspberries and blueberries in Washington state, said overtime protections would not only boost wages, but also would keep families together.

“A lot of us grew up with our parents at work all day and our older family members taking care of us,” said Franks, political director for Familias Unidas por la Justicia, a farmworker union.

Last year brought renewed attention to racial justice and the frontline workers who face health risks in order to provide essential services. In several states, that spotlight led to the recognition of the plight of farmworkers, who advocates say are among the most vulnerable groups in the country. Lawmakers’ push to end inequities in overtime law has drawn support from President Joe Biden. But they’re up against the politically powerful agriculture industry, which asserts that new wage requirements would devastate farmers.

“Incremental change for farmworkers, who are the most devalued human lives in our country, has always been an uphill battle,” said Elizabeth Strater, director of strategic campaigns with United Farm Workers, the labor union founded by Cesar Chavez and other organizers. “But no industry should feel entitled to use up a human body at a rate it’s not meant to endure.”

Agriculture industry groups say that farmers operate on thin margins, and they compete against other states and countries that grow the same products with less labor costs. They also note that farm work is seasonal and requires immense amounts of work during harvest and planting times, which they believe is grounds for the longstanding farm work overtime exemption.

“Overtime requirements, especially a blanket, standardized mandate when there is nothing standard about farm work, would make it increasingly difficult for farmers to remain competitive, leading to small farms going out of business,” wrote Allison Crittenden, congressional relations director at the American Farm Bureau Federation, in a statement provided after a Stateline request for an interview.

Washington’s Law

Earlier this year, Washington state lawmakers passed a bill that will grant farmworkers time-and-a-half overtime pay, phasing in a 40-hour threshold by 2024. The new law was a response to a state Supreme Court ruling in 2020 that required dairy workers to be paid overtime. 

“The deep-seated bias in agriculture is that labor needs to be as close to slavery as you can get it,” said Rosalinda Guillen, an activist with Community to Community Development, a Washington-based organization that focuses on food sovereignty and immigrant rights issues. “The court recognized the racist structure of the agriculture industry.”

Agribusiness groups expected the court to rule similarly for other farmworkers, and they feared farmers would be required to pay workers retroactively for overtime worked in years past. The result was a bill that established overtime pay while protecting farmers from retroactive claims. It was a long-awaited win for farmworkers and progressive activists, supported—albeit begrudgingly—by the agriculture industry and its Republican allies. “No Industry Should Feel Entitled to Use Up a Human Body.”

“Knowing that the court was very likely to impose this on us, we were open to a discussion on this being legislatively applied, as long as it was not done overnight,” said Jon DeVaney, president of the Washington State Tree Fruit Association.

Washington state Sen. Curtis King, the Republican who sponsored the overtime bill, said he did so to protect farm owners from retroactive payments, though he disagreed that the previous state law, passed in 1959, was evidence of systemic racism.

Despite sponsoring the bill, King still fears the overtime requirement could make it difficult for Washington farmers to compete with producers from other states or overseas.

“We can sit here all day long and say the going wage ought to be such and such for farmworkers,” he said. “You go try and pay it and stay in business and see what happens.”

Movement Elsewhere

At present, only six states—California, Hawaii, Maryland, New York, Minnesota and now Washington—offer any overtime coverage for farmworkers. Some of those states offer overtime only after 60 hours; California will phase in a 40-hour threshold by 2022.

Even though Washington’s law was forced by a court decision, farmworker advocates say it has renewed momentum for efforts in other states. Earlier this week, Colorado lawmakers passed the Farmworker Bill of Rights, which will give minimum wage and overtime rights to the state’s farmworkers. The measure also will allow workers to join labor unions, mandate rest and eating breaks, and offer whistleblower protections to workers who report unsafe conditions. 

“The rights this bill will restore to these workers are rights that are enjoyed by almost every other worker in the state,” said Colorado state Sen. Jessie Danielson, the Democrat who sponsored the bill.

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, a Democrat, has indicated he will sign the bill.

In Oregon, Ruiz’s bill is still in committee, but he’s hopeful it will advance this session, aligning the state’s policy with neighboring West Coast states.

“There’s a majority of people of color working in the fields, and they’re the ones being excluded from these resources,” Ruiz said. “I believe folks are going to appreciate that this region is honoring farmworkers. It will attract more workers and keep current workers.”

Ag industry groups disagree. They say agribusinesses won’t be able to afford the extra wages, and the law will cause them to limit hours, split shifts and increase mechanization—forcing farmworkers to take on multiple jobs just to make the same money as before.

“We heard from hundreds of farmers saying they would not be able to afford the bill as it was proposed, and ultimately it would result in a tremendous amount of job loss and wage reduction,” said Samantha Bayer, policy counsel with the Oregon Farm Bureau, which opposes the bill. “It’s a false promise that this would result in more wages.”

Farm groups across the country have made similar predictions about overtime proposals in different states. Labor advocates view them as a threat to punish farmworkers.

“‘The food system will be destroyed, the agriculture industry will be destroyed’—they say that about every single benefit that is given to farmworkers,” said Guillen, the Washington activist. “They have essentially said that if they have to pay farmworkers overtime, they’ll cut their hours and pay them less. That is insidious racially biased behavior.”

Maine state Rep. Thom Harnett, a Democrat who has sponsored his own farmworker overtime bill, acknowledged that farming is a challenging industry.

“There’s a great deal of empathy for that industry, and I share that,” he said. “I just don’t share putting it on the backs of the workers to be the ones who suffer the most. Because of these exceptions, we have farmworkers who have been stuck in poverty for generation after generation.”

Farming groups say that overtime doesn’t make sense in an industry that requires immense amounts of work during seasonal periods such as planting and harvest time. To account for this, Hawaii’s law, for example, has a seasonality clause, which raises overtime thresholds during certain periods of the year. Farmers in Washington sought unsuccessfully to include a similar provision in their state’s bill.

“In agriculture, there are seasonal activities where you can safely work more for short bursts of activity,” said DeVaney, the fruit tree farming advocate. “There are periods of the year where we have longer hours worked, and the work is by nature physically demanding.”

Harnett noted that many itinerant farmworkers don’t get a reprieve from those cycles. Some laborers travel among states to find work in different regional growing seasons, often living in employer-provided housing.

“We hear that farming is a unique business, because there’s this intense period of planting and harvest,” he said. “For the farmworker, their life is that intense period over and over again.”

Harnett’s bill has passed through a House committee but has not yet received a vote before the full House.

National Efforts

Activists were encouraged last month when Biden issued a statement praising Washington’s farmworker overtime bill.

“For too long—and owing in large part to unconscionable race-based exclusions put in place generations ago—farmworkers have been denied some of the most fundamental rights that workers in almost every other sector have long enjoyed,” Biden said.

U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva, an Arizona Democrat who has been a leading voice on the issue, reintroduced the Fairness for Farm Workers Act last month, which would end federal overtime and minimum wage exemptions for farmworkers, although it would not apply to those on H2A visas. The bill is included in the Biden administration’s immigration plan.

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on June 26, 2021. Reprinted with Permission.

About the Author: Alex Brown covers environmental issues for Stateline. Prior to joining Pew, Brown wrote for The Chronicle in Lewis County, Washington state. He’s won awards for investigative reporting and feature writing from the Pacific Northwest Newspaper Association.


Share this post

Can a Driver Uprising Make Food Apps Deliver?

Share this post

Jonán Mancilla is standing on a Manhattan street corner under the awning of a shuttered salon, handing out stickers to his fellow food delivery drivers.

The sticker shows a masked bicyclist in silhouette—fist in the air, food cooler strapped to his back. It bears a Spanglish phrase the largely indigenous workers from Mexico and Guatemala have adopted to describe themselves: “Los Deliveristas Unidos,” or Delivery Workers United.

These immigrant gig workers—who toil for apps like Uber Eats, DoorDash, GrubHub, and Relay—drew headlines in April when 2,000 drivers snarled traffic, whooshing on their e-bikes and scooters towards City Hall in the pouring rain.

They are demanding better wages and improved working conditions, including access to bathrooms and protection from theft and assault. They have a powerful ally in the building service union 32BJ SEIU, bolstering their existing partnership with a Brooklyn-based worker center called Worker’s Justice Project (WJP).

Estimates put the number of app-based food delivery drivers between 50,000 and 80,000 in New York City alone. Lionized as essential, immigrant workers have also been treated as disposable.

A year ago, when lockdowns allowed some workers the flexibility to work from home, others—especially low-wage immigrants in housekeeping, food service, and construction—were laid off and cast out into the streets. They needed a job, fast, with no-frills onboarding. This made them easy marks for temp agencies and unscrupulous contractors.

Among the most predatory were app-based companies, offering an endless supply of gigs and the convenience of signing up on a mobile phone. Legions of immigrant workers flocked to these platforms to schlep food and commodities to New Yorkers sheltering at home.

Now these workers are testing their newfound power in numbers, building up committees throughout the boroughs, and notching their first wins against the tech giants.

WHAT IT’S LIKE

“I get up at seven in the morning,” Mancilla tells me. “I drop my son off at school. At nine I enter the platform, leave at one in the afternoon, come to have lunch, go back to the platform again at two and finish at eight, nine in the evening.”

Twelve-hour days and seven-day weeks are common; the pay averages $300-$800 a week, The City reports. The bulk of the money comes from tips, but these often get stolen by restaurants to pay the app fee.

