Interview: Organizing in an Age of Deportability and Fear, An Interview with IDEPSCA Day Laborer Organizer Daniel Chavez

By Magally Miranda Alcázar, DSA Los Angeles

Anyone who works with immigrant populations today will note that one thing has not been missing since Trump's inauguration last November: fear. Trump’s xenophobic campaign rhetoric and his promises to amp up deportations, unfortunately, have not been an empty threat, with estimates showing upwards of 30% increases in deportations to that of Obama (who already held the record for most deportations under any president).

Scholars have coined the term “deportability” to refer to this looming threat of deportation which acts as an invisible force, like racism or sexism, to control immigrant behavior and enable the hyper-exploitation of immigrant workers. This regime of labor characterized by deportability is anything but arbitrary. It is a deliberate and tactical tool employed by states to control labor markets. Often, deportability enables employers to depress their workers’ wages far below market values either by employing the age-old threat of bringing in the “reserve army of labor” composed of eager or desperate workers, or with the threat of ICE. Important work has been done to debunk the myth that immigrants - especially undocumented workers - pose a threat to native workers. In the janitorial industry in California, for instance, immigrant workers have re-introduced new forms of labor militancy to an SEIU in decades of decline. For these reasons we must also talk about deportability as the performative or real threat of punitive measures such as raids, immigrant detention, and deportation.

A closer look at the Trumpian narrative on immigration reveals a blatant paradox. A study conducted by the UCLA Institute for Research on Labor and Employment showed that not only was there no correlation between counties that largely voted for Trump and counties with large Mexican immigrant populations; rather, there was a negative correlation between the two. On surveying the 2016 election results, they found that 60% of counties were “high Trump/low Mexican” or “low Trump/high Mexican” and only 2% fit the model of high Trump/high Mexican population. They found that “high Trump” voting counties not only lack large Mexican immigrant populations, but share higher than average rates of poverty, unemployment and low education. In short, the driving force behind Trumpism is not its ability to pinpoint the culprit (Mexican immigrants or immigrants in general), but its ability to capture the grievances of the “white working class” and channel it into misinformed xenophobic vitriol. After all, scapegoating immigrants is one way to displace the culpability of crisis from capitalism.

Nevertheless, what we are left with is a regime of deportability which can claim a mandate, and an immigrant population in the United States that is living in fear of a perceived and real threat.

A number of stories about mass raids have populated the news cycle. Mass immigrant deportations, especially but not exclusively in workplaces of people with no criminal records, have become one of the liberal media’s favorite spectacles. In many ways this most recent wave of mass deportations begs us to remember Operation Wetback, the 1950’s US policy that deported approximately 1.3 Mexican immigrants many of whom were employed by invitation to do degraded manual labor until they were no longer necessary. Operation Wetback, a blatantly racist policy in name and in deed, also sanctioned white backlash and discrimination against Mexican immigrants.

Thanks to these news stories we have become intimately acquainted with the industries that employ this hyper-exploitable and deportable population, and importantly with some of the impacts this has had on those communities. In the central valley of California in March, a truck full of workers on their way to pick tomatoes became the targets of an ICE raid as part of a sweep in the agricultural heartland of the state. 232 people were arrested in February at least 26 of whom were farm workers according to the United Farmworkers. Similarly in April a meatpacking plant in east Tennessee was raided and 100 people arrested. The story headline noted that 500 students went missing from class the next day which is a fact that should not be ignored. In addition to the workplace, deportability also functions to deter immigrants from accessing basic social services like schools, hospitals, and places of worship which has major ramifications for the well-being of immigrant communities.

As socialist organizers, it is more important than ever that we take these matters seriously and try to learn from organizations successfully working within and through the confines of this new age of increased deportability and immigrant fear. In their current campaign, the Los Angeles-based popular education institute, IDEPSCA, is conducting a watchdog operation over a new, more aggressively punitive security company being employed by various Home Depots in the city. IDEPSCA organizers are confronting deportability head on and trying to protect and empower their constituents: immigrant day laborers.

 


 

Q: Tell me a little bit about IDEPSCA and how it fits into the broader political landscape. I know IDEPSCA either began or gained steam after the large immigrant rights marches in Los Angeles in 2006. So, it can be described as one among a number of organizations that go by a number of names depending on who you’re asking: immigrant labor, economic justice, low-wage worker rights, “alt-labor,” the Los Angeles model of organizing, etc.

 

A: IDEPSCA runs four day-labor centers across LA.We help coordinate a space with shade, restrooms, safety, and services to mostly the most economically struggling people. We are largely funded by the city and state, initially to help ‘control’ the day labor ‘problem,’ inviting all low-income workers to register at the center.

IDEPSCA actually predates 2006 by about a decade. In the nineties the city deemed that people looking for work outside of the Home Depot to be “loitering.” Our Harbor City location was the location to be run by IDEPSCA in LA.  About three years ago, we got a new executive director and made some policy changes. It’s always been an organization struggling against ICE but now we’re more explicit that although we have to work with the city, we don’t want to work with the police which are a threat to our constituents.

Every center has their own dynamic but we all try to be inviting to different kinds of people: day laborers, homeless populations, people with criminal records, etc. So we have to learn to solve problems without calling the police, which is tricky. At my site, I try to be lenient about the rules to avoid having to exclude people.

In LA, we’re the first line of defense for the working immigrant community. We act as a buffer in a so-called “Sanctuary City.”

