Now Is the Time to Organize Undocumented Workers

The precarious, dangerous conditions immigrant workers face under coronavirus are an intensified version of the conditions workers face across the country. Rebuilding the labor movement today must include organizing undocumented workers.

Farm laborers from Fresh Harvest arrive early in the morning to begin harvesting on April 28, 2020 in Greenfield, California. (Brent Stirton / Getty Images)

Last week, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Deferred Action for Early Childhood Arrivals program, which allows undocumented people brought to the United States at a young age to stay in the country. Trump has long attempted to end a program that the immigrant youth movement fought so hard to win; the court blocked him. For months, immigrant workers across the country have been holding our breath, waiting for this decision, even as the coronavirus pandemic ravages our communities.

We were victorious. The next step is to demand permanent protection, dignity, and respect for all 11 million undocumented workers in the US and build a popular movement of immigrant workers and allies that is powerful enough to win it.

I work the night shift cleaning a food packaging plant in Athens, Georgia. My shift begins at 4 PM each day. By 10 AM the next morning, I am home preparing breakfast for my children, having spent the night disinfecting bathrooms and cafeterias at the factory. My coworkers and I are frontline workers, handling surfaces before they have been scrubbed down with alcohol and putting ourselves at risk of getting infected every night. The managers at the factory have told us that we are saving lives, though I would trade in their empty praise for adequate protections and hazard pay.

I am one of those 11 million undocumented workers in the United States. We harvest the country’s fields, raise its children, build its homes, and clean its office buildings. We managed to cross oceans, rivers, and deserts to reach a world we believed would be better for our children, and now we carry the weight of an American economy that depends on our labor yet refuses to recognize our dignity.

In this moment of crisis, immigrant workers have been forced to make the impossible choice faced by workers of all kinds, between putting our lives at risk by working in unsafe conditions or losing the income we need to feed our families. While our bosses deny us protective equipment, paid sick time, and health insurance, the federal government has excluded us from any social welfare protections.

We received $0 of federal aid from the most recent stimulus package, and millions of immigrant workers in the restaurant, retail, hospitality, and manufacturing industries are facing mass layoffs with no access to unemployment benefits or other means to support our families. In Athens, COVID-19 recently broke out at a poultry plant nearby, and instead of shutting down operations, the plant is rapidly hiring workers in order to replace infected workers and continue operating at full capacity.

On the other hand, thousands of workers have lost their jobs. Mothers who lost their husbands in the era of mass deportation are struggling to afford food and toiletries, while our landlords threaten to evict us from our trailers. We are being forced to choose between the risk of death or the certainty of hunger.

But whenever average people face such bleak realities, opportunities to push back emerge. This moment is no exception: we now have a chance to politicize and organize immigrant workers. Dignidad Inmigrante en Athens (DIA), of which I am a member, is growing rapidly. Friends and neighbors who in the past were skeptical of our organizing efforts are turning to us. In the absence of state or market solutions, thousands of immigrant workers in Athens who have lost their jobs are turning to the immigrant rights movement in order to meet their needs, through mutual aid efforts we are organizing.

DIA is helping immigrant-owned restaurants distribute hundreds of meals a week, and we have set up dispensaries for local volunteers and farmers markets to donate food. We have raised money to buy masks from immigrant mothers who are sewing them and giving them to workers who lack protective equipment. As part of the Cosecha Movement, we are also providing emergency relief to immigrant workers through the Undocumented Worker Fund, a national fund designed for and administered by immigrant workers that has raised over $1 million thus far.

These mutual aid efforts are strengthening our long-term organizing infrastructure. We are absorbing volunteers who help run the mutual aid programs as well as families receiving support into DIA, strengthening a base of immigrant workers who will soon be brought into local campaigns to demand protection, dignity, and respect. A movement with the capacity to provide emergency relief during an economic crisis can also develop the capacity to manage a strike fund.

In many ways, the precarious conditions immigrant workers face are an intensified reflection of the conditions of workers across the country. While most workers have scarce protections, undocumented workers have almost none. A $1,200 stimulus check is not nearly enough to cover rent and other basic necessities, but undocumented families were denied even this basic relief. While House Democrats included emergency payments to immigrant workers in the HEROES Act, we will likely be excluded once again in the next round of stimulus negotiations.

Our situation reveals precisely what is wrong for all the working class in our society: stagnant wages, the disintegration of the last semblances of a social safety net, rising costs, and the loss of bargaining power.

In order to build on the DACA victory and win permanent protection, dignity, and respect for the 11 million undocumented workers in this country, we need to win the support of the labor movement. Historically unions have been divided on the issue; in the past, the building trades have obstructed federal legislation that would provide a path to citizenship for the undocumented, while unions with growing immigrant membership have supported those efforts. But the labor movement is going to need us as well.

The COVID-19 crisis has proven that immigrant workers have real leverage in an economy that depends on us for the essential jobs that reproduce and sustain life in America. According to the Department of Labor, 48 percent of all farmworkers are undocumented, though that number is likely grossly underreported. Fifteen percent of construction workers, 20 percent of restaurant cooks, and 24 percent of domestic workers are undocumented.

Our labor is concentrated in industries and states that would be unable to function without us. It is the secret to our power, try as the wealthy and powerful might to negate their dependence on us. Thus, while politicians try to cast us as scapegoats, undocumented people who are among the most exploited and vulnerable workers are actually a critical linchpin for the working-class movement.

As work becomes more precarious, it is more incumbent upon us than ever to build strong organizations among workers that have long been excluded from the traditional labor movement — for everyone’s sake, as well as for our own. And though we may have fewer protections and face greater risk of retaliation in the workplace, the current crisis has brought us close to the boiling point. The conditions are such that immigrant workers are ready to take action.

Today we are witnessing an uprising of people of color across the country, led by the outrage and vision of the black freedom movement. Our black sisters and brothers, along with newly organized workers in warehouses across the country, are showing us the path forward through their risk and their sacrifice.

We have before us a tremendous opportunity to activate undocumented workers who are being squeezed to the breaking point and invite them to join in the struggle by demanding permanent protection, dignity, and respect for all. Those of us who remember the immigrant mega marches of 2006 know that when we get activated, immigrant workers have the capacity to wield the power of mass economic non-cooperation.

We bless this country with the gift of our food, our music, our culture, and also our rich left organizing traditions. We must prepare the soil for our harvest, as the grapes grow heavy for the vintage.