The 33-year-old Mancilla has the easy confidence of someone who knows his job well; he’s been delivering food for four years. He looks the part of an organizer. Workers on electric bikes beep at him as they drive by; others stop to chat, exchanging elbow-bump greetings. Many are relatives or from the same towns back home in Mexico, a common provenance that makes the outreach easier.

Some share stories of getting mugged or having their bikes stolen; safety is a major concern. “The problem is when you have to go to a building or to a public housing project where you know that your colleagues have already been assaulted,” Mancilla says, “and they send you there again.”

There’s also the problem of bathrooms. Adán, 23, who asked to use only his first name, argues that drivers have earned the right to use the restrooms of the restaurants that depend on them.

“Sometimes they send you to deliver 30 to 50 blocks with only a one-dollar tip,” he says. “But the platforms don’t tell the restaurants to allow us to use the bathroom.”

BADGE OF RECOGNITION

The sticker he is handing out has a design flaw, Mancilla points out: one arm is holding the wrong bike handlebar. Nonetheless, it’s doing its job as a visibility-builder. Delivery workers sport it on their bikes or helmets.

One worker told Ligia Guallpa, executive director of the WJP: “When we see this sticker, we know that we belong to each other—but not only that, I think the thieves are seeing these stickers, so they’re getting scared.”

The stickers are also a tool to build a contact list. Whenever activists hand one out, they ask the person’s name, phone number, and what app they deliver for. They’re expanding their outreach to include workers who use Amazon Flex to deliver groceries for Whole Foods.

WJP stepped in last summer. The group’s base is with construction and domestic workers. Its program includes safety classes and campaigns that have recouped tens of thousands of dollars in stolen wages. But in May it had become an emergency relief center—distributing personal protective equipment and mutual aid support to immigrant workers locked out of state relief.

As the pandemic brought new faces to WJP’s doors, Guallpa noticed many were app-based delivery drivers—and the working conditions they described were gruesome.

“They were sharing how they were carrying bottles of water to do their basic necessities, how they were treated by the restaurants, how they were pressured by the companies,” she says. As independent contractors, they didn’t have the same legal protections as employees. But “the apps were having full control of their lives.”

Soon it became clear there were vast networks of delivery drivers throughout the city. They had self-organized online through Facebook pages and WhatsApp groups based on country of origin and language. WJP offered to help conduct surveys in Arabic, Hindi, Bengali, Mandarin, Spanish, and French Creole.

CHOOSING A TARGET

The first organizing challenge was identifying the right target.

Workers initially blamed the restaurants for denying them bathrooms, and the police for not keeping them safe. But WJP organized meetings to discuss strategy and do a power analysis. “The police is just one actor,” Guallpa argued. “They should do their jobs, but at the end of the day, they can’t give you what you need.”

They ran through a list of possible targets, including the mayor and city council members. The workers decided to focus on the powerful companies to which the restaurants had a contractual obligation: the apps.

The Deliveristas’ first public show of force was in October: a rally by 500-600 drivers carrying placards naming all the major food delivery apps. The negative publicity was enough to push DoorDash to meet with the drivers in December and expand bathroom access to 200 restaurants (in its network of nearly 5,000).

Mancilla says the pep talks from the WJP organizers keep him going. “Give it your best, guys!” he says they tell him. “Don’t let yourselves be defeated. Understand that without you, the companies wouldn’t exist.”

FASTER THAN POLICE

I meet up with some delivery drivers again on May Day in a park in Spanish Harlem, where they have gathered to unbosom their sorrow. Francisco Villalva, a 29-year-old delivery cyclist, was fatally shot in East Harlem in March during an attempted robbery.

The commemoration is organized by El Diario de los Deliveryboys en la Gran Manzana, or The Big Apple Deliveryboys’ Daily, another Facebook page set up by workers; they have called for “a day without delivery workers.” People sing Mexican ballads and corridos, and pass around plates of tamales and beans.

“Today our whole community is in mourning,” says Juan Solano from the Deliveryboys. He points out Villalva’s four surviving siblings, wearing white T-shirts bearing the face of their dead brother; they’re all app-based drivers, too. The park fences are festooned with bedsheets spelling out “Justice for Francisco and Stop Bike Thefts” and “We Are Tired of Not Being Heard for Not Having Papers.”

How can such deaths be prevented? The Deliveryboys want a stronger police response to attacks. Los Deliveristas share the same indignation, and attribute the tepid policing to their own undocumented status. But they have devised an alternative strategy.

On rapid-response networks via WhatsApp and Telegram chat groups, drivers report thefts and assaults to one another. Send out an urgent message with your location, “and all of a sudden you are going to see five or 10 people getting there and they help you,” Mancilla says.

Scroll through any of the Deliveryboys or Los Deliveristas Facebook pages, and you’ll find images of stolen bikes and live videos of drivers showing up to help their fellows on the scene of a mugging or accident. Mancilla said drivers started to realize the police wouldn’t come quickly when called—but their fellow workers would.

NEXT, A UNION?

In any growing movement there are conflicting approaches and tension points. Policing is one. Another is whether to form a union or stick to lobbying for legislative changes. Mancilla wants a union; he believes it would have the political muscle to make the police clamp down on bicycle thefts and assaults.

In the near term, the Deliveristas want a living wage, access to bathrooms, indoor rest stops, paid sick days, workers compensation for accidents, and protection against retaliation for inquiring about tip theft.

A package of five bills introduced at the city council in April would address some of these demands. One would fine restaurants for denying drivers bathroom access. Another would establish minimum pay per trip, modeled after the 2018 city ordinance that set a minimum wage for Uber and Lyft drivers. Another would allow drivers to set their own routes.

“There is no labor movement without organizing the new workforce, which just happens to be immigrant in New York,” Guallpa says. “Which is the exact same way the labor unions got started back in the day, right? They got started by immigrants.”

This blog originally appeared at LaborNotes on May 20, 2021

About the Author: Luis Feliz Leon is a staff writer and organizer with Labor Notes.


Share this post

The Impact of Job Loss in Immigrant Communities During COVID-19

Share this post

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a stark demonstration of the racist and xenophobic attitudes maintained at an institutional level. Job loss and rates of infection have disproportionately affected immigrant groups in the U.S. and other nations around the world. 

With these marginalized groups often being locked out of the aid resources meant to mitigate the damage of COVID-19, job loss has a powerful impact on immigrant communities. But the damage doesn’t stop there. With approximately 48% of agricultural workers in the U.S. lacking citizenship, trouble for immigrant communities means trouble for everyone.

Understanding the totality of this impact requires a look into the data and an analysis of available resources.

Impact of COVID-19 on Immigrant Communities

According to several studies, the effects of COVID-19 seem to be disproportionately impacting communities of ethnic minorities and immigrants. In many cases, these effects ripple through the population and are felt in everything from disruption in supply chains to agricultural slowdowns.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) ran a study on the full impacts of the COVID pandemic on migrant families. These are some of the key findings:

  • COVID infection rates are twice as high in migrant communities versus native-born populations.
  • Discrimination has been found to increase during slack labor markets.
  • Immigrants are more highly represented in the sectors of the economy hit hardest by the pandemic.
  • Immigrant children are less likely to have a computer and internet access at home, meaning school closures can disproportionately set these children back in comparison to their peers.

These findings demonstrate the spiral of negative effects of a pandemic on immigrant populations, who are bearing the brunt of the crisis in unemployment numbers as well. Despite having lower unemployment rates than native-born workers before the pandemic, immigrants lost jobs in larger numbers.

Immigrant unemployment reached 16.5% versus the 14% for natives when the shutdowns began.

With more jobs lost in the sectors in which immigrants make up a larger percentage of the workforce, the scale was tipped against these workers. Tipped minimum wage workers, when they weren’t laid off, had tip decreases that were sharper among minority servers. This further increased the equity gap that has long plagued nations across the world and left some of the most vulnerable financial sectors of the population in the most precarious positions.

Since many immigrants often have no earned credit score—coming from nations or backgrounds where one wasn’t needed—even using an emergency credit card became difficult. In turn, computers could not be purchased for out-of-school children. These are disadvantages that can have severe impacts on populations for generations to come, worsening inequality rates that already fall too often under racial lines.

With the risks of COVID-19 more real for immigrant communities in almost every sense, it is important to establish the full extent of the problem. At the same time, underserved immigrant communities should have the resources and help they need to better survive these systemic problems. 

Finding Help and Relief

Whether you’re an immigrant yourself or simply someone empathetic to the problems faced by these communities, whole databases of resources are out there to assist and support the cause. From education to safety, support resources for immigrants and refugees can at the very least connect people to knowledgeable individuals.

Here are some more places you can look for all kinds of help in the COVID era:

  • iAmerica: Information for immigrants on everything from stimulus payments to healthcare tips.
  • ILCTR: Resources for immigrants, parents, and educators during the COVID-19 crisis.
  • United We DreamMental health resources, ways to take action, and more for the immigrant community. 

The impact of job loss in immigrant communities could have far-reaching, long-lasting effects experienced for generations. Recognizing this problem and utilizing helpful resources are the first steps towards better solutions and a more equitable future.

This blog is printed with permission.

About the Author: Luke Smith is a writer and researcher turned blogger. Since finishing college he is trying his hand at being a freelance writer. He enjoys writing on a variety of topics but business and technology topics are his favorite. When he isn’t writing you can find him traveling, hiking, or gaming.


