An important report by the AFL-CIO, American Rights at Work and the National Employment Law Project paints a shocking picture of how, under the Bush administration, ICE, (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) ran roughshod over the rights of immigrant workers and blocked enforcement of labor law.

The authors of the report, “ICED OUT: How Immigration Enforcement has Interfered with Workers’ Rights”, are Rebecca Smith of the National Employment Law Project, Ana Avendaño of the AFL-CIO, and Julie Martinez Ortega of the American Rights at Work Educational Fund. It can be read online at

The 44 page report is based on a detailed examination of the experience of immigrant workers around the country, whose vulnerability caused by their undocumented status was used by employers as a pretext to violate wages and hours and occupational health and safety laws, as well as break up union organizing drives.

In too many cases, ICE not only failed to respect the rights of workers, but actually targeted worksites where union organizing or labor disputes were going on. Workers who stood up for their rights found themselves arrested by ICE, or by local police and handed over to ICE. The authors claim this is part of an anti-union strategy on the part of employers and of the Bush administration.

Undocumented workers whose rights have been violated on the job or who have been victims of human trafficking are supposed to be eligible, in some cases, for special visas which would allow them to stay in this country and testify against their employers. But ICE often hustles people out of the country before they can be helped to get such visas. Also, ICE is not supposed to carry out raids in the context of a labor dispute, but the report lists case after case in which it has done precisely that. In other cases, immigrant workers injured on the job have been arrested and whisked out of the country by ICE, letting the employer and the workers compensation insurance carrier off the hook for paying for medical treatment.

In 2006 Latino immigrant workers at the Woodfin Suites Hotel, in Emeryville, California went public with a complaint that the hotel was not obeying a local living wage law. The management fired 21 workers, ostensibly because they had received “No-Match” letters from the Social Security Administration questioning the authenticity of these workers’ Social Security numbers. But the workers went to state court and got their jobs back.

Then the management got in touch with U.S. Representative Brian Bilbray (R-CA), an ultra-right, anti-worker and anti-immigrant congressman. Bilbray “sicced” ICE on the workers. This resulted in the firing of 12 workers and the harassment of workers at their homes by ICE agents.

In 2008, the Iron Workers Union was trying to organize residential construction workers employed by subcontractors of Sun Coast-Gold Canyon. A union organizer was driving a group of five Latino workers to a picket line, when four patrol carloads of Pinal County Sheriff’s deputies stopped him and demanded to see the IDs of the workers. The deputies told the organizer that they were there to check immigration status because of the labor dispute. All five workers were arrested, and four were processed for deportation.

The report summarizes a number of other such incidents.

The incidents cited occurred in the last years of the Bush administration. Since the Obama administration came in, there have been far fewer big workplace raids and some other improvements, but a number of Bush-initiated practices have continued and the number of people deported so far continues to be very high. For example, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, though she has ordered a tightening-up of the 287 (g) program which involves local police in immigration enforcement, has added eleven new police departments to the program. This is worrying, because the report shows clearly that local police sometimes collude in union busting activities, especially when immigrant workers are concerned. The targeting of employers is also disturbing because when a major employer is busted for employing undocumented immigrant workers, the workers do not benefit and like as not end up working for even lower pay and under even worse conditions.

The report adds a valuable list of recommendations to the Obama administration, too long to be summarized here. The gist is if you don’t want unscrupulous employers of undocumented workers to keep on their abuses, enforce labor law but protect immigrant workers from persecution.



Emile Schepers
Emile Schepers

Emile Schepers is a veteran civil and immigrant rights activist. Born in South Africa, he has a doctorate in cultural anthropology from Northwestern University. He is active in the struggle for immigrant rights, in solidarity with the Cuban Revolution and a number of other issues. He writes from Northern Virginia.