 

Q: Are you saying that you think the Sanctuary City designation gives you license to do what you do, or is it more like something that exists only nominally?

 

A: I think in some ways it diminishes the fear and terror that immigrant workers experience from ICE and others but doesn’t eliminate it. We don’t have to see the kinds of workplace raids that happen in other cities, at least not publicly, but we can’t exactly prevent ICE from coming to a person’s home and that’s a problem. What we can do is conduct “Know Your Right” trainings.

We are plugged into the most important information of the day, like ICE sightings, and so on. We collect the information and fact-check before we share it with the community to provide the most accurate information rather than spread false information and create an atmosphere of fear. We also conduct workshops about immigration and workplace rights such as wage theft.

 

Q: Have you noticed a change in the attitudes or behaviors of the workers with whom you organize since the election or inauguration of Trump? What kinds of new challenges is your organization having to tackle now with these changes? If at all, can you make any predictions about whether these changes are going to have long-term impacts on the political terrain of immigrant organizing?

 

A: Since the inauguration, our staff have been having meetings to create “Emergency Plans” that we never anticipated doing before. It just feels logical and necessary now. The kinds of things we are preparing for as emergencies are natural disasters, ICE raids, or attacks by anti-immigrant hate groups.

We’re more vigilant about the paperwork in case we get audited. We need to protect our members’ informations. We are figuring out ways to destroy that information so it doesn’t get into the wrong hands.

As for the day laborers, the vast majority of them watch the daily news. They watch Trump’s comments on immigration and the constant fear-mongering. It’s having an emotional and economic impact on them. Less people are looking for day laborers because I think the clients fear that something will happen to them if they hire these workers.

 

Q: In your latest campaign, you have been closely monitoring a new security company that has already been adopted by several Home Depots throughout Los Angeles. Can you describe the change in policy for us in more detail? And what has IDEPSCA been doing to help protect your constituents?

 

A: The old security companies would give day laborers warnings or ask them to move. This new company, Point 2 Point Global Security, was contracted about three months ago. In that short time, we have received complaints of physical assault at every single Home Depot where they have been hired. The day laborers have complained about being physically pushed and dragged by force out of the parking lots. We’ve gotten reports and testimonials from several people. We’ve gotten a video of a security guard making threats to our workers that they would call ICE. And, unfortunately, we’ve also heard by word of mouth that there are many other people who have experienced assault but do not want to speak or give their testimonials for fear of retaliation.

After doing some research, we learned about some connections between them and ICE and Homeland Security. In fact, some of the security guards are ex ICE agents and ex Federal Agents. We decided to contact Home Depot. They admit they knew about the change of approach and policy but denied that they knew anything about assaults. They said they would look into them. We didn’t want to wait for them to look into it so we held a press conference where we publicized our single demand that Home Depot terminate their pilot program with Point 2 Point Global Security.

In the two weeks since the press conference we’ve received reports that not much has changed in terms of the aggressiveness of the security and we’re looking into what more we can do. But some of the things we might do is flyer with information about what is happening, Know Your Rights, and how someone can give an anonymous testimonial.

 

Q: What are some strategies that have worked for you all in trying to work within the climate of increased immigrant fear?

 

A: We try to create a friendly, almost familial, environment for workers who don’t have that. If we work together and are united, we can tackle these problems together. When we band together we have less to fear. It’s corny but it’s true. An isolated worker on the corner who doesn’t speak is an issue because it doesn’t bring problems to light, and makes it more likely that the abuse will keep happening. So, it’s important to us to create an environment where people feel they have the space to speak and will be heard and understood.

Some of the activities that we do at the center are things that you might not immediately think would happen at IDEPSCA. We have artistic programming. We have day laborers who come and play guitar and sing. Some of our members who are homeless come to the center just to organize their things. They can just collect themselves. We have events and invite the neighborhood. People respond really well. Not just the day laborers but the community. When the community comes and enjoys themselves it boosts the morale of our members because they feel like they are a part of the community and the community will have their back.

 

Q: We’ve talked a lot about the changes that have taken place since the election of Trump which as you’re describing have been profound, but I would also hate to suggest that the situation for immigrant workers, especially day laborers, was not already characterized by a different deportability regime. Can you describe what you see as the big-picture problem facing immigrant workers?

 

A: We’re certainly seeing a rising number of cases of wage theft in the last year, when a worker isn’t paid for the work they do. At my site in Hollywood it’s about a three hundred percent increase and the numbers are pretty uniform at the other sites. When we get a complaint, we have a process we follow with the Labor Commission to recover those wages. The entire process can take up to a year.

Although this trend is on the rise, I can’t emphasize enough that it’s no conspiracy. It’s very systematic. A lot of employers know that when there is an atmosphere of fear, there will be less day laborers willing to file a complaint about wage theft. Wage theft continues to be a major issue and the primary form of exploitation facing day laborers. As long as this kind of behavior is normalized, I don’t see a real movement for comprehensive immigration reform really taking hold.

 


 

Magally is an M.A./Ph.D. student in Chicana/o Studies and Experimental Critical Theory at UCLA. Her research focuses on the political economy of domestic work, especially as it relates to immigration. Magally is on the steering committee of the Refoundation Caucus of DSA as well as a national organizer with the International Women’s Strike. She is an editor at Viewpoint Magazine.

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