Share this post

Nearly half of Black immigrant domestic workers lost their jobs during COVID-19, and that’s not all

Share this post

Domestic workers are overwhelmingly marginalized workers, and as we know, the coronavirus pandemic has been the hardest on already marginalized people. A new survey of 800 Black immigrant domestic workers in three areas shows just how bad it is for these workers who take care of children, elderly people, and people with disabilities, or who clean homes. The workers’ stress and pain were evident when they spoke to reporters, as Gabe Ortiz wrote. The numbers are staggering, too.

Overall, 45% of the Black immigrant domestic workers surveyed had lost their jobs. Another 25% had their hours or pay reduced. Nearly two out of three were experiencing housing instability, and half don’t have health insurance. But the overall numbers cover big variations between the locations surveyed by the Institute for Policy Studies’ Black Worker Initiative, in partnership with the National Domestic Workers’ Alliance We Dream in Black program: Massachusetts; Miami-Dade, Florida; and New York City. Across the board, workers in Miami-Dade have been the hardest hit.

Job loss: In Massachusetts, 21% of the workers surveyed had lost their jobs. In New York, it was 30% of documented workers and 34% of undocumented workers. In Miami-Dade, 67% of documented workers and 96% of undocumented workers had lost their jobs. (Note: The Massachusetts sample of the survey had very few undocumented workers, so I’m not breaking those numbers out.)

Reduced hours or pay: So many workers lost their jobs in Miami-Dade that the numbers who had hours or pay reduced are comparatively low: 20% for documented workers and 2% for undocumented ones. In Massachusetts, 38% had lost hours or pay. In New York, this was true of 31% of undocumented workers and 28% of documented workers.

Housing instability: 56% of Massachusetts Black immigrant domestic workers reported they were at risk of being evicted or having utilities shut off; in Miami-Dade, 94% of undocumented workers and 85% of documented workers said the same; in New York, it was 60% of undocumented workers and 51% of documented ones.

Lack of personal protective equipment (PPE): Most of the workers didn’t get any PPE from their employers—52% in Massachusetts; 89% in Miami-Dade, where once again undocumented workers fared worse than documented ones; and 75% in New York City, where documented and undocumented workers were about the same.

Medical insurance: Just one in five Massachusetts workers reported lacking medical insurance. (Remember, this is an overwhelmingly documented group of respondents.) Insurance was the biggest documented versus undocumented divide in New York, with 29% of documented workers and 83% of undocumented workers uninsured. Unsurprisingly, the numbers in Miami-Dade were off-the-charts bad, with 100% of undocumented workers and 65% of documented ones uninsured.

Overall, 25% of the Black immigrant domestic workers said they’d experienced COVID-19 symptoms themselves or lived with someone who had—documented workers were more likely to report exposure, “probably because they are more likely to still be employed,” the report notes.

Workers’ access to a safety net was also a major issue, with 49% afraid to seek government assistance because of their immigration status. Immigration status also makes it much more difficult for these workers to find new work—52% said that their immigration status has a negative impact, with the number hitting 67% among undocumented workers.

This pandemic has been brutal to us all, but there can be no doubt that the people it’s hit the hardest—in health risks and economically—are the people who had the least leeway in their lives to begin with. And if you had a domestic worker before the shutdowns and you still have your income? Keep paying her (or, in rare cases, him)!

This blog originally appeared at Daily Kos on June 18, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson has been a Daily Kos contributing editor since December 2006. Full-time staff since 2011, currently assistant managing editor.


Share this post

The H-1B Termination “Stinger” in the Era of COVID-19: What Employers Need to Know

Share this post

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and its global economic repercussions have forced many employers to make difficult choices regarding their workforces.  Businesses that employ workers who are not U.S. citizens must reckon with additional complications, as their decisions will affect both the employees’ livelihoods and their ability to remain in the United States.

Given these challenges, it is essential that companies consult an immigration attorney if they are considering personnel actions that would affect their foreign national employees, including layoffs, furloughs, and other terminations. (For more general information on the immigration consequences of workforce reductions, please see our prior H-1B Stinger article about this topic.)

Managing H-1B visas in these situations can be particularly complex, given the expansive network of underlying and inflexible terms and conditions. Employers that sponsor foreign nationals for U.S. employment through the H-1B visa program take on numerous exacting – and all too often unforgiving – obligations.  And on the employee’s side of the relationship, those who are laid off, furloughed, or fired will need to find new employment as soon as possible or else leave the U.S. indefinitely per the equally exacting obligations that the program imposes upon them.

Chin & Curtis previously published a post (linked above) that examines an employer’s obligations following the termination of an H-1B employee, and the substance of this piece still stands. As we noted, the 2006 case of Amtel Group of Florida, Inc. v. Yongmahapakorn essentially confirmed that the employer’s obligations under the H-1B and the LCA do not cease until the employer completes the following steps:

  • Notifying the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) that the employment relationship has been terminated; and
  • Offering payment to the H-1B employee for return transportation to their home country.

The termination of an H-1B employee that occurs prior to the expiration of the employee’s valid H-1B status can only be “bona fide” if the employer completes both of these two steps.

While the obligations outlined in our prior article still hold, there are two relevant updates that employers should be aware of in light of the current situation.

First, a new DHS regulation from 2017 institutionalized a “grace period” of up to 60 days, during which a terminated H-1B employee may remain in the United States to find new employment, secure a new immigration status, and/or wrap up their affairs and depart the US.  This change, while obviously beneficial for employees, is also welcome on the employer’s side, as it allows employers to execute terminations without putting their former H-1B employees in immediate legal peril.

Second, employers should consider the impact of the current climate on their protocols for offering payment for return transportation. For instance, how will travel restrictions, if any, affect the availability of return flights and how will airline service reductions impact the cost of the tickets? The applicable regulations leave a good deal of ambiguity around these and other questions concerning the offer of payment for return transportation costs, including whether an offer is sufficient as opposed to actual payment; whether the employer can set a limit to the cost amount; or whether setting a time limit for accepting the offer is appropriate. Absent any specific, regulatory guidance on these matters, employers are generally advised to use “reasonableness” as their guiding principle (though, of course, what is “reasonable” will depend on the situation).

Employers should therefore be mindful of the circumstances surrounding a COVID-19-related termination, including issues arising out of international travel restrictions– and should adjust their policies accordingly. 

About the Author: Phil Curtis has practiced immigration law for more than 30 years and is a founder of Chin & Curtis, LLP.  He has guided Chin & Curtis for the last seven years and now serves as Co- Managing Partner.  With more than 40 professionals dedicated to serving the immigration needs of the business community, Chin & Curtis is New England’s largest independent immigration law firm.


Share this post

Immigrant women workers on the front lines of meatpacking COVID-19 outbreaks speak out

Share this post

Coverage of COVID-19 outbreaks in North Carolina poultry processing plants began with an online tip, but soon multiple workers came forward—risking their livelihoods—to talk about the unsafe working conditions they faced inside the plants. All of them were women.

One of those women is Luz. The 38-year-old immigrant from Mexico has spent the last four years working at the Mountaire Farms poultry processing plant in Lumber Bridge, North Carolina. Luz, who is not using her real name, said she estimates nearly 50% of the plant’s workforce are women—some are pregnant, some are elderly, some have preexisting health conditions, and almost all of them are the caretakers and breadwinners in their families. If they get sick, it causes a ripple effect in their homes, in their extended families, and in their communities. 

The number of COVID-19 cases continues to rise in rural central North Carolina, home to poultry processing plants owned by companies like Mountaire, Tyson Foods, and Pilgrim’s Pride. Nationally, North Carolina leads the number of COVID-19 outbreaks at meatpacking plants, ranking third in the country for the highest number of meatpacking workers who have contracted COVID-19. As of May 20, Enlace Latino NC’s Victoria Bouloubasis reported that there are 26 outbreaks at plants across the state and more than 2,000 workers have been infected. Three poultry workers are known to have died in North Carolina: Adelfo Ruiz Calvo, a 65-year-old Mexican immigrant and Siler City resident who worked at the Pilgrim’s Pride poultry processing plant in Sanford; an unnamed Butterball worker in Duplin County; and Byakubire Mkogabwe, a 71-year-old Congolese immigrant and High Point resident who worked at Tyson Foods in Wilkesboro. 

Dr. David Wohl, a professor of medicine at UNC-Chapel Hill and an infectious disease specialist, told Prism he was seeing a “huge” proportion of Latino community members tied to processing plants test positive for COVID-19. As more people get sick, women like Luz continue to speak out. 

In a conversation with Prism May 22, Luz told Prism what she and other poultry plant workers are up against. Here she is, in her own words, which have been condensed and edited:

I work at the Mountaire processing plant in Lumber Bridge, North Carolina. I have various jobs assigned to me every day. I debone chicken, but sometimes I cut wings or breasts. I work with probably 3,000 people at the plant. We have people who work on different shifts on the line and people who work on the cleaning crew. There are a lot of us, and I’m speaking out today because measures weren’t taken to protect us. The company does not care about our health.

A lot of our workers have immune deficiencies because they are older. Some are pregnant, and others have chronic health problems. From the beginning [of the pandemic], [Mountaire officials] told us that they were not going to close the doors of the plant and that we had no excuse to stop doing our work. They even gave us all letters expressing to authorities that we are essential workers and that we were free to move around and travel to work. [Mountaire] only focused on the need of the company to keep producing. They never considered us as workers. We had to work side-by-side, elbow-to-elbow with no real protection.

