By Jessica Manrriquez and Nadia Marin-Molina
One year ago, the American people allowed corrupt company owners to collude with the Trump administration to intimidate, target, and detain 680 immigrant workers that had done nothing but subsidize Mississippi’s economy and speak out about workplace abuse. We let that happen. Today, the question is whether we will learn about what happened, reunite those workers’ families, and ensure it never happens again.
A year later, parents have been deported, many are still detained in migrant prison camps, and amidst a global pandemic, thousands are denied aid, considered unworthy of assistance but “essential” because no one else is willing or able to do the work. Workers have been attacked, rounded up like livestock, imprisoned without due process or medical treatment, pushed to the brink of suicide in detention, tricked into self-deportation, and our LGBTQ siblings are forced into solitary confinement. They have been harassed in their homes and at work, and treated as disposable.
The majority of the people impacted by ICE’s raids were Indigenous Guatemalan peoples. For them, ICE’s campaign in Mississippi was a continuation of 500 years of white colonialist violence. We know that Indigenous migrant workers are vulnerable to historic inequalities in both Guatemala and the US south being replicated in their adopted countries. Their employers know this too. Recruiters insidiously enter communities with promises of decent jobs, which prove over and over to be empty words from people who think that no one is watching, no one cares, and no one will fight back.
Last year, we were all caught off guard by the militarized ICE raids rounding up workers at chicken processing factories—terrorizing immigrants just four days after a white supremacist massacred 23 people in El Paso. But one year later, we’re still standing and we can say proudly, we’ve been here, we’re still here, and we’re not leaving. If someone wanted to make us disappear, they’ve only made clear that we can no longer be invisible.
That struggle for workplace rights is a vital part of the story we must tell this August. That years ago, a group of undocumented women in those same factories organized against rampant abuse, discrimination, and sexual harassment. They won in court. And yet, for speaking out against injustice, they were punished, retaliated against. Neither state nor federal government officials will admit that, nor propose action to prevent it from happening again.
Today, we can no longer talk about immigration without talking about protecting immigrant workers. Workers, citizen and non-citizen alike, know that many employers, if allowed, will use immigration as a threat to excuse all sorts of abuse. In this environment, workers rights will continue to suffer. COVID-19 made that offensively clear. In the eyes of the President and governors, our immigrant neighbors may be essential, but are unworthy of protections or relief, and are deliberately excluded.
No amount of “employer sanctions” would change this dynamic. After 30 years, it is clear these have only served to punish workers—providing a legal framework for raids under both Trump and Obama administrations. And E-Verify, which Mississippi made mandatory for every workplace in the state in 2011, has similarly been a failure. A 2011 study on mandatory E-Verify in Arizona reported the effect was to “shift away from wage and salaried work towards self-employment,” largely unprotected.
One year after the Mississippi raids, let’s recognize that worker and migrant justice demands that we stand together regardless of the type of attack. Because if it’s not immigration status, some employers will still threaten workers with firing, blacklisting, offshoring, mechanization, or of course, replacement with immigrants or incarcerated workers—to use our differences to divide us. It is beyond time for us to recognize the intrinsic connection between an immigrant rights agenda and a workers rights agenda.
On a fundamental level, that means advancing whistleblower protections for workers, so that ICE cannot be weaponized to target those who speak out about abuse. In the immediate moment, it means that those targeted by ICE in Mississippi should be immediately released and shielded from further ICE enforcement. As we learned during the previous administration, while there is a need for legislation, it does not mean the Executive Branch and the Department of Labor are on standby. We must begin to imagine and build the future institutions and labor protections that we want and need.
And as we defund those rogue agencies under the Department of Homeland Security being weaponized against workers and protestors, it’s time to redirect resources towards wage and hour enforcement, anti-discrimination laws, health and safety protections, and safeguards for collective action and organizing. One can imagine the impact for working people if our Occupational Safety and Health Administration had anywhere near the reach and resources as Customs and Border Protection.
— NDLON (@NDLON) July 23, 2020
Finally, as with most things, the standards for protection and inclusion must come from bottom up. Localities must challenge federal exclusions and begin to chart a new path. Our cities and states must address the ongoing exclusion of immigrant workers that has gone on for decades—from pandemic relief, unemployment assistance, worker centers and safety training resources, and ensuring linguistic and cultural competency. It won’t come from anywhere else.
One year later, our neighbors are still locked-up in ICE’s prison camps because they sought work, for their families, for their daily bread. If we are serious about honoring the labor and the sacrifice of essential workers in Mississippi and across the US, it’s a moment to join our voices to theirs to demand their release and secure protections so that it doesn’t happen again.
Jessica Manrriquez is a community historian and organizer for the Jackson-based Immigrant Alliance for Justice and Equality (IAJE of Mississippi). Nadia Marin Molina is Co-Executive Director of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network (NDLON).