Immigrant Workers in the Crosshairs

Immigrants and workers across the country have been caught up in a wave of anti-immigrant legislation and repression since the September 11 terrorist attacks.

David Bacon

This article is from the January/February 2003 issue of Dollars and Sense: The Magazine of Economic Justice available at http://www.dollarsandsense.org/archives/2003/0103bacon.html


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This article is from the January/February 2003 issue of Dollars & Sense magazine.

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Erlinda Valencia came from the Philippines almost two decades ago. Like many Filipina immigrants living in the San Francisco Bay area, she found a job at the airport, screening passengers' baggage.

For 14 years she worked for Argenbright Security, the baggage-screening contractor used by airlines across the country. For most of that time, it was a minimum-wage job, and she could barely support her family working 40 hours a week. Then, two years ago, organizers from the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) began talking to the screeners. Erlinda Valencia decided to get involved, and eventually became a leader in the campaign that brought in the union. "We were very happy," she remembers. "It seemed to us all that for the first time, we had a real future." The new contract the union negotiated raised wages to over $10 an hour, and workers say harassment by managers began to decrease.

Erlinda Valencia's experience reflected a major national shift in immigrant workers' organizing. In recent years, immigrant workers made hard-fought gains in their rights at work, and in using these rights to organize unions and fight for better wages and conditions. Despite the hostile reaction embodied in measures like California's Propositions 187 and 227, which sought to penalize undocumented immigrants and ban bilingual education, the political and economic clout of immigrants has increased, in large part because of successful labor organizing efforts. Some, like the janitors' strike in Los Angeles, have become well-known.

As a result, the AFL-CIO changed its position on immigration, and began calling for the repeal of employer sanctions, the federal law making it illegal for an undocumented worker to hold a job. The national movement for amnesty for undocumented workers began to grow, and the U.S. and Mexican governments started to negotiate over variants of the proposal. Under pressure from unions and immigrant rights organizations, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) reduced the number of raids it carried out from 17,000 in 1997 to 953 in 2000.

Then the airplanes hit the twin towers in New York and the Pentagon in Washington. The mainstream media universally portrayed the September 11 attacks as the actions of immigrants. Political figures across the board proposed restrictions on immigration (by students, for instance) and crackdowns against undocumented workers, despite the fact that none of this would have prevented the attacks. The movement towards amnesty, and away from immigration raids and heavy-handed enforcement tactics, halted abruptly. Many public agencies, from local police departments to the Social Security Administration, which previously faced pressure to stop aiding the INS, took up immigration enforcement as a new responsibility. The Bush administration took advantage of the anti-immigrant fever to undermine the rights of workers, especially the foreign-born. The nativist scapegoating also provided a rationale for attacks on civil liberties, including the open use of racial profiling, indefinite detention, and other repressive measures.

Everything Changes—for Transportation Workers

Screeners like Erlinda Valencia were among the first, and hardest, hit. Media and politicians blamed the screeners for allowing terrorists to board airplanes in Boston and New York with box cutters and plastic knives, despite the fact that these items were permitted at the time. But the whispered undercurrent beneath the criticism, that the screeners were undependable, and possibly even disloyal, was part of the rising anti-immigrant fever which swept the country.

Screeners in California airports, like those in many states where immigrants are a big part of the population, are mostly from other countries. In fact, the low pay for screeners was one of the factors that led to the concentration of immigrants and people of color in those jobs. In the search for scapegoats, they were easy targets.

In short order, Congress passed legislation setting up a new Transportation Security Authority (TSA) to oversee baggage and passenger screening at airports, and requiring that screeners be federal government employees. That could have been a good thing for Valencia and her coworkers, since federal employees have decent salaries, and often, because of civil service, lots of job security. Federal regulations protect their right to belong to unions, as well—at least they used to.

The TSA, however, was made part of the recently established Homeland Security Department. Legislation passed after the November elections—and after some Democrats did an about face and voted for it—allows Homeland Security Czar Tom Ridge to suspend civil-service regulations in any part of the new department. By doing so, he can eliminate workers' union rights, allow discrimination and favoritism, and even abolish protection for whistleblowers.