They only started providing protective equipment about a month ago, very late into the pandemic, because of the outbreak happening at the plant in Siler City. Now we have a plastic, transparent shield on top of our helmets and there are hand sanitizer dispensers around the plant and the cleaning crew does deep cleaning in the bathrooms and common areas.

When our first workers started to get sick and started to miss work, Mountaire encouraged us to keep working. They offered us bonuses if we didn’t miss any work for the months of April and May. But a lot of people started to miss work, and the company wouldn’t tell us if they decided to stay home or they contracted the virus. Honestly, we don’t know how big the outbreak is. We don’t know the number of people we work with who are sick with the virus. They don’t tell us this information. We feel very vulnerable. We know people can get sick and be asymptomatic and then infect their families.

I do feel very vulnerable. Every day I wake up and I go to work and I feel scared. I use my protective equipment and I take my own protective measures. I do all of the things I’m supposed to, but you know what? I always think about my co-workers who are hired by contractors [and are not considered employees of Mountaire]. I think about them because they don’t have access to the nursing station like we do, they don’t have access to doctors or health care. They don’t make the money we make. They do not have medical or economic support.

None of us know who has or has not been exposed to the virus. [Mountaire officials] evade us at all costs. They don’t give us any answers. We ask: Are people I work with sick with the virus? We are told they can’t tell us or they don’t know. They tell us to ask the main office, but the women at the front desk there are very impolite, especially to Hispanic people. When we ask them questions about the virus, they tell us human resources is too busy for our questions and to come back later.

I don’t know a lot about how testing [for the coronavirus] works. Workers don’t know if the cost is high or if we can get tested without symptoms. I have heard from my friends who got sick that when you go to a hospital, if you tell them you work at the poultry processing plant, they test you immediately. This is because all of the outbreaks these plants have had. Some workers have gone to get tested and now they are afraid of receiving a bill. We don’t know if they will actually get a bill or not. We are not certain about a lot of things.

In my community, I haven’t seen information in English or Spanish with details about testing. Mountaire doesn’t provide us with this kind of information. All they have done is give us the letters that say we are essential workers, but they don’t give us any information about testing. I wish they would test all of us workers. If that day would come, we would feel calmer and safer.

At my plant I would say there are an equal amount of men and women working, but it is women raising our voices. The reason is because many of us are the head of households. We take care of the family, we take care of the children, and we are the breadwinners. We have to protect children, we have to protect our family and our community. Many of my coworkers are women with little children. Schools are closed and there is no place for the children to go. With all of this going on, with all of this stress, Mountaire is forcing us to work on Saturdays. We can’t afford to be vulnerable and exposed at work. This is why so many women who work in plants are speaking out.

I know six coworkers who have been sick with COVID-19. One of them is my close friend. She is an African American woman who is seven months pregnant and tested positive for COVID-19. She hasn’t come back to work. She sent me a message to tell me she contracted the virus. The rest of the people I know who got sick are Latinos. Everyone shared their symptoms and the experience they had so that we can be aware of what to look for.

It hurts me when I read articles where [company officials] blame Latinos and African Americans for our living conditions and say we are responsible for outbreaks in our communities. I’ve read articles where they blame Chinese people for the outbreak. These types of attitudes are very sorry. They are ridiculous. I’m not interested in blame; I’m interested in solutions. I feel very proud to be Mexican. I’m proud of my roots and I’m proud of my family. It’s important to have an extended family that is there for you, that can support you, that can act as a shoulder to rely on. That kind of support is not something to blame; it’s the support our communities need right now to feel safe.

It has been very sad to witness the deaths of so many Latinos [during the pandemic]. In many areas, like here in North Carolina, the majority of the people getting the virus are Latinos. It’s not because we are a dirty or inferior race. The reason is because we have to go to work. We have to provide for our families. We don’t have insurance. That’s the reason why we are exposed and why African Americans are exposed to the virus. There is a huge imbalance in this society and we don’t have any support.

Everyone always says America is wonderful; it’s a country where people have freedom. They say you are free here. But this doesn’t feel like being free. So much racism exists behind a curtain. For me, a very big problem is that people don’t see [immigrant workers] as human beings. We are just employees or just labor. I want people to really see us and care for us; I want people to think about us.

This blog originally appeared at The Daily Kos on June 1, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Tina Vasquez is a gender justice reporter. She covers issues affecting the LGBTQ+ community, the fight for reproductive rights, and more.


Share this post

The Pentagon Wants to Sacrifice Mexican and Indian Workers for U.S. Arms Industry Profits

Share this post

Sarah Lazare | Al Jazeera America

On March 20, the Pentagon issued a guideline stating that U.S manufacturers of missiles, warships and fighter jets should stay open during the Covid-19 crisis. The rationale is that the “defense industrial base” constitutes “essential” critical infrastructure for the United States. Yet we have every reason to believe that U.S. militarism, propped up by the arms industry, is making the world far more vulnerable to the pandemic.

Five years of devastating airstrikes, primarily carried out with U.S.-made weapons, have decimated Yemen’s health system just in time for Covid-19—and the bombs did not stop when the pandemic began. Instead of global cooperation, we’ve seen the United States tighten sanctions on Iran, one of the countries hardest hit by Covid-19, deploy ships to the caribbean to provoke Venezuela, and take a confrontational posture towards China. Now, U.S. workers are being asked to risk their lives—or, as one union that represents General Dynamics workers in Maine put it, become “sacrificial lambs”—so that the U.S. war machine can keep humming. Meanwhile, far from the assembly lines and plant floors, the CEOs of companies like Lockheed Martin and Raytheon are safeguarding their profits. These are the same executives who enjoy influence in the Trump administration, whose Secretary of Defense, Mark Esper, is a former lobbyist for Raytheon.

But now we are seeing a new dimension to this injustice. To protect the flow of supplies to U.S. military contractors, the Pentagon is pressuring Mexico and India to keep factories open, at the peril of Mexican and Indian workers. However bankrupt the argument that U.S. weapons manufacturers must stay open to protect American interests, it is outright brutish for the Pentagon to impose this standard on other countries. Workers in Mexico and India have no say in the actions of the U.S. government or military, yet they are being asked to put their lives at risk for America’s “national security.”

Covid-19 is spreading rapidly in Mexico, where factories are sources of major outbreaks. In mid-April, Mexico’s Undersecretary of Health, Hugo López-Gatell, warned that factories that continued to operate, despite orders for non-essential businesses to shut down, threatened to become major vectors of the disease and unleash an outbreak in northern border states.

Yet, just days later, in an April 20 press briefing, Undersecretary of Defense Ellen Lord said that “several pockets of closure internationally” are impacting the “aviation supply chain, ship-building and small space launch.” She stated, “I spoke with our U.S. Ambassador to Mexico on Friday, and today, I am writing the Mexican Foreign Minister to ask for help to reopen international suppliers there. These companies are especially important for our U.S. airframe production.” While Lord did not specify which U.S. companies she was referring to, several U.S. military contractors have subsidiaries in Mexico, including Lockheed Martin and Honeywell, according to a U.S. International Trade Commission report from 2013. In an April 21 earnings call, a Lockheed Martin official indicated that the company sees it as a priority that vital suppliers in Mexico stay open.

The Pentagon was not the only powerful U.S. entity that joined in this pressure campaign. In an April 24 special briefing, Michael Kozak, acting Assistant Secretary at the State Department, said, “Our embassy and here in Washington has been working very closely with Mexico, advocating for American firms.” He added, “And I think we’re making progress on that.” Meanwhile, on April 22, more than 300 corporate presidents, chairs and CEOs wrote a letter to Mexico’s President, Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO), to keep open manufacturers deemed by the United States to be “essential and critical.”

These joint efforts appear to have been effective. Ten days after her initial remarks about Mexico, Lord indicated in another press briefing that U.S. pressure had been successful. “While I won’t provide any numbers, we have seen positive results,” she said. “I am thankful to our U.S. ambassador in Mexico, and to the government of Mexico, who has taken great strides to evaluate firms and their contribution to U.S. National Security requirements.”

Her admission that Mexico is being compelled to put its workers at risk in the service of U.S. “national security” is striking. What’s more, Lord revealed that U.S. corporations had a seat at the table when this pressure was discussed. “I have had ongoing conversations with our U.S. ambassador to Mexico, U.S. corporate CEOs, members of the House and Senate, as well as other officials in the State Department over the past two weeks to highlight key companies constraining our domestic defense supply chain in order to catalyze re-openings in Mexico,” she said. “We appreciate Mexico’s ongoing positive response.” (The Washington Post reported on May 1 that Mexico’s President AMLO “has not clarified whether U.S. defense or health-care manufacturers should remain open.”)

In a statement for a Defense News article published April 21, Eric Fanning, the president and CEO of the Aerospace Industries Association, attempted to present the subservience of Mexican workers’ lives to U.S. arms manufacturers’ interests as a form of mutually-beneficial synchronization in the spirit of the Trump administration’s new U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade deal, slated to take effect July 1. “To restore certainty and keep goods and services moving, all levels of government within the U.S., Canada, and Mexico must work together to provide clear, coordinated, and direct guidance about how best to protect our workers, while ensuring aerospace and defense is declared an ‘essential’ function in all three countries,” he said.

