Capital & Main is an award-winning publication that reports from California on economic, political, and social issues. The American Prospect is co-publishing this piece.
At the end of February immigration agents descended on a handful of Japanese and Chinese restaurants in the suburbs of Jackson, Mississippi, and in nearby Meridian. Fifty-five immigrant cooks, dishwashers, servers and bussers were loaded into vans and taken to a detention center about 160 miles away in Jena, Louisiana.
Their arrests and subsequent treatment did more than provoke outrage among Jackson's immigrant rights activists. Labor advocates in California also took note of the incident, fearing that it marked the beginning of a new wave of immigrant raids and enforcement actions in workplaces. In response, California legislators have written a bill providing legal protections for workers, to keep the Mississippi experience from being duplicated in the Golden State.
Once the Mississippi restaurant workers had been arrested, they essentially fell off the radar screen for several days. Jackson lawyer Jeremy Litton, who represented three Guatemalan workers picked up in the raid, could not get the government to schedule hearing dates for them. He was unable to verify that the other detained immigrants were being held in the same center, or even who they were.
The Geo Corporation, formerly known as the Wackenhut Corporation, operates the LaSalle Detention Facility in Jena. Geo's roots go back to the Pinkerton Detective Agency, which became notorious in the nineteenth and first half of the 20th century for violent assaults on unions and strikers.
Today Geo operates 16 immigrant detention centers around the country, according to its 2015 annual report. It runs privatized prisons as well, some of which have been investigated by the federal government after allegations of bad conditions and understaffing. The LaSalle facility has 1,160 beds. Litton says it is normally full, so taking in an additional 55 detainees would result in severe overcrowding.
The use of Jena's immigrant jail to hold workers detained in workplace raids has a bitter history in Mississippi. In 2008 481 workers were arrested at a Howard Industries electrical equipment factory, in Laurel, Mississippi, in the middle of union negotiations. They, too, were taken to the LaSalle detention center. There they were fed peanut butter sandwiches at mealtimes, and according to Patricia Ice, attorney for the Mississippi Immigrant Rights Alliance (MIRA), “There weren’t even enough beds and people were sleeping on the floor.” Eight workers detained in that raid were charged with aggravated identity theft in federal court, for having given a false Social Security number to the employer when they were hired.
“This latest raid is causing a lot of fear in our community,” says MIRA director Bill Chandler. “There's fear everywhere now because of the threats from Trump, but here in Mississippi our history of racism makes fear even stronger.”
Agustin Ramirez, an organizer for the International Longshore and Warehouse Union in California, told me that the Mississippi raids have heightened fear among West Coast immigrants, too. “What we have seen in the past, and the threats from Trump, tell us this is coming. We may not have had a raid like this here yet, but we can see the sky is dark, and we know it's going to rain. We just don't know when.”
In California, with many times the immigrant population of Mississippi, the potential impact of workplace raids is enormous. Of the nation's estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants, over 2.6 million live in this state—almost one in every 10 California workers is undocumented. They make up almost half of its farm workers, and over 20 percent of its construction workers. The National Restaurant Association says that of the country's 12 million restaurant workers, 9 percent are undocumented, while the Restaurant Opportunities Center estimates that in large cities they make up almost half of that industry’s workforce.
The legislative response in California came from United Service Workers West (USWW), the union for janitors, security guards and airport workers affiliated with the Service Employees International Union. “We want to lead the nation with the strongest resistance efforts to protect workers, not just in the community, but in the workplace,” explained David Huerta, USWW’s president.
In cooperation with labor attorney Monica Guizar, USWW worked with San Francisco Assemblymember David Chiu to craft Assembly Bill 450. The bill, called the Immigrant Worker Protection Act and introduced March 24, addresses workplace immigration raids in four ways:
·AB 450 requires employers to ask for a judicial warrant before granting access to a workplace by agents of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)
·The bill prohibits employers from sharing confidential information, like Social Security numbers, without a court order.
·If there is an immigration raid, or if an employer is told by ICE to hand over information that employees provide on I-9 immigration-status forms, the bill requires the employer to notify the state labor commissioner, the workers themselves and their union representatives.