In the anti-immigrant fever of the times, moreover, Congress required that screeners be citizens. Valencia had never become one, because of a Catch-22 in U.S. immigration law. She is petitioning for visas for family members in the Philippines. As a citizen, however, she would actually have to wait longer to petition for them than she has to as a legal resident.

At the San Francisco airport, over 800 screeners were non-citizens. The INS, however, refused to establish any fast-track to citizenship, to help them qualify for the new federalized jobs. So just as she and her coworkers finally made the job bearable and capable of supporting a family, she lost it in November, when the citizenship requirement went into effect nationwide. "It's so unfair," she said. "I've done this job for 14 years, and we're all really good at it. Instead of wanting us to continue, they're going to hire people with no experience at all, and we'll probably have to train them too. You can fly the airplane, even if you're not a citizen, and you can carry a rifle in the airport as a member of the National Guard doing security, without being a citizen either. But you can't check the bags of the passengers."

In recent years, screeners working for private contractors like Argenbright have organized unions at airports in a number of cities, including San Francisco and Los Angeles. By federalizing the workforce, the government was also, in effect, busting those unions and tearing up their newly won contracts. The act creating the Homeland Security Department—which, with 170,000 employees, will be the largest in the federal government—may be invoked to prevent the new screener workforce from forming new unions and bargaining with the TSA. The American Federation of Government Employees, which represents federal workers, has protested against the exemption of the TSA from federal regulations recognizing employees' collective bargaining rights, and announced its intention of organizing the new workforce. But it does not challenge the citizenship requirement for screeners.

Taking the "War" to the Workplace

Valencia was caught up in a wave of anti-immigrant legislation and repression that has profoundly affected immigrants and workers across the country in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks. The INS has launched a series of large-scale raids—Operation Tarmac. In airports around the country, the agency has told employers to provide the I-9 form for their employees. Using this information, agents have organized raids to pick up workers, and demanded that employers terminate those it says lack legal status. Close to 1,000 workers have been affected.

Initially, the INS stated publicly that it would only concentrate on workers who had access to the planes themselves, using aviation security as a pretext (hence the name Operation Tarmac). But once the raids got going, the crackdown expanded to workers in food preparation, and even in food service within passenger areas of the airports. A late-August raid at the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport led to the arrest of workers at the Sky Chef facility, which prepares on-board meals for airlines. The Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union (HERE), which is negotiating a contract with the company, claims that workers were called to an employee meeting, where they were met by INS agents in company uniforms. Some arrested workers had worked as long as 10 years at the facility, which ironically is owned by a foreign airline, Lufthansa.

Another 81 airport workers were arrested in raids on the Los Angeles, Orange County, Ontario (Calif.), Palm Springs, and Long Beach airports on August 22. The detained immigrants were working in janitorial, food service, maintenance, and baggage-handling jobs. They were picked up because they apparently were using Social Security numbers which didn't match the INS database. While federal authorities admit that none of them—in fact none of the people arrested in any Operation Tarmac raid—are accused of terrorist activity, U.S. Attorney Debra Yang claimed that "we now realize that we must strengthen security at our local airports in order to ensure the safety of the traveling public." Eliseo Medina, executive vice-president of the SEIU, which has mounted organizing drives among many of the workers in Southern California airports, called the arrests unwarranted. "These people aren't terrorists," he fumed. "They only want to work." Unions like the Communications Workers of America (CWA) have protested Operation Tarmac raids in Washington, D.C., and elsewhere.

While the anti-immigrant campaign may have started at U.S. airports, it has now expanded far beyond their gates. The agency taking the new anti-immigrant attitude most to heart has been the Social Security Administration (SSA). Following the September 11 attacks, the SSA has flooded U.S. workplaces with "no-match letters," which the agency sends to employers informing them of employees whose Social Security numbers don't correspond to the SSA database.

In the last few years, employers have used no-match letters to fire immigrant workers during union organizing drives, or to intimidate those attempting to enforce worker protection laws. Until September 11, unions were making some headway in preventing these abuses. Two years ago, San Francisco's hotel union, HERE Local 2, won an important arbitrator's decision, which held that finding the name of a worker in a no-match letter was not, by itself, sufficient reason for terminating her. In addition, pressure on the SSA resulted in the inclusion, in the text of the letter, of a similar caveat, saying that inclusion in a no-match list was not to be taken as evidence of lack of immigration status.

