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Struggle for Immigrants’ Rights Highlights Split Within Organized Labor

ICE officers' union resists reform measures to controversial Secure Communities program, while AFl-CIO wants to end it

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There is no standoff. DHS and ICE spent an extended period of time unilaterally developing both the  Prosecutorial Discretion Memorandum and the associated training instead of working in partnership with the Union to jointly create a training program that would now be ready for implementation.  Ultimately it is the Agency's right to take that approach but it does dramatically slow down the process and forces the parties to follow the timelines of the negotiated agreement.

Crane acknowledged the union’s earlier criticisms of the administration’s deportation policies as poorly conceived and aimed at “satisfy[ing] immigrant advocacy groups.” But, he stressed, the current qualms were about the development process and quality of the training, not ideology.

Nonetheless, Crane argued, “Most of the policies put out by this Administration really are bad,” citing a lack of clarity around how much discretion agents could exercise when dealing with immigrants “in the field.” Although union members would seek to work with the administration to improve these practices, in Crane’s view, “ICE lacks effective leadership” under an “anti-union manager,” Director John Morton.

But from the perspective of immigrant rights’ advocates, the controversy around the training completely misses the point: the union conflict doesn’t really hinder a better deportation policy, and the supposed reforms do not truly improve the status quo. While ICE may be split internally on some issues, grassroots advocates for immigrant workers demand nothing short of a complete overhaul of the bureaucracy.

Laura Rivas of the  National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights told In These Times she is less troubled by the ICE union’s political dilemma than by the social dilemma it represents:

While we understand the concerns of job security and having clarity of what the rules are, the bigger picture that we see is, here you have an entire sector, which they're a part of, whose job security relies on the mass and unjust incarceration and deportation of innocent people, of people who have longstanding ties in the U.S., and who have been criminalized for the past [twenty-five] years now under really, really outdated policies. That's really what's happening here.

While NNIRR has partnered with unions on some immigant-justice campaigns, Rivas said the politics of coalition-building are generally driven by the perceived interests of union members.

Throughout American labor’s history,  attitudes toward immigration have fractured and waveredaccording to political and economic trends and organizing strategy. The political evolution of labor movements have often reflected the massive presence of immigrants in the workforce and by extension unions. Foreign-born workers have been alternately embraced as fellow workers and demonized as job-stealers--and sometimes, when it comes to the law-enforcement business, as problems to be fixed.

Today, immigration enforcement supports a  major industry and government sector. The bureaucracy in turn serves the larger enterprise of simultaneously excluding and exploiting undocumented workers. Similarly, the prison industry employs legions of working-class people, many with robust labor unions, yet feeds off the systematic incarceration of the poor and disenfranchised.

As long as the 99-percent are divided among the people doing the enforcing and the people getting getting enforced upon, this awkward balance will stay in place, teetering on the wall between those who comply and those who don’t.

Michelle Chen has written for ColorLines, In These Times, South China Morning Post, Clamor, INTHEFRAY.COM and her own zine, cain.

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