The claim that a few months of slowed or stopped production presents a threat to the U.S. military apparatus is untrue on its face. The United States, by far, has the largest military in the world: In 2019 the country accounted for 38% of all global military spending, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). The United States is also the top arms exporter by a long shot, delivering weapons to 96 countries from 2015 to 2019, according to a separate SIPRI finding. What’s more, this industry has grown significantly over the past five years, with U.S. arms exports from 2015 to 2019 23% higher than 2015 to 19. The idea that this massive industry can not pause to protect the lives of workers without threatening the U.S. military fails on its own, violent logic.

Meanwhile, some Mexican workers have vociferously objected to being asked to work during the pandemic for U.S. companies. In mid-April, protests took hold in Ciudad Juárez, near the U.S. border, after workers for U.S. companies died, as Reuters reports. “These companies are worried about their supply chains, but it’s the workers who are dying,” Susana Prieto Terrazas, a labor activist in Ciudad Juárez, told the Washington Post amid protests against the Michigan-based Lear Corp., which makes car seats. “And if all they do is export, how is that essential to Mexico?”

It is not immediately clear which suppliers or subsidiaries to U.S. military contractors in Mexico have remained open as a result of pressure from the Pentagon, and whether any deaths can be directly attributed to the Pentagon’s actions. However, even keeping a single factory open for the good of U.S. military contractors presents an unacceptable risk to the workers being asked to clock in.

Mexican workers don’t appear to be the only ones being asked to make a sacrifice for the U.S. military industry. In her April 30 statement, Lord indicated, while providing no details, that the United States is applying similar pressure to India. “We’re also watching India very closely,” she said. “India has mandated closure of businesses, which is impacting defense sector primes. India is a major defense partner, and we hope they can all stay safe while transitioning back to an operational status.” This followed a brief statement she made in her April 20 remarks: “Mexico right now is somewhat problematical for us, but we’re working through our Embassy, and then there are pockets in India, as well.”

According to researchers at Johns Hopkins University, there are currently 42,836 confirmed Covid-19 cases in India, yet it has one of the lowest testing rates in the world, so numbers could be far higher. With a population of 1.3 billion and just 0.55 hospital beds per 1,000 people, a full-blown outbreak in the country could be catastrophic.

The U.S. military was already in the business of sacrificing the wellbeing of ordinary people all over the world to maintain its dominance. We see this in its 800 military bases across the planet, which erode self-determination and environmental safety around the world. We also see it in the military’s ongoing wars, occupations, drone strikes and proxy battles—which have persisted, and in some cases escalated—during the pandemic. And we have seen this in the Pentagon’s request for billions in the next stimulus package, demanding a bailout for arms industry CEOs while 30 million people in the United States are newly unemployed. That the Pentagon is now demanding workers in other countries risk their lives for the sake of protecting its U.S. contractors shines new light on the cruelty of the U.S. military, and on the folly of allowing systems designed to carry out war to determine what constitutes “essential” work.

This article was published at In These Times on May 4, 2020. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Sarah Lazare is web editor at In These Times. She comes from a background in independent journalism for publications including The Nation, Tom Dispatch, YES! Magazine, and Al Jazeera America. Her article about corporate exploitation of the refugee crisis was honored as a top censored story of 2016 by Project Censored. A former staff writer for AlterNet and Common Dreams, Sarah co-edited the book About Face: Military Resisters Turn Against War.


Share this post

‘This is my home’: Undocumented students, educators await a DACA decision

Share this post

Image result for BIANCA QUILANTAN"Hundreds of thousands of undocumented students across the country live with the fear that they could face deportation and an end to their plans for higher education.

The Obama administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program has provided work authorization and deportation protections for undocumented people who were illegally brought to the United States as children or overstayed a visa. For seven years, DACA gave some relief so students could work and go to college without looking over their shoulders for immigration officials.

As the Supreme Court hears oral arguments Tuesday on DACA, students are worried that their college degrees could be worthless. Educators are afraid that their undocumented students will fall through the cracks.

Anxieties and frustration are escalating on campus as students wait for a decision as early as next spring. POLITICO talked to two students, two educators and a college president about the case.

Axel Herrera Ramos, Duke University senior

When Herrera first heard of DACA, he was 14. He wasn’t eligible for it until he turned 16, but even then, his mother was cautious about the program. They just didn’t know.

Seven years later, the DACA recipient will be graduating from Duke University in May. “DACA gave me access to education,” he says. He knows this to be true because his younger sister missed out on it when President Donald Trump canceled the program.

Herrera and his family came to the United States from Honduras in 2005, when he was 7. He applied for DACA in 2014 and has renewed the permit ever since. After Trump was elected in 2016, DACA was rescinded, so it wasn’t an option for his sister, leaving higher education out of her reach. North Carolina does not offer in-state tuition options for undocumented students.

“She didn’t overly excel, as is what is typically required of immigrant or undocumented immigrant students to be able to receive a scholarship like I did,” he said. “I was able to get a scholarship to Duke and she graduated high school, but has to resort to just working however she can.”

Trump announced in September 2017 that the program would end on March 5, 2018, a deadline he imposed to urge Congress to enshrine some protections for DACA recipients into law so the program would not lapse. Congress has not succeeded in passing legislation. That means those who have DACA status can renew it, but new applications are not being accepted.

The University of California regents have joined other plaintiffs in asking the high court to rule on whether the Trump administration lawfully ended the program. A decision is expected no later than June 2020.

“For many of us who have DACA, it’s been two years of waiting this out,” said Herrera. “In some ways, I believe that you get a little bit numb to the news of it. It’s just extremely draining.”

When Rodriguez was in high school, DACA didn’t exist. It wasn’t until he was 24 that the program was implemented.

From his high school graduation in 2005 until 2012, Rodriguez would take one or two classes a semester at the local community college because that’s all he could afford. He drove without a license and worked restaurant jobs he found on Craigslist that paid $4 to $5 an hour under the table. It took him seven years to finish his associate’s degree.

“I know how hard it is to go through the education system, go to higher education, and not have the resources or opportunities to advance,” he said. “Once I received DACA, it opened up huge opportunities.” With DACA, he was able to graduate from the University of California, Riverside, with additional help from a California law that allows undocumented students to pay in-state tuition.

Rodriguez is the only undocumented person in his immediate family. His parents are from Michoacán, Mexico, and migrated to the U.S. before he was born. “A family emergency happened and my mom was pregnant with me, and I was born in Mexico,” he said. “I was brought over, but I’m not sure how, because they still won’t tell me.”

If DACA were to be rescinded and he loses his work permit, Rodriguez plans to finish his master’s degree, but may look in Europe or Mexico for a job. Rodriguez is also married to an American citizen, but because of his illegal entry, he would have to apply for citizenship and leave the country until the application is processed. That’s another option.

“But I don’t want to go out. This is my home,” he said. “San Bernardino is the only thing I know.”

Pat McGuire, Trinity Washington University president

McGuire isn’t undocumented, but about 10 percent of her undergraduate women’s college students are. As a college president, McGuire hears the frustration among her students and feels their stress.

Students at most universities worry about how they will be able to pay the bills. McGuire’s institution has that part figured out. Trinity Washington University students have privately funded scholarships that pay for their tuition through TheDream.US college access program, in addition to other scholarships they may earn, McGuire said. The university has assured its students that their scholarships will continue through the end of their academic careers.

The school does not have a specific plan if DACA were to lapse next year. McGuire said leaders are “hopeful that the Supreme Court would be enlightened enough to provide some interim relief.”

“There are some things we can do, and then some things we are helpless to do,” McGuire said. “There are some things that we could not possibly compensate for because it’s out of our hands. So the fact that they would lose their work permits — it’s terrible, because they can’t work, and we could not employ them illegally. We have to observe the law. But that sort of thing poses a moral dilemma for everybody.”

All of her undocumented students will be skipping class to rally in front of the Supreme Court on Tuesday.

Vanessa Rodriguez Minero, University of Texas at Austin senior

Rodriguez, who’s enrolled in DACA, has spent recent days mulling her future should the Supreme Court rule in favor of the Trump administration.

“I’ve been thinking about not pursuing a master’s degree or going to law school because if DACA is not in place, I will not be able to work,” she said.

This blog was originally published at Politico on November 12, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Bianca Quilantan is a higher education reporter. She has worked as a web producer at POLITICO since March 2019 and earlier was an intern with the education staff. Bianca is a 2018 graduate of California State University, Chico’s journalism program. She is also a proud graduate of Southwestern Community College, where she was the editor of the student newspaper, The Sun.

She got her start in journalism as the weekend reporter for the Chico Enterprise-Record, where she covered the Camp Fire — California’s deadliest, most destructive fire – and was named a finalist for the 2019 Pulitzer Prize in breaking news. Before that, she wrote for The Chronicle of Higher Education, ChicoSol and the Austin American-Statesman. A native of Chula Vista, Calif., Bianca now lives in Washington, D.C.


Share this post

After Largest Workplace Raid in a Decade, Immigrant Workers Are Organizing

Share this post

Image result for Rose BookbinderOn August 7 the poultry towns of central Mississippi suffered the largest workplace raid in the U.S. since 2006. Some 680 chicken-processing workers from seven factories were detained and incarcerated by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

Ten percent of the population in Morton, Mississippi, was either incarcerated or fired. Parents were detained the same day they had dropped their children off to their first day of school.