In the wake of September 11, however, SSA has consciously embraced the no-match letter as an immigration-enforcement device. In 2001, the agency sent out 110,000 letters, and only when there were more than ten no-matches at a company or if the no-matches represented at least 10% of a company's total workforce. This year it plans to increase the number of letters to 750,000, and all it takes is one no-match to generate a letter. The pretext is September 11: "Concerns about national security, along with the growing problem of identity theft, have caused us to accelerate our efforts," according to SSA Commissioner Jo Anne Barnhart. The Internal Revenue Service has also sharply increased the number of letters sent to employers questioning incorrect numbers, and has threatened to begin fining employers who provide them. As in the case of Valencia and the screeners, however, there is no logic that connects a worker's immigration status with national security. And proponents of these changes don't even bother trying to produce an explanation that does.

The new attitude at Social Security marks an important change. In Nebraska in 1998, Operation Vanguard, a large-scale INS program to enforce employer sanctions, relied on the SSA's database to sift out the names of possible undocumented immigrants from the rolls of all the state's meatpacking employees. Over 3,000 people lost their jobs as a result. The INS had plans to extend the operation to other states, but was unable to do so when the SSA expressed misgivings about the INS's use of its database, and denied further access. The SSA had faced pressure from immigrants' rights groups and labor unions, who questioned why information intended to ensure that workers receive retirement and disability benefits was suddenly being used to take their jobs. After September 11, 2001, such objections were brushed aside.

The net effect of the new enforcement efforts has been to turn the Social Security card into a de facto national ID card, especially for employment, without any act of Congress creating one. Immigrant rights and civil liberties advocates have fought for years against the creation of a national ID, saying that it would inevitably lead to abuse by government and employers, and that it would eventually become a kind of internal passport. And Congress has been unwilling to establish such a national identification system, at least until September 11.

An Injury to All

The wave of repression against immigrant workers hasn't just affected immigrants themselves. Limitations on workers' rights affect all workers. But because immigrants have been in the forefront of organizing unions and fighting sweatshop conditions, the threat against them has increased the danger that such conditions will spread, and affect workers throughout the labor force.

INS enforcement has increased the pressure on undocumented workers to avoid anything that could antagonize their employers, whether organizing a union, asking for a raise, or filing a complaint about unpaid overtime. There are almost 8 million undocumented people in the United States—4% of the urban workforce, and over half of all farm workers—according to a recent study by the Pew Hispanic Trust. When it becomes more risky and difficult for these workers to organize and join unions, or even to hold a job at all, they settle for lower wages. And when the price of immigrant labor goes down as a result, so do wages for other workers.

Attacks on immigrant workers have an especially big effect on unions trying to organize industries where immigrants are a large part of the workforce. The Operation Tarmac raids, for instance, hurt hotel unions' efforts to organize food service workers. The unions organizing immigrants are some of the most progressive in the labor movement. Unions like the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees have been disproportionately hit by the anti-immigrant offensive. Other unions, like the Teamsters and Laborers, have also led immigrant rights activity in many local areas, and suffered the impact of no-match letters and raids. Although the Bush administration has courted these unions' national leaders, the relationship doesn't seem to have provided any political leverage for stopping anti-immigrant abuses.

Organizing a Fightback

Today, employers illegally fire workers for union activity in 31% of all union organizing campaigns, affecting immigrant and native-born workers alike. Companies treat the cost of legal battles, reinstatement, and back pay as a cost of doing business, and many consider it cheaper than signing a union contract. Labor rights for all workers need to be strengthened, not weakened. But, as former National Labor Relations Board chair William Gould IV points out, "There's a basic conflict between U.S. labor law and U.S. immigration law." In its recent Hoffman decision (see box), the Supreme Court has held that the enforcement of employer sanctions, which makes it illegal for an undocumented immigrant to hold a job, is more important than the right of that worker to join a union and resist exploitation on the job.

