Federal, state, and local governments imprison or detain around half a million immigrants per year, with the largest percentage from Latin America. In the past, organized labor has played a key role in shaping immigration law and policy. Today, the largest federation of unions, the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) stands resolutely in favor of the legalization of millions of undocumented immigrants.
While the Biden-Harris administration ended some of the former administration’s cruel immigration policies, too many anti-immigrant policies remain: under the Joe Biden administration, the number of immigrants detained by ICE has increased from a daily average of 15,100 in January to 27,023 in March. Even though Biden made campaign promises to end for-profit detention, only two contracts have been terminated with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention centers even as the COVID pandemic worsened the conditions of detained people who were left with few choices to protect themselves.
Given the realities of criminal branding, detention, and deportation, labor unions should continue to advocate for legalization while also challenging the hypercriminalization of immigration — a defining feature of the contemporary immigration enforcement system.
Between Solidarity and Exclusion
Labor’s history is riddled with deep divisions over immigration: some unions and labor federations organized immigrants into their ranks and supported legislation to expand immigrant rights, while others pushed for exclusionary immigration laws. Unions’ restrictive positions often stemmed from xenophobia coupled with ideas that immigrant workers would undermine labor’s position with an increased labor supply. Other progressive and left unions extended their sense of solidarity to immigrants, viewing organizing immigrant workers as key to uplifting labor standards for all.
Organized labor successfully lobbied for the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the first immigration law that excluded immigrants based on race and class. The law specifically barred Chinese laborers, who unions believed would destabilize labor market conditions with an increased labor supply and hinder their ability to reform working conditions. At the turn of the twentieth century, the American Federation of Labor’s (AFL) anti-immigrant policies were extended to Southern and Eastern European immigrants.
The AFL’s president, Samuel Gompers — an immigrant himself, from Britain — supported the Immigration Restriction League’s literacy test for immigrants in efforts to reduce the number of “unskilled” Southern and Eastern European immigrants. Gompers argued that Southern and Eastern European immigrants would empower industrialists to undermine craft unions by replacing craft skill with machine labor.
Meanwhile, labor’s radical elements saw organizing immigrants as a source of strength for the movement. The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) organized the 1912 “Bread and Roses” Lawrence textile strike where thousands of immigrant workers from various countries participated, more than half of whom were women. The strike began when workers at textile mills received a pay cut when they were already barely surviving. As a result of the solidarity sustained across racial lines, they won wage increases and overtime pay.
While for some, the Lawrence textile strike illustrated how immigrant and ethnic solidarity strengthens the working class’s ability to challenge their employers and improve working conditions, many established leaders within the AFL continued to imagine immigrants as threats to the interests of organized labor. With the AFL’s unabated support for restriction, the 1924 Immigration Act was passed by Congress. The 1924 law established the highest quotas for Northern and Wetern Europe and lower quotas for Southern and Eastern Europe. As historian Mae Ngai has explained, the law prohibited all immigration from Asia and Africa, explicitly etching racial exclusion into immigration law.
But despite the AFL’s efforts, organized labor was never uniformly restrictionist. In 1935 the Committee for Industrial Organization (CIO) was formed by several unions within the AFL to encourage organizing in mass production industries — where immigrants were heavily represented. The AFL had been uninterested in providing resources to organize industrial unions due to its exclusive focus on trade autonomy. As a result, the CIO organized itself into a separate national federation (the Congress of Industrial Organizations) in 1937.
The CIO was instrumental in providing organization and a pathway to inclusion for millions of immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe who occupied unorganized industries. Growing into a strongly pro-immigrant organization, the CIO critiqued the racially biased national-origins quota system and joined progressive organizations during World War II to advocate for the 1939 Wagner-Rogers bill that would have allowed 20,000 refugee children to enter the United States.
Postwar, the AFL and the CIO extended their solidarity to displaced persons in Europe by joining the Citizens Committee on Displaced Persons (CCDP), an organization of academics, religious leaders, and public officials that lobbied for legislation and played a role in the passage of the Displaced Persons Act of 1948, which authorized the entry of 200,000 refugees displaced by the war.
And with the merging of the AFL and the more progressive CIO in 1955, organized labor slowly began to shift its position on the racially biased national-origins quota system, eventually calling for the law’s eradication. Propelled in part by the civil rights movement, human rights groups, and organized labor, Congress abolished the 1924 Immigration Act and enacted the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act.
The Immigration and Nationality Act rightfully eradicated the racially discriminatory quota system that allocated visas based on national origin, established a preference system based on family reunification and professional status, and set visa restrictions that were equally allocated among countries. For the first time, however, the 1965 immigration law set numerical restrictions for legal immigration from the Western Hemisphere, including Mexico. These numerical restrictions — set at 20,000 for Mexico — were well below the more than 400,000 immigrants and temporary workers who had been admitted each year in the decade before 1965.
Considering that migratory flows from Mexico to the United States were long established through guest worker programs and increasing economic integration between the two economies, the new law moved Mexican immigration to more clandestine avenues and led to the growth of unauthorized immigration. This resulted in increased border policing and apprehensions along the US-Mexico border, giving rise to “illegal migration.”
