When President Obama announced on June 15 that he was temporarily halting deportations of illegal immigrants under the age of 31 who came to the U.S. as children, labor unions backed him up. AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka praised Obama at a press conference, with a group of immigrant students standing beside him. The labor movement has made it a priority to liberalize immigration laws and recruit immigrants, who often undercut union workers by taking low-wage, non-union jobs.
Yet the leader of one AFL-CIO affiliated union has broken with labor to challenge Obama’s directive. Chris Crane is president of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Council, the 7,000-member union that represents the U.S. Homeland Security agents whose job is to find and deport illegal aliens. Along with two of the union’s vice presidents and seven ICE agents, Crane filed a federal suit in August against Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and ICE Director John Morton, claiming Obama’s “deferred action” order is illegal and makes it hard for agents to do their job. Weeks later, he finds himself in an unusual place for a union man: criticized by the left and befriended by the right.
Before Obama’s order, Crane says, ICE agents conducting immigration raids on businesses or sweeping jails for undocumented workers could begin deportation procedures against those who couldn’t show they were in the U.S. legally. Now the rules require agents to pass over anyone who claims to be eligible for Obama’s temporary amnesty. “We are supposed to take this person’s word and turn around and walk away,” he says. Crane’s lawsuit charges that the president overstepped his constitutional authority by changing federal immigration law without Congress’s consent. To obey the president’s orders, Crane says, agents must break the law.
Homeland Security spokeswoman Gillian Christensen says Crane is flat-out wrong. Agents aren’t simply supposed to take the immigrant’s word for it; they can still ask those they suspect of being in the U.S. illegally to provide passports, visas, school records, or other documents to prove their eligibility. It’s up to agents’ discretion whether to take action or not.
That discretion, Crane says, is precisely the problem. Agents’ duties were once perfectly clear. They’re now told to use their judgment, yet they worry about the consequences of deporting people against the wishes of the president. It may not be official policy to look the other way, but he says there is institutional pressure to do so.
Crane’s lawsuit has put him at odds with fellow AFL-CIO leaders, who issued a press release condemning it. “It was awkward,” says AFL-CIO spokesman Gonzalo Salvador. When Crane agreed to testify before Congress against Obama’s rule in July, AFL-CIO lobbyist Andrea DiBitetto urged him to get back in line with labor. “I told him that the AFL-CIO strongly supports deferred action,” she says. “I asked him to follow the AFL-CIO position.”
Instead, Crane, who works in Salt Lake City, teamed up with anti-immigration advocates and Republican politicians who’ve battled against organized labor. NumbersUSA, a group that works to reduce immigration levels and has opposed the AFL-CIO’s push for immigration reform, is funding the lawsuit. Crane’s lawyer is Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, a co-author of Arizona’s punitive immigration law and an immigration adviser to Mitt Romney.
Crane, whose own rank-and-file members didn’t have a say in the lawsuit—he filed the case without putting it to a vote—concedes it isn’t just about the rule change. He describes it as a “last resort” attempt to get the administration’s attention. “They’ve completely shut us out,” Crane says. “And they’ve replaced us with immigrants’ advocacy groups.”
Crane’s grievances against Obama go back to 2009, when the president named Morton to head ICE. Over union objections, the department relaxed security at detention facilities, allowing detainees more freedom to move around and to have contact with visitors. Things between union and management only got worse when Crane held a no-confidence vote against Morton. “Communication has been a big problem,” says Eric Shulman, the ICE Council’s Washington lobbyist. Asked about the growing tension, Homeland spokeswoman Christensen says by e-mail: “ICE meets regularly with the representatives of the union.”
AFL-CIO leaders are holding out hope that Crane will eventually drop the suit, which is awaiting a court date. Next year the labor movement plans once again to push Congress to take up comprehensive immigration reform—and they’d much rather have a brawler like Crane as an ally than an adversary in that fight. “It’s something we can work past,” says the AFL-CIO’s DiBitetto. “I’m sure they want to see the broken system repaired.”