The Hoffman Case

The Supreme Court jumped onto the anti-immigrant bandwagon last spring, in the case of José Castro, a man fired from the Hoffman Plastics plant in Los Angeles for his union activity. Castro admitted in court proceedings that he was undocumented. In a previous decision in the 1980s, the Supreme Court had held that undocumented workers fired for organizing unions could not be legally reinstated to their jobs, the normal remedy for citizens and legal residents. But all fired workers, including the undocumented, were still entitled to back pay for the time they were out of work as a result of the illegal firing.

In the Hoffman decision, the current court eliminated employers' liability for back pay. The decision rewarded employers seeking to stop union organizing efforts among immigrant workers—the very people who have built a decade-long track record of labor activism, often organizing themselves even when unions showed little interest. The bosses can now terminate undocumented workers without fear of any monetary consequences. Some employers have tried to argue that the Hoffman decision also disqualifies undocumented workers from minimum wage, safety and health, and other labor standards and worker protection laws. In California, state authorities have thrown out this argument and the legislature passed a bill emphasizing that state laws would be applied without such an immigration test. But Bush and the new Congress may seek to spread Hoffman's impact.

For more on the Hoffman decision, see also Abby Scher, "When Is a Labor Law Violation Not a Labor Law Violation?" (Dollars & Sense, September/October 2002) .

Despite the decision, however, and the growing anti-immigrant climate, immigrants workers are still organizing. In May, four hundred workers won a hard-fought union election at the ConAgra beef plant in Omaha, a city where INS raids destroyed immigrant-based union committees only a few years ago. New Jersey recycling workers at KTI also finally won a union vote, on their fourth attempt to join the Laborers Union, which is also organizing successful campaigns among asbestos workers on Long Island. HERE won a 22-year battle for a contract at San Francisco's Flagship Marriott Hotel, the hotel chain's first corporate-managed property to sign a union agreement.

The union-based efforts for amnesty and the repeal of employer sanctions were dealt a serious blow by the post-September 11 climate, but there are signs of renewed forward movement. SEIU Local 790, in cooperation with Filipinos for Affirmative Action and the Phillip Veracruz Justice Project, led efforts to fight for screeners' jobs at the San Francisco airport. The SEIU also initiated a national postcard campaign, called A Million Voices for Justice, to restart the national campaign for amnesty. In August, the SEIU and the ACLU sued the Department of Transportation over the citizenship requirement, and in mid-November Federal District Court Judge Robert Takasugi ruled the requirement illegal. The decision, however, only applies to the nine workers in whose names the suit was filed. Lawyers for the plaintiffs hope to broaden it to a class-action, while federal authorities predictably announced they would appeal.

Last summer, HERE announced plans for a Freedom Ride on Washington, D.C., for immigrant rights. The union deliberately chose the name and used the language of the civil-rights movement in an effort to establish a greater level of unity between African Americans, Latinos, and Asian-Americans. HERE officials also said they intended to challenge the color line—employers have kept African-Americans out of hotel employment, while hiring immigrants at lower wages—in hotels across the country. Massive layoffs and the economic downturn in tourism made plans to challenge hiring discrimination a moot point, but in the spring, HERE announced that it would again begin organizing its Freedom Ride, and set it for fall 2003.

And while Erlinda Valencia was one of the nine named plaintiffs in the suit against the citizenship requirement, the favorable court decision only means, at best, that she can take a test to qualify for her old job. If she takes it and passes, she will be put on a list of eligible potential employees. Her old job at the airport and those of her coworkers have already been filled. Preliminary studies indicate that many new hires are ex-members of the military and law enforcement agencies, and that the new workforce does not include nearly as many immigrants or people of color as the old one.

Valencia, like may other former screeners, has found herself looking for another job. The labor councils, unions, and immigrant rights activists who supported the screeners mounted food drives, tried to help former screeners get retraining, and tried to help them find stable new employment. But the larger challenge, they believe, is building a political movement to roll back the anti-immigrant atmosphere in which Valencia, and many like her, have become ensnared.

David Bacon is a journalist and photographer covering labor, immigration, and the impact of the global economy on workers.