·AB 450 authorizes the labor commissioner to certify workers who report claims against their employers, prohibiting employers from retaliating against them, and helping them to gain visa status as witnesses in legal proceedings.
Assembly Bill 450 was co-authored by Bay Area Assemblymembers Phil Ting and Rob Bonta, and State Senator Scott Weiner. “Trump's threats of massive deportations are spreading fear among California workers, families and employers,” Chiu told a news conference, adding that the bill “goes beyond California's existing defense of immigrants to offer new legal protections for individuals in our workplaces.”
In a highly publicized April 11 event on the Arizona-Mexico border, Attorney General Jeff Sessions emphasized the Trump administration's hard line on enforcement. Chiu cited Sessions’s previous statements and orders as a reason for the bill's new measures of protection. Sessions told the press in Arizona that enforcement would now prioritize identity theft among other factors. “And it is here that criminal aliens, and the coyotes, and the document-forgers seek to overthrow our system of lawful immigration,” he announced.
By using phrases like “identity theft” and “document-forgers,” Sessions is treating as a criminal offense the means used by every undocumented worker to get a job. Like all other workers, undocumented immigrants must supply Social Security numbers to employers to get hired. But since the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, they have been prevented from applying for them. Workers therefore invent Social Security numbers or use numbers belonging to others.
In the past, the federal government has occasionally interpreted this as not only as a reason for deportation, but as a federal crime. Sessions is threatening to make these occasional charges mandatory in every case. The irony is that undocumented workers, using those bad numbers, contribute about $13 billion annually to the Social Security Trust Fund, and are disqualified from receiving any benefits that those contributions are supposed to pay for.
Heavy immigration enforcement against workers is hardly new. Under President George W. Bush, large-scale raids led to the detention and deportation of thousands of workers, especially in meatpacking plants. At Smithfield Foods in North Carolina and Agriprocessors in Iowa, 389 immigrants were jailed, charged with felonies for using bad Social Security numbers. Under President Obama, ICE agents audited the information provided by workers on I-9 forms, comparing it with the Social Security database. ICE then told employers to fire those immigrants whose information didn't pass muster. The government developed an enormous database, called E-Verify, for rooting out undocumented workers. Thousands were fired, and in 2010 alone ICE audited about 2,000 employers.
Anger over these enforcement actions has a long history in California. Los Angeles janitors, members of USWW, sat down in city intersections to protest firings by Able Building Maintenance in 2011. The union fought similar firings in Stanford University cafeterias, and among custodians in the buildings of Apple and Hewlett-Packard. Two thousand seamstresses protested their firings at Los Angeles’s American Apparel. Members of UNITE HERE, the union for hotel workers, mounted a hunger strike outside the Hyatt in San Diego over the same issue. In the Bay Area, 214 workers at the Pacific Steel foundry fought firings for almost a year, while at the Alameda County Industries recycling plant in San Leandro, they even went on strike to try to stop them.
Over the years, unions have charged that employers use the firings when workers try to organize, or when they are negotiating contracts. Marielena Hincapié, executive director of the National Immigration Law Center, says, “raids drive down wages because they intimidate workers—even citizens and legal residents. The employer brings in another batch of employees and continues business as usual, while people who protest get targeted and workers get deported. Raids really demonstrate the employer’s power.”
To help workers protect themselves in the workplace, the ILWU, Filipino Advocates for Justice and several other groups organized a training session about actions workers can take on the job, in the face of a raid or I-9 firings. Workers from Alameda County Industries acted out a teatro-based sketch on their own strike to stop the company from terminating them for not having papers. In another skit, they dramatized the way workers might demand that their boss bar ICE agents from the workplace if the latter have no court order. Other unions described their experiences over the past decade in organizing workers to fight off raids and firings.
“Our experience tells us that workers can resist raids at work, and the more they do that the better off they are,” Agustin Ramirez says. “We are getting prepared, trying to give people as much information as possible. We're trying to spread this idea that in addition to AB 450, workers can take action on the job to protect themselves.”