The raid instilled fear not only in Mississippi poultry plants but also among immigrants all over the country. Natalie Patrick-Knox of Jobs with Justice (JwJ) described the ripple effect: “workers feeling scared to report wage theft, dangerous work conditions, and other abuses.”

She said that fear “makes it easier for low-road employers to beat their competition by violating labor law.” Then all workers, regardless of immigration status, feel the effects.

Immigrant advocates say ICE targeted these plants because workers were organizing for better conditions. Many were already represented by the Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW).

BILINGUAL VOLUNTEERS

As soon as the raids were announced, labor and immigrant rights groups mobilized. The Food Chain Workers Alliance, a national coalition representing 340,000 workers, raised thousands of dollars that it sent to the UFCW.

National Jobs with Justice took direction from the UFCW and two local immigrant rights organizations, Southeast Immigrant Rights Network (SEIRN) and Mississippi Resiste. JwJ recruited bilingual organizers and sent them to help these groups.

At the Pioneer Valley Workers Center in western Massachusetts and Massachusetts JwJ, we sent Cecilia Prado, one of our volunteer hotline responders, to join the team on the ground in Mississippi. There she volunteered as an organizer and case manager. “Most of us [volunteers] were Latinx and were familiar with the stress surrounding the immigration system,” she said, “so we were able to relate to the community and gain their trust.”

The organizers worked from early morning to late at night. “We would flyer in churches and communities and let people know about the resources,” Prado said. Churches housed legal clinics and distributed humanitarian aid.

In three weeks, the team working with Mississippi Resiste interviewed 468 family members to locate and identify those detained. Many who were not already in immigration proceedings or had no prior criminal charges were released. The 200 still detained are being moved among nine different prisons.

WORKERS PUSH BACK

“There was a lot of shame,” Prado said. “We talked about how this was not fair. We worked building confidence among the community, validating their experience, educating them on what their rights are, and empowering them to lead their own movements.

“Most people who were from the factories not represented by the union thought that because they are undocumented, they had no rights,” she said.

Besides the hundreds detained, hundreds more were fired. Those still working are afraid they might be next.

To push back, poultry workers have begun organizing committees in their towns—creating roles for each person, such as meeting planner, notetaker, treasurer, communicator, and fundraiser. In Morton, the local leaders organized a huge meeting about immigrant workers’ rights. More than 200 people participated.

Community members directly or indirectly affected by the raids have started to keep track of the labor violations they have experienced at these plants or elsewhere, such as wage theft or sexual harassment, and to seek out labor lawyers. UFCW is also collecting reports of labor violations against its members, offering them humanitarian aid, and putting together a legal team.

RETALIATION?

Just last year, one of the raided factories, Koch Foods, settled a class action lawsuit, paying out $3.75 million to workers over wage theft, discrimination against Latinos, and sexual harassment.

Supporters say it’s more evidence that ICE targets workplaces where workers organize to improve conditions. Poultry is one of the most dangerous industries in the country.

The overall food industry—including farmworkers, fast food workers, restaurant workers, supermarket workers, and meatpackers as well as poultry workers—is the largest sector in the U.S. economy. Yet the median wage for food workers is just $10 an hour. Wage theft is rampant.

The Food Chain Workers Alliance has used government data to show that about one in five food workers is an immigrant, though this number is probably an undercount.

Many of the families working in these plants were recruited from Mexico and Central America by employers. Hiring immigrant Latinos was a mechanism to halt the organizing by Black workers who won improvements in central Mississippi poultry plants between the 1970s and the 1990s.

But the immigrants hit by this summer’s raid received solidarity from Black organizations in Mississippi. The People’s Advocacy Institute, Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, Mississippi Workers Center for Human Rights, NAACP, and others stated: “The anti-immigrant, anti-Latinx, anti-Black, anti-human rights policies created by this administration shock the conscience of all reasonable people.”

BE PREPARED

The return of the workplace raid represents what many immigrant and worker rights organizations have feared would become the new face of enforcement in the Trump presidency.

Under President Obama there were more deportations than under any previous president, but enforcement relied more on I-9 audits and raids at homes.

We can only expect that these raids will keep coming. The more prepared we are with rapid response, the more potential there is to organize and create a united front to fight back.

Solidarity is key in these moments, and it’s best to build it ahead of time. JwJ and the AFL-CIO have published toolkits explaining how to set up a fund and roles in advance, so that folks can jump in immediately to help.

Know-your-rights workshops are also critical. It appears that in these raids ICE used a common tactic: agents walk into a workplace and yell, “Everyone with papers over here, and everyone without over there.”

Muscle memory is key in a crisis. Role-plays can help us prepare not to out ourselves or our co-workers.

Have every worker practice saying that they refuse to answer any questions: “I will not speak to anyone, answer any questions about my immigration status, respond to any accusations, waive my legal rights, or consent to a search of my person, papers, or property until I have first obtained the advice of an attorney.”

This story first appeared at Labor Notes.

This article was originally published at InTheseTimes on October 3, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Rose Bookbinder is a co-director at the Pioneer Valley Workers Center, organizer with Jobs with Justice, and board chair of the Food Chain Workers Alliance.

Share this post

Below the Surface of ICE: The Corporations Profiting From Immigrant Detention

Share this post

ABOUT 60 MEMBERS of ICE Out of LA faced off with a handful of Trump supporters outside Los Angeles Police Department headquarters July 23. The Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) abolitionist group was there to confront County Sheriff Jim McDonnell, accused of transferring immigrants into federal custody. The Trump fans were there to troll.

“We tell McDonnell to stop siding with people who promote hate in our community,” one young Latino protester shouted through a bullhorn. “He can abolish ICE here.” It was everything you’d expect from a political demonstration focused squarely, if optimistically, on changing the mind of a single policymaker.

Two days later, 2,400 miles away, activists with Make the Road New York and other groups tried a different approach. They blocked Park Avenue underneath the Upper East Side roof-level penthouse of JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon, rather than outside a government building. Their speakers blared the now-infamous cries of detained migrant children for their parents.

JPMorgan Chase holds no direct contract with ICE and doesn’t handle financial services at ICE facilities, but it does enable and profit from the private-prison duopoly of Geo Group and CoreCivic, which operate most U.S. migrant detention centers. Since Donald Trump took office, JPMorgan has increased its stockholdings in Geo Group and CoreCivic 15,600 percent. The bank has also provided at least $167.5 million in debt financing to the two companies, which rely on borrowed money.

Going after ICE contractors’ cash flow indicates a new direction in activist organizing since the Trump administration began its controversial family separation policy. ICE relies on private contractors to carry out its detention operations, so one way to abolish ICE might be to make its association so toxic that it loses its collaborators.

Practically every entity that squeezes a dollar from the agency or helps it round up immigrants is being exposed, targeted and swarmed by protesters.

Traditional immigration activists are now being joined by anti-war, feminist and climate action groups, and others. The broad coordination is possible because the U.S. immigration system bleeds into so many areas of progressive ire, from police brutality and labor abuse to the ongoing wave of privatization and financialization. “We really prioritize building intersectional coalitions,” says Daniel Carrillo, executive director of ENLACE, a racial and economic justice group.

That intersectionality has become critical to left movements, with the shock of Trump’s immigration policies revealing the amoral spectacle of late capitalism. We’ve seen anti-corporate campaigns before in America, but few on this scale, bringing together so many disparate groups— even corporate employees—demanding that companies cease profiting from human misery. The backlash against ICE just might provide a model for a politics and economics that values dignity over the balance sheet.

SEVERAL AGENCIES PLAY A ROLE IN FAMILY SEPARATION.Customs and Border Protection handles undocumented border crossings. The Office of Refugee Resettlement shelters unaccompanied minors. But ICE, as the interior deportation force and the largest migrant jailer, has become the avatar for the system’s cruelties.

ICE was established during the golden age of Bush-era privatization in 2003. Though ICE tracks, captures and transports immigrants and imprisons an average daily population of over 41,000 (with plans to increase that to 52,000 in 2019), the part of the agency carrying out that work, Enforcement and Removal Operations, only has 6,000 employees. The vast majority of the immigration machine is left to private-sector contractors.

According to data from the Urban Justice Center’s Corrections Accountability Project, 72 percent of all migrants under ICE’s control sleep in privatized detention beds, mostly managed by private prison behemoths Geo Group and CoreCivic (formerly Corrections Corporation of America). In 2017, Geo Group and CoreCivic together earned $985 million from ICE contracts, more than a third of what ICE spends each year on custody operations. The corporations get paid whether the beds are full or not, arguably providing government an incentive to seek out prisoners so as not to “waste money.”

Geo Group and CoreCivic each run massive family detention centers in south Texas, nicknamed “baby jails” even before the current crisis. They also manage ICEdedicated facilities for adults and many of the federal prisons and local jails ICE sublets to lock up migrants. This practice is likely to expand: ICE posted a request in June for up to 15,000 more family beds at a cost of $1.7 billion annually. And if ICE pivots to electronic monitoring, Geo Group holds that contract, too.

Private prison companies don’t just operate facilities; they build them. As legal entities, both private prison companies claim status as real estate investment trusts. This tax shelter saved Geo Group $43.6 million in 2017 alone, and it boosts revenue as well. Owning and operating detention centers, according to CoreCivic estimates, earns six times more profit per prisoner than just managing operations. Immigrant detention accounted for about a quarter of each company’s revenue in 2017.