As immigration became an increasingly salient political issue, and as the farmworker movement in the 1970s contended with growers using undocumented workers as strikebreakers, the AFL-CIO resolved to push for employer sanctions as a means to curb immigration. The AFL-CIO’s efforts made their way into the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) of 1986, which included employer sanctions and a guest worker program and set up amnesty for immigrants who had been in the country prior to 1982.
Neoliberalism and Immigrant Labor Organizing
The proceeding decades of neoliberal economic restructuring were particularly challenging for labor unions. Deregulation, subcontracting, and efforts to weaken labor unions resulted in a steady decline in union membership and rising inequality. The sociologist Ruth Milkman has argued that the proliferation of low-wage work and employers’ search for new sources of labor contributed to mass migration. Within this context of an influx of immigration from the 1980s to 2000s and worker exploitation, immigrant workers began to organize — and gave a jolt to the largely moribund labor movement.
The courageous and successful movements of immigrant workers like the Justice for Janitors campaign in Los Angeles in the 1990s as well as the hotel organizing drives of the 1980s and 1990s pushed union leaders to reevaluate their restrictive immigration policies. Some of the organizers who played a central role in organizing immigrant workers during this time period, like Eliseo Medina, had received training from their previous careers with the United Farm Workers (UFW) and made advocating for immigrant rights within the AFL-CIO a priority.
After having successfully organized immigrant workers with the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) in Southern California, Medina was eventually elected vice president of SEIU. As vice president, one of Medina’s main objectives was to shift the AFL-CIO’s position on immigration restriction. After discussing his vision for immigrant solidarity with the leadership of various unions including UNITE HERE and the UFW, and responding to the grassroots pressure of the membership of various unions, a coalition of unions presented a resolution at the 1999 AFL-CIO convention in Los Angeles in support of immigrant rights. In February 2000, the AFL-CIO reversed its position on employer sanctions and instead called for protection of workplace rights and amnesty for immigrants.
Crimmigration (1980s–Present): The Convergence of the Criminal Legal System and Immigration System
Before the AFL-CIO resolved to stand by immigrants in 2000 by pushing for immigration reform and protection of workplace rights, new developments had taken shape within the immigration system in the last two decades of the twentieth century. Beginning in the 1980s — alongside heightened talk of immigrant criminality, neoliberal economic policies, and the buildup of the mass incarceration system — immigration law and criminal law began to converge and evolved to shape the contemporary immigration enforcement system, what some call “crimmigration.”
As the legal scholar César Cuauhtémoc García has explained, this convergence has occurred through three primary trends. The first is that immigration violations, like illegal entry and reentry, are increasingly punished through the criminal legal system: according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, arrests for immigration-related violations increased from 20,942 in 1998 to 108,667 in 2018. In 2018, immigration offenses accounted for 31.4 percent of federal prosecutions — the largest share of any crime prosecuted in federal courts.
Second, the list of crimes that could lead to immigration law consequences like deportation has steadily expanded since the 1980s. These offenses now include misdemeanors like altering a passport.
And law enforcement that has historically operated separately, through either the criminal legal system or immigration system, has transgressed those boundaries, so that now state and local law enforcement agencies are sometimes enlisted in enforcing federal immigration laws through Section 287(g), passed as part of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA) of 1996.
Through bipartisan support, the criminalization of immigration has led to the imprisonment, by ICE or the federal criminal legal system, of close to half a million immigrants per year and millions of deportations.
Solidarity: Contesting the Criminalization of Immigration
Since reversing course and officially changing their position in 2000, the AFL-CIO has extended its solidarity toward immigrants. In 2003, unions and immigrant rights groups organized the Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride, visiting more than a hundred cities to rally for immigrant rights. Unions across the United States have organized and turned out their members for the megamarches that took place in 2006 and have become some of the most visible and consistent advocates for immigration reform.
Many unions have negotiated immigration language in their contracts, protecting against unnecessary document checks and requiring employers to contact the union in the event of immigration enforcement activities. The AFL-CIO has made a tool kit to assist organizers and advocates in the case of workplace raids and has rightly linked immigration reform with uplifting labor standards. Unions like the Chicago Teachers Union have organized to expand sanctuary for immigrants, while the California Nurses Association passed a resolution condemning deportation, pointing to detrimental health implications for immigrants and their families.
In addition to unions declaring themselves sanctuary unions and advocating for legalization, the labor movement must contest the practices of detention and deportation. For example, organizations like the National Day Labor Organizing Network (NDLON) — a network of worker centers organizing day laborers — have challenged ICE’s ability to detain from the criminal legal system and have organized to strategically push ICE out of communities in California.
Organized labor must also look inward and reckon with the unions that represent Border Patrol and ICE agents, like the National ICE Council and the National Border Patrol Council (NBPC), which endorsed Donald Trump and his draconian immigration policies. The American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), an AFL-CIO affiliate, charters these two unions.
Throughout labor’s history, unions and their federations have influenced immigration law and policy. At times, unions called for restriction that caused antagonism within the working class. Other unions extended their solidarity by organizing immigrants into their ranks and advocated for their political and labor rights. These unions understood that exclusion creates a class of more exploitable workers who are used to divide and weaken the working class.
A brief overview of organized labor’s history illustrates that unions have not only fostered pathways to inclusion for immigrants but have advocated for the expansion of their rights. As in the past, the path forward is one of mutual solidarity. Today this includes challenging the laws and policies that lead to the exclusion and exploitation of undocumented immigrants.