Unions Are Training Hotel Workers to Face Down Immigration Raids
Hotel workers in cities such as Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York have been gathering for training sessions recently on how to handle visits from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The sessions, organized by the labor union Unite Here!, teach workers how to effectively stonewall ICE agents, emphasizing employees’ right to refuse to answer questions or show identification.
Organizers don dark sunglasses or jackets and role-play as ICE agents, with a “good cop” entreating the volunteers with lines such as “You look like a good person,” and a bad cop screaming threats at them. “I need you guys to be just absolute assholes,” organizer Hugo Soto, a former hotel worker who helped develop the training program, tells colleagues when preparing them to portray agents. “We need to train ourselves to be able to beat ICE.”
As part of President Trump’s crackdown on undocumented immigrants, ICE arrests have spiked about 40 percent, and the pool of targets considered priorities for deportation has vastly expanded. “If you are in this country illegally,” Acting ICE Director Thomas Homan testified in May, then “you need to be worried.”
Labor groups are at the forefront of the resistance, staging rallies and walkouts against Trump’s travel ban and lobbying for such bills as a California measure restricting law enforcement from collaborating with ICE and a proposed Orlando ordinance limiting immigrant detention. In May the national AFL-CIO offered its affiliates a 200-page toolkit explaining how to train workers to respond to immigration raids.
Unions also are trying to use collective bargaining to tie companies’ hands. Unite Here says curbing collaboration with ICE will be a priority in bargaining for the 270,000 hotel, casino, and food-service workers it represents, almost half of whose contracts expire within the next year.
“We know the companies that we have relationships with are going to comply with the law,” says D. Taylor, the union’s international president. “We just don’t want them to do anything that makes it easier for ICE to come in and just take people away.” Union leaders say that along with safeguarding individual rights, the protections help employees organize without immigration being used as a pretext to punish them. Hilton Worldwide Holdings, Hyatt Hotels, and Marriott International didn’t comment.
Under model language prepared by the union for collective-bargaining agreements, a company would be restricted from letting ICE agents into the workplace unless they possess a valid judicial warrant. They would also be banned, except where required by law, from auditing or sharing workers’ I-9 employment eligibility verification forms and from checking their status using the voluntary E-Verify program. A company would also be required to let employees get their jobs back after leaves of absence to address immigration issues and to notify the union about requests or subpoenas received from authorities.
Labor lawyers say that such proposals are legal: If the law doesn’t require a company to do something, a contract can require the company not to do it. Just as individuals have discretion about whether to let police into their home without a warrant, companies have a range of options on how much to cooperate with immigration enforcement—something that some Motel 6 hotels in Arizona demonstrated this year when they provided logs of their guests to ICE agents. After a Phoenix New Times report exposed the practice, Motel 6 said it would prohibit hotels nationwide from voluntarily giving guest lists to ICE.
Unite Here has included immigration-related protections in its contracts since the 1990s and says it now has them in hundreds of contracts, including at some Hilton, Hyatt, and Marriott hotels. Union leaders are proposing the more stringent provisions in negotiations under way at hotels including Hiltons in Miami, and they plan to do so around the country over the next year.
This all puts hotels in a tricky position, says David Sherwyn, a former attorney for management who directs the Cornell Institute for Hospitality Labor and Employment Relations. “It’s a balancing act between the wrath of the law and what they want to do and what they think is right,” he says. Laura Huizar, an attorney for the National Employment Law Project, a pro-labor nonprofit, says businesses often have more discretion than they understand. “Employers have rights, and they should prepare their teams to assert those rights,” says Huizar, who urges businesses to have a plan for how to deal with ICE. “Employers should practice for immigration enforcement in the same way that they would practice for a fire drill.”
To anti-immigration conservatives, that’s a disturbing comparison. “It’s normally a good idea to show some deference to federal law enforcement when they come in,” says Republican Representative Louie Gohmert, a Trump ally from Texas who warns that companies that get “bullied” into noncooperation could end up raided by ICE and shut down completely. “It really seems like the antithesis of the purpose of a labor union, to protect the interests of labor. Normally you think of American labor.”
Immigration has historically been a thorny issue for labor unions, which often took a much harder line in the name of protecting native workers. That position has shifted dramatically in recent decades, as organizing the growing ranks of immigrant workers became a do-or-die proposition for shrinking unions. “There was a recognition on the part of the labor movement that it’s too late to kick people out, so we have to organize them,” says Janice Fine, a Rutgers University labor expert. “The labor movement as a whole has probably never been more pro-immigrant.”
Yet there remain deep divisions over the issue among union members, 37 percent of whom voted for Trump despite union presidents’ near-unanimous endorsements of Hillary Clinton. Some local unions remain hostile toward immigrants or skeptical they can be organized, Fine says, especially in industries with more conservative workers, such as construction.
Along with proposing contractual restrictions on ICE collaboration, Unite Here has sought to enlist hotel leaders as political allies on immigration, with limited success. Taylor, the Unite Here president, sent a letter in February to the largest hotel and casino companies whose workers the union represents, asking them to join him in “rebuking” Trump’s actions and to commit to all legally allowed measures to shield employees. So far, that hasn’t happened.
Marriott, Hyatt, and Hilton’s chief executive officers signed an August open letter urging Trump to preserve Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, and Marriott has voiced concerns that the travel ban depressed tourism. But they’ve kept a lower profile than Unite Here had hoped for. Says Taylor: “They’re very scared of getting tweeted.”