Last month, California Labor Commissioner Julie Su distributed a memo instructing her staff to turn away any Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents who show up at labor offices without a federal warrant. This action came in response to three recent cases in which ICE sought workers’ information shortly after they filed claims against their employers. Su told The Los Angeles Times that, in two of these cases, ICE officials showed up at the employees’ labor hearing. In case ICE continues to show up at such hearings, Su provided suggested scripts to guide the interaction. “Would you please leave our office? The Labor Commissioner does not consent to your entry or search of any part of our office,” reads one portion of the text.
ICE’s targeting of labor hearings falls into a much broader pattern of workplace immigration raids. The second term of the George W. Bush administration saw a boom in such policies, with authorities carrying out hundreds of sweeps targeting workers. In May of 2008, hundreds of Homeland Security agents swooped into Postville, Iowa and arrested 389 employees at a kosher meatpacking plant. Nearly 300 of those workers spent five months in jail before being deported. In a town with a population of just 2,300 people, this meant that more than 10 percent of all residents were incarcerated as the result of one raid. "They don't go after employers. They don't put CEOs in jail," said Postville Community Schools superintendent David Strudthoff at the time. “[This] is like a natural disaster — only this one is man-made. In the end, it is the greater population that will suffer and the workforce that will be held accountable.”
While Barack Obama deported more people than any other president, the tactic of targeting workers fluctuated on his watch. Data from ICE indicates that workplace immigration arrests peaked for Obama in 2011 — but never reached the levels seen under Bush. The National Employment Law Project’s (NELP) Haeyoung Yoon told In These Times that, while we haven’t seen widespread examples of workplace raids under the Trump administration, this doesn’t mean they’re not coming eventually. “These efforts take a lot of time to plan,” said Yoon.
Underscoring Yoon’s point, 55 undocumented workers were detained in February in a series of Mississippi restaurant raids. After the arrests, ICE public affairs officer Thomas Byrd said that the federal search warrants were part of a year-long investigation.
State organizations like the Illinois Business Immigration Coalition are training employers to prepare for the possibility of such sweeps. NELP and the National Immigration Law Center have created a helpful guide for businesses concerned about ICE raids, which includes details on how to keep agents out, what to do if they enter and what actions can be taken after they leave. “Employers and their employees have rights when it comes to immigration enforcement in the workplace,” wrote NELP staff attorney Laura Huizar shortly after the guide was published. “Employers can and should take steps now to protect those rights and do what's best for their business and their teams.”
In California, where almost half of the state’s farmworkers are undocumented, there have been recent legislative efforts to combat workplace raids. The SEIU-sponsored Immigrant Worker Protection Act (AB 450) is a bill, introduced this March, that would require all employers to demand a federal warrant if ICE shows up. The legislation, which was introduced by San Francisco Assemblymember David Chiu, would also prevent businesses from handing over personal employee information unless they were subpoenaed.
But what is to be done about employers who willingly collude with ICE? While explaining her memo, Julie Su told the Los Angeles Times that she suspected businesses of tipping agents off to labor hearings, events where only the employer and employee would be aware of the scheduled time. Earlier this year, Jose Flores, a 37-year-old Massachusetts man, was arrested by ICE shortly after a workers’ compensation meeting. Flores’ lawyers believe that the arrest might have been retaliation from Flores’ employer, Tara Construction, looking for a way to get out of paying out the claim. Stephen Murray, a lawyer for Tara Construction, insists that his client made no contact with ICE and had no reason to believe Flores’ was undocumented.
A recent investigation by ProPublica and NPR reveals that this is hardly an isolated case. Their review focuses on Florida, where a 2003 law made it illegal to for workers to file compensation claims using false identification. In the 14 years since, at least 130 injured workers were arrested under the law. At least one in four of those workers was detained by ICE or deported. “State fraud investigators have arrested injured workers at doctor's appointments and at depositions in their workers' comp cases,” reads the report. “Some were taken into custody with their arms still in slings.”
The report also points out that the Florida model could be a preview of widespread things to come under the Trump administration. If this is true, then the labor movement could end up taking a closer look at Tom Cat Bakery in Queens, where a Homeland Security inquiry and promise of subsequent firings sparked radical protests. Employers who openly collude with Trump’s deportation machine might soon be targets of the same resistance.