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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


The following article first appeared at Working In These Times, the labor blog of In These Times magazine. For more news and analysis like this, sign up to receive  In These Times weekly updates.


Trying to please all at once and disappointing everyone, the White House has long played a game of good-cop-bad-cop on immigration, promising reforms while clinging to some of the cruelest deportation policies.

Meanwhile, President Obama’s delicate waltz around immigration highlights complex frictions within the labor movement on immigration policy—revealing contrasts between immigration enforcement employees and the AFL-CIO leadership.

Though the mainstream labor movement has not always placed itself at the forefront of immigrants’ struggles for equality, the AFL-CIO has recently spoken out in defense of undocumented workers and their communities. The AFl-CIO Executive Council  has joined a chorus of groups opposing Secure Communities, a notorious Homeland Security program that promotes the sharing of information between local and federal law enforcement authorities about the legal status of immigrants arrested by local police.

The AFL-CIO stated that the program encourages racial profiling, and demanded that the White House “Immediately terminate the operation of Secure Communities” and bar it from jurisdictions known to practice “discriminatory policing.” The statement, signed by the AFL-CIO and National Immigration Forum, specifically cited  Alabama’s brutal new anti-immigrant law, which is currently being challenged in court.

In the background lies the basic contradiction in  Obama’s posturing on immigration. On one hand, the White House professes to be easing its approach, supposedly by focusing on deporting immigrants with criminal convictions. Recently the administration attempted to rein in the more extreme elements unleashed under its “enforcement-only” strategy. Responding to  overwhelming evidence of discrimination and abuse, Washington recently  cut off ties to the infamous Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County, Arizona, whose virulent “lock’em up” campaigns against Latino immigrants were  fed by Secure Communities and its sister enforcement program, 287(g), which encourages local-federal collaboration.

But Secure Communities remains a pillar of the immigration regime.  Freshly leaked documents indicate that the administration considers S-Comm to be essentially “mandatory” in nature, despite widespread criticism from state and local governments as well as advocacy groups. There’s still controversy around whether localities can opt out of the program.

But labor is by no means of one mind on immigration policy. A recent  New York Times article by Julia Preston suggests conflict inside Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), as the  National ICE Council, a union representing thousands of officers, has resisted participating in training for the reformed deportation policies:

in a new sign of the deep dissension over immigration, the union... has so far not allowed its members to participate in the training. Without the formal assent of the union, the administration’s strategy could be significantly slowed for months in labor negotiations.

Preston cites earlier congressional testimony by National ICE Council president Chris Crane, who bristled at the idea of softening deportation policies. Pivoting to anti-immigrant sentiments, Crane has also appeared on Fox News and  the Lou Dobbs Show to contend that the administration’s policy shifts could prevent effective enforcement of the law.

Though the Council is affiliated with the AFL-CIO, it can take independent political positions, hence the contrast with the AFL-CIO's stance on S-Comm.

However, Crane told  In These Times in an email correspondence that the NYT's report of “dissension” was inaccurate. The delay was not caused by the union and has nothing to do with the policy, Crane said, but rather, with inadequate transparency and cooperation:

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