After the Justice Department announced the zero tolerance policy in April, thousands of children separated from their parents became “unaccompanied minors” under the control of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which also contracts out its custody operations. Shuttered Walmarts, hotels, temporary tents and even empty office buildings in Phoenix (where children bathe in sinks) have been converted into migrant child jails. Over a dozen private contractors manage facilities, from nonprofit Southwest Key, which has earned at least $955 million on contracts since 2015, to defense contractor MVM Inc. And when children rotate into foster care, for-profit companies like Cayuga Centers take them on. Sheltering unaccompanied minors is now a $1 billion business, with more contracts on the way.

Migrants must be fed and cared for while detained; none of that work is handled by ICE staff. Instead, kitchen, phone, medical, translation and financial services are contracted mostly to specialists that perform the same tasks in private prisons. ICE even contracts out its inspections; a recent inspector general report found that one private inspector, the Nakamoto Group, had waved through substandard facilities.

Other contractors transport migrants between facilities or deport them to home countries. When commercial airlines balked at transporting minorsripped from their families, defense contractors stepped in, including General Dynamics and MVM, which has earned $123 million since 2014 for transportation services. CSI Aviation has a contract to run “ICE Air” for charter deportation flights.

Far from shelters and shuttles, contractors supply logistical support for immigration agencies. Consulting firm Deloitte earned $18 million in 2017 for case management. Salesforce has a software contract with Customs and Border Protection. Microsoft handles ICE’s data processing. An obscure surveillance firm called Pen-Link provides ICE with “real-time tracking” through cell phone and geolocation data. Another logistics infrastructure contract with Palantir, a Silicon Valley data-mining firm owned by libertarian Trump supporter Peter Thiel, uses Amazon’s cloud computing storage.

ICE spent $1.7 billion on close to 5,000 contractors in 2017, the most money this decade. “The immigration system is used as a vehicle to extract wealth from communities, or at the very least as a vehicle to launder taxpayer money into the private sector,” says Bianca Tylek, director of the Corrections Accountability Project.

The motivation to maximize revenue by cutting corners contributes to a nightmarish experience for detainees. Under private contractors, allegations of inedible foodverbal and physical abuseinadequate medical attentionchildren covered in lice, and forced ingestion of psychotropic drugs are commonplace. Many migrants work in the facilities for just $1 a day under virtual slave conditions. Members of Congress have complained that detention phone operators charge parents separated from children up to $8 a minute to speak to them.

More than 1,200 allegations of sexual assault at both public and privately run adult detention facilities were filed between 2010 and 2017, and police reports indicate hundreds more incidents victimizing children. One HIV-positive worker at Southwest Key was charged in August with molesting at least eight minors; other Southwest Key cases involve children as young as 6. “If you’re a predator, it’s a gold mine,” said one psychiatrist. Unconfirmed reports of suicides and deaths in custody cap off the grim scene.

These abuses have become a fact of life in private immigration detention, with billions of dollars paid in legal settlements over the allegations. But as national attention focused on the border, Americans couldn’t escape the shocking reality. “We are seeing the unveiling of how immigration enforcement treats humans like animals,” said Ana Maria Archila, co-executive director of the Center for Popular Democracy.

Immigration agencies have no problem with private contractors absorbing the blame when abuse complaints arise. Outsourcing also shields facilities from Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. While the Supreme Court confirmed in 2017 that the government must release details of its private prison contracts, the subcontractors that provide private prison companies with things like food and medical services don’t have to comply with FOIA requests. “Private prison companies are almost like a general contractor in a construction deal,” says Tylek. “They subcontract out the services, and those subcontracts can’t be FOIA’d because there’s no contract with the government.”

But because of the relentless privatization of the immigration system, activists have new pressure points: contractors who must answer to investors, financiers, workers and, in some cases, millions of consumers.

“If we actually do want to change policy, we need to know who has the power,” says Jeremy Mohler, communication specialist for In the Public Interest, an anti-privatization research group and one of many organizations that have pieced together the network of ICE enablers. “And a lot of the power is invested in these corporations.”

IN JUNE, PROGRESSIVE GROUPS FORMED the Families Belong Together coalition to express revulsion at the spectacle of children being ripped from their families. Following the model of the Women’s March and the March for Our Lives against gun violence, Families Belong Together planned mass demonstrations. The breadth of the coalition was exceptional, bringing together environmentalists at 350.org and Clean Water Action, progressive Jews at J Street and Bend the Arc, National Domestic Workers Alliance, the Center for Reproductive Rights, End Rape on Campus, the American Federation of Teachers, Rock the Vote, and hundreds more.

It didn’t take much for groups to justify their involvement. “Two-thirds of the people impacted by immigration policy are women and children; this is very much a woman’s issue,” says Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner, executive director of MomsRising, one of the coalition leaders. MomsRising was involved in immigration advocacy before the family separation policy sparked mass outrage, but the issue took on new resonance afterward. “None of us want to explain to future great-grandchildren what we did when history went in the wrong direction.”

The June 30 marches, with hundreds of thousands participating in nearly 750 cities across the country, revealed the movement’s popularity. One of the coalition’s first requests after the marches was to cut off funding to the private prison duopoly, not only by severing their ICE contracts but by going after their lenders. “If the banks stop financing [private prison companies], it creates a huge political and logistical challenge for the administration,” says Matt Nelson, executive director of Presente, a leading Families Belong Together partner.

In the Public Interest researched in 2016 how six banks— Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase, BNP Paribas, SunTrust, U.S. Bancorp and Wells Fargo—provide revolving credit, term loans and corporate bond underwriting to CoreCivic and Geo Group. The banks fund the construction of new detention centers, acquisitions of smaller companies and general cashflow. According to an April report published by the Center for Popular Democracy, between 90 and 95 percent of CoreCivic and Geo Group’s cash on hand was borrowed in 2017. Interest payments on that debt equaled $217.5 million. As of March 2018, the two companies carried $3.1 billion in debt. These six banks, in addition to profiting from the private prison duopoly, are vital to its existence. And banks have to face consumers, making them an inviting target for activists.

Families Belong Together singled out JPMorgan Chase and Wells Fargo, whose image has already been battered by a cascading series of scandals, for a petition drive. Numerous organizations joined in, collecting over 100,000 signatures from customers and concerned citizens. “Jamie Dimon put out a statement that his heart goes out to the families,” says Ana Maria Archila, co-executive director of the Center for Popular Democracy. “It is not possible to say you’re standing for an inclusive society while facilitating the growth of an industry caging humans.”

The goal of the protest at Dimon’s apartment was to embarrass him in his Upper East Side neighborhood. Protesters included undocumented immigrants and former detainees at CoreCivic facilities. “We wanted to send Dimon a clear message and have the people that live around him know what’s going on,” says Make the Road New York spokesperson Yatziri Tovar. It came one day after another demonstration in front of the New Jersey home of a Wells Fargo board member. Direct contractors have also faced protests in at least 16 cities. In July, two dozen activists chained themselves in the Centerville, Utah, office of Management & Training Corporation, which runs a handful of ICE jails. The Dream Defenders conducted a national day of action at Geo Group facilities August 7, which shook the company so much it issued a cease and desist accusing the group of “inciting a dangerous ‘disruption.’”

Win Without War, an anti-war group, demanded that military contractors General Dynamics and MVM drop their contracts. Demand Progress, which normally organizes around net neutrality and NSA spying, called on Salesforce to stop working with Customs and Border Protection. “We got involved because we saw the nexus between big, unaccountable tech companies and government oppression, especially surveillance,” says Robert Cruickshank, campaign director of Demand Progress. “These tech companies are making it easier for law enforcement to target and harass people, especially people of color and immigrants.”

The tech industry is now facing an awkward predicament: fending off worker-led organizing. The immigration-focused uprising grew organically from left-leaning Silicon Valley engineers and coders’ stance against collaboration with the Trump administration. They scored a major victory at Google in June when the company cancelled artificial intelligence work for the Defense Department. “Workers were learning how to wield power within their companies,” says Yana Calou, an organizer with Coworker.org, which has been assisting tech employees in these fights.

Weeks after the Google victory, workers circulated open letters at AmazonMicrosoft and Salesforce, asking CEOs to cancel their immigration contracts. Chief executives lamented the plight of migrants and insisted that none of their work involved separating families, which placated nobody. “Tech infrastructure is absolutely integral to all of [ICE’s] operations,” says Calou. “If they were really concerned about reuniting families, they would be building tech for the families.”

To blunt criticism, Salesforce tried to donate $250,000 to RAICES, an immigrant justice group raising money to post bonds for detainees. RAICES rejected the money, responding that “when it comes to supporting oppressive, inhumane, and illegal policies … the only right action is to stop.” Several business users of Salesforce’s software threatened to end their relationship with the firm if the immigration contract remained.

Outside groups amplified worker voices with petitions and rallies. More than 300,000 people signed a letter from the racial justice group Color of Change supporting employee demands at Microsoft and encouraging other tech workers to join.

The organizing has bled over into anti-discrimination rights on the job, more diversity in hiring policies, and an ethical framework for profiting from the tools they create. Organizations like the Tech Workers Coalition and Silicon Valley Rising promote this cross-pollination and pitch in on bargaining work with janitors and cafeteria workers on tech campuses. Calou views it as part of the same awakening.

“This is the first time we’ve seen this happen in tech companies: a group thinking of themselves as workers,” Calou notes. “The more they’re organized as workers, the better they can advocate for themselves and show solidarity.”

MOVIMIENTO COSECHA (THE HARVEST MOVEMENT),an immigrant justice organization, defines complicity with ICE as being involved in or facilitating deportations. The group targets even more casual connections, like when Customs and Border Protection agents boarded Greyhound busesasking for identification from Latinx passengers or when Motel 6 allegedly gave ICE information on Latinx guests.

“The more institutions stop working with ICE, the more people are forced to ask themselves, which side am I on?” says Arielle Clynes, an organizer with Cosecha.

Cosecha’s No Business with ICE campaign kicked off in early July at an Amazon bookstore in Manhattan’s Columbus Circle. “We wanted to make a statement that if Amazon does business with ICE, we’re not going to let them do business at all,” Clynes says. Cosecha activists blocked the entrance with a rally and shut down the store for the day.

The pressure escalated during a July 31 day of action in 10 cities. In Boston, hundreds marched at Northeastern University, which holds a $7.8 milliontechnological research contract with ICE; twelve were arrested after lying down in the street in front of university President Joseph Aoun’s home. In Philadelphia, eight protesters were arrested after occupying the lobby of the Comcast Center for 90 minutes; Comcast provides internet access to ICE. In New York, Cosecha partnered with Science for the People on a march from Microsoft and Salesforce headquarters to an Amazon Books on 34th Street. In Palo Alto, the group targeted Palantir headquarters.

Other Cosecha protests focused on municipal officials. Local coordination with ICE has spiked in the Trump era, with DMVs, hospitals and even public schools sharing personal data on immigrant families. In liberal cities like Los Angeles and Philadelphia, activists are demanding that public officials live up to their values, but even redder towns like Grand Rapids, Mich., and Williamson County, Texas, have seen protests.

The next wave of the campaign will target investors in the lucrative immigrant detention industry. The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) released a report August 10 identifying 26 hedge funds holding over $4 billion in stock in Geo Group, CoreCivic and General Dynamics. The report urges public pensions serving AFT’s teachers, which carry over $3 trillion in assets under management, to dump those hedge funds from their portfolios. AFT President Randi Weingarten condemned the hedge funds for “abetting the administration’s policies of family separation and the permanent harm it has caused children.”

Beneficiaries of immigration-related investments include the burgeoning class of multi-millionaire politicians. Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner (R) has money in a private equity fund that owns Correct Care Solutions, a healthcare provider that serves immigrant jails. Montana Rep. Greg Gianforte (R) bought at least $100,000 in CoreCivic stock in January. SuperPACs for Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R), who is now running for U.S. Senate, took hundreds of thousands of dollars from Geo Group.

But the firms spread their cash around to both parties. Democrats in Congress have scrambled to clean up their campaign treasuries. Records showthe Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the campaign arm for House Democrats, taking a direct $10,000 donation from Geo Group in November 2017, and over $380,000 throughout the 2018 election cycle bundled by lobbyists connected to private prison companies. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has been criticizedfor taking money from landlords who rent out field offices to ICE.

The pressure put on anyone profiting from or enabling ICE complements the direct-action tactics of a growing movement known as Occupy ICE. Abolitionists have physically blocked entrances to ICE buildings in San FranciscoLouisville, and Tacoma, Wash., leading to confrontations with law enforcement. In Portland, Ore., ICE temporarily closed its facility; in Los Angeles, one entrance has been barricaded since late June. An Occupy ICE blockade in Denver drew a SWAT team and ICE employees had to drive across the lawn to leave the building. “As much as we can, we’d like to interrupt their ability to do their job,” says one of the protesters arrested in Denver, who requested anonymity while his case is pending.

THE MULTI-PRONGED CAMPAIGN AGAINST ICE AND ITS PRIVATE-SECTOR PARTNERS IS HAVING AN IMPACT. After media scrutiny, MVM canceled its lease on the Phoenix office building housing migrant children. Consulting firm McKinsey terminated its contractwith ICE, although its management consultant work for the agency had already been completed. New York state directed all its pension funds to divest from Geo Group and CoreCivic, following New York City and Philadelphia. At least 10 members of Congress have rejected Geo Group donations, along with state Democratic parties in California and Florida. Many politicians and parties have passed on donations to organizations protecting immigrants at the border.

But the movement is hoping for a signature victory. So far, no household names, like General Dynamics or Microsoft, have severed contracts with immigration authorities, and Amazon recently promised its “unwavering” commitment to work with law enforcement. ICE abolitionists plan to keep up the pressure. “We don’t see activism fatigue; we see people stepping up,” says Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner of MomsRising.

Perhaps the most progress has been made in getting cities to cancel ICE contracts. Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney revoked ICE’s access to a city law enforcement database, a huge win for local organizing groups. Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms prevented city jails from accepting new ICE detainees. And at least six cities and countieshave canceled ICE contracts to use detention centers in their areas.

Bob Libal, executive director of Grassroots Leadership, recounts the organization’s victory in suburban Williamson County, Texas. The county voted in June to end its contract in January 2019 for the T. Don Hutto Detention Center, a CoreCivic-run women’s facility long accused of rampant abuse, though ICE could scramble to try and renegotiate. Grassroots Leadership used the testimony of 40 Hutto detainees separated from their families to sway county commissioners. “We had people going to the county every week to read letters of women detained there,” Libal says. “It was really the powerful experience that won.”

Some immigrant rights groups are wary of county closures because of the potential impact on current detainees. When Contra Costa County, Calif., Sheriff David Livingston revoked ICE’s contract to house migrants at the West County Detention Facility, the group Freedom for Immigrants feared detainees would be moved across state lines, far from their families and legal resources. “Canceling the contract shows that these protests are working,” says Liz Martinez, advocacy and communications director for Freedom for Immigrants. But the real goal, she says, is “to get people out of detention.”

Libal, whose Grassroots Leadership has been trying to close down the Hutto detention center since it opened in 2006, says it was critical for the movement to gain momentum. “You have to fight back somewhere, and one way to be effective is to win local battles,” he says.

Geo Group has lost at least one contract because of its association with family separation. Lancaster County, Penn., rejected a Geo Group attempt to take over prison re-entry services, even though the contract had nothing to do with immigration. “If they get painted as the family separator, that’s going to hurt them across the board,” says Jeremy Mohler of In the Public Interest.

Attacking the money alone will not fulfill the end goal; abolishing ICE will require legislation. But in the meantime, making ICE toxic can have powerful effects, preventing a return to the pre-Trump status quo of undocumented immigrants being treated abominably in virtual obscurity. It’s already shown up in polling data; in just a few short months, ICE is net unfavorable, even less popular than the IRS. When a concept bleeds into the culture, as Abolish ICE signs are being seen at sporting events and the Statue of Liberty, that signals the ground is shifting. “Even people who don’t want to abolish ICE really hate ICE,” says Sean McElwee, who popularized the Abolish ICE slogan. “It’s defined in an incredibly negative way, and that makes it hard to do its job.”

Combining street protests with research on who profits from the immigration system—a Gordian knot of opaque subcontracting and financing relationships that activists have been picking at for years—is critical to that effort. When every uniform, every catered meal, every transportation shuttle, everything ICE does is contested, it throws sand into the gears of its operation.

ICE’s extreme privatization was a catalyst to produce these pressure points, but it also speaks to a disconnect between capitalism and morality, and how family separation reveals those fissures. The ICE fight is about human rights but also labor rights—the rights of workers to exert democratic control over company contracts and reject immoral work. It’s about small towns with dried-up economies that have no choice but to become America’s migrant jailers. It’s about the influence of lobbyists, and also financiers. It’s about how the public gets a say in how public money should be spent. It’s about the over-criminalization that gets the undocumented on ICE’s radar. It’s even about our energy policy, with climate refugees soon to follow the current wave of asylum seekers fleeing violence.

“A lot of times in our politics, there’s a singular focus on who is elected and who might hold formal reins of power,” says Kevin Connor, co-founder of Little Sis, which has focused on ties between political and financial elites for years. “This is a moment where people are seeing a power structure above and beyond that. Research systems and organizing can lay the groundwork for this kind of moment where that power structure can be challenged more directly.”

This story was supported by the Leonard C. Goodman Institute for Investigative Reporting.


Salesforce is contracted with U.S. Customs and Border Protection to use its cloud technology for information sharing. Protesters put the company on notice at the #WeWontBeComplicit march in New York City on July 31. (Photo by Atilgan Ozdil/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

This article was originally published at In These Times on June 25, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: David Dayen is an investigative fellow with In These Times‘ Leonard C. Goodman Institute for Investigative Reporting. His book Chain of Title: How Three Ordinary Americans Uncovered Wall Street’s Great Foreclosure Fraud won the 2015 Studs and Ida Terkel Prize. He lives in Los Angeles, where prior to writing about politics he had a 19-year career as a television producer and editor.

Share this post

Follow this Blog

Subscribe via RSS Subscribe via RSS

Or, enter your address to follow via email:

Recent Posts

Forbes Best of the Web, Summer 2004
A Forbes "Best of the Web" Blog

Archives

  • Tracking image for JustAnswer widget
  • Find an Employment Lawyer

  • Support Workplace Fairness

 
 

Find an Employment Attorney

The Workplace Fairness Attorney Directory features lawyers from across the United States who primarily represent workers in employment cases. Please note that Workplace Fairness does not operate a lawyer referral service and does not provide legal advice, and that Workplace Fairness is not responsible for any advice that you receive from anyone, attorney or non-attorney, you may contact from this site.