Category: RokStories

Facing South

August 26, 2015

Organizing for a true reconstruction in the Gulf Coast: An interview with labor leader Saket Soni
by Allie Yee

Saket Soni is a national labor leader and an organizer of day laborers, immigrant workers, guest workers and others in New Orleans, the South and the country. He is the executive director of the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice and the National Guestworker Alliance, which were formed in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina to organize vulnerable workers in the city’s reconstruction.

Soni, who has written about his own experiences as an undocumented immigrant, has organized several successful, multiracial campaigns since Katrina, including an eight-year campaign that culminated in a $20 million settlement earlier this year for guest workers from India against shipbuilding company Signal International in Mississippi. Signal was convicted in February of human trafficking and other labor violations. The Workers’ Center and its affiliates have also achieved significant wins on immigration issues and living wage campaigns and have expanded their work across the country and internationally.

Facing South recently caught up with Soni to get his take on progress made since Katrina and lessons learned since the storm hit the Gulf Coast 10 years ago this week. This interview has been edited for clarity.

What brought you to the Gulf Coast after Katrina in 2005?

When Katrina hit, I was a community organizer in Chicago. I was knocking on doors and talking to low-income renters in Chicago’s South Side … When the levees broke, I remember it shattering the myth that people were doing OK. I was just trying to make sense of how a disaster like that could happen in the United States and how it could be followed by such extraordinary inaction.

In order to make sense of it, I came down to New Orleans. … In many ways, I came down in search of an organizing tradition that I had heard about, which was the tradition of Ella Baker and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Many of my mentors post-Katrina in the Gulf Coast ended up being the people who were shaped by Ella Baker. I ended up staying and founding the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice in the midst of that and trying my best to follow that tradition.

What was the situation for workers in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast after Katrina hit?

After Hurricane Katrina and the breach of the levees, New Orleans became the biggest construction site in the world. African-American workers were excluded from the reconstruction, and immigrant workers were exploited in the reconstruction. The Workers’ Center was founded by workers who were being deeply extorted or severely excluded, and they were asking for a voice and a place inside the reconstruction of the Gulf Coast. Our first members [of the Workers’ Center] were the people who stood under Lee Circle, who helped rebuild the financial districts and the rest of the city, and guest workers who came from across the world into labor camps in Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas. These are the people who, even though they were rebuilding in atrocious conditions, were demanding dignity at work and in their lives.

How did Ella Baker influence your work in New Orleans?

The teachers I had would talk about organizing as slow, respectful work and the importance of patience, especially when approaching the long-standing inequalities in the South. I think that was an organizing tradition based on those simple tenets of respect and patience and harvesting the wisdom and even the genius of directly affected people.

Post-Katrina New Orleans was a time when many, many people came down to offer solutions, but the organizer tradition of Ella Baker taught organizers to ask more questions rather than providing answers. That’s what we tried to do — harvest the wisdom and knowledge of people who were affected, certainly, by problems but who also had a view of what the solutions should be.

What have been some of the successes over the past 10 years?

Undocumented day laborers who were helping to rebuild the city were facing incarceration and deportation just for the so-called crime of going to work and looking for work. They won the furthest-reaching policies in the country defending immigrants from deportation and recently were recognized by city council as heroes of the reconstruction.

African-American workers fought for jobs and then careers in their own city and recently won a $10.55 living wage for city workers and for city contract employees. Guest workers escaped from labor camps and marched all the way to the White House. One group within our members that campaigned recently won a $20 million legal settlement when a New Orleans court issued a verdict that the company that had been using their labor was guilty of human trafficking.

But I think the biggest success is that we have slowly rebuilt not just the brick and mortar city but civil society and the social fabric, and built a social movement that has the ability to dream despite the challenges. We’re one step closer to a true reconstruction — the kind of reconstruction that New Orleans needs and the South needs and the country needs, which is a reversal of power and governance of society by the people who are at its lowest rung.

What are some of the promising approaches you see to worker organizing in the South?

I think the work that STAND with Dignity [a grassroots project of the Workers’ Center that organizes low-income residents and workers] is doing is an example of exciting innovation. They are leading a citywide campaign to reverse intractable poverty by attacking the issue of structural unemployment. The goal is not just to win jobs but long-term, predictable, decent, secure employment that comes with the promise of careers and advancement so that an entire city can be lifted out of poverty. This is incredibly innovative. There have been millions of private-sector jobs that have been created in the last decade, but in large part, they have not been quality jobs. They’ve been poverty jobs. And STAND is really setting out to reverse that in New Orleans. …

[Another] example of innovation is the organizing of the guest workers who arrived in the Gulf Coast after Katrina. In the last years, they’ve organized in labor camps in the Southern region but also internationally. The National Guestworker Alliance has organized workers in the United States and their families in India, workers in sending countries and receiving countries, and really seeking the first step at a global approach to organizing. Those are some examples of innovation.

All this innovation has happened by necessity. No one thought, let’s be creative. Everyone thought, let’s find the necessary answer to this problem. One necessary answer after another, we created one innovation after another.

Organizing day laborers and guest workers intertwines worker issues with the immigrant rights movement. How do you see those issues relating?

It’s intertwined with the immigrant rights movement and with the racial justice movement in the United States. STAND with Dignity — yes, they’re fighting for inclusion and advancement but they’re also fighting for racial justice. To overcome exclusion and win dignified decent work, they have to push against the criminalization of African Americans. Winning the right to decent work is more than just job access. It’s overcoming barriers and violence very much based on race and is therefore very much part of the racial justice movement.

Similarly, the Congress of Day Laborers [which organizes primarily undocumented workers at day laborer corners and in detention centers] wants to win dignified work but also wants to stop deportations in a country that asks for immigrants to work but then criminalizes them when they seek out work. These movements are intertwined and in many ways are one movement. In the South, human rights, civil rights and labor rights have always been very deeply intertwined, and they still are now.

How do you build a movement that is led by the workers — often very marginalized workers?

The movement is led by people who are really the majority. Most of the country today is experiencing the kind of insecurity that our members are experiencing. Our members are emblematic of how many, many people in the United States are experiencing work and experiencing anxiety and economic inequality. In today’s economy, the agricultural worker and the adjunct professor are in some extent in the same boat and will find themselves more and more in the same economy. It’s true that our members are experiencing the extreme edge of racism and injustice, but strategies that, if they were once uniquely Southern strategies, are now being exported everywhere. Right-to-work is in the Midwest, in Michigan of all places.

I think that our members could be characterized as “marginalized” but they’re certainly not “marginal.” They’re very much the majority.

What do you think the country should take away from the experience and aftermath of Hurricane Katrina?

Our culture loves success stories and comeback kids and stories about miracles and revivals. Katrina was a disaster 500 years in the making, and it’s not going to take 10 years to undo it. We’ve taken some important steps in the right direction, but the task of rebuilding New Orleans and rebuilding the South is a big one.

If I’ve learned anything from the people we’re organizing, it’s that they have extraordinary dreams. They dream of a true reconstruction. We got a glimpse of what that could look like during the First Reconstruction in the 1870s when African-American schools and churches were built and state legislators were elected. We then saw that reconstruction attacked by reactionaries. Today, we’re seeing modern-day civil rights defenders and human rights defenders attacked similarly by reactionaries. Last week, Donald Trump held what was essentially a white power rally in Alabama.

There are lots of dreams to build on, and there’s lots of work to be done.

http://www.southernstudies.org/2015/08/organizing-for-a-true-reconstruction-in-the-gulf-c.html

The Hill op-ed

August 8, 2015

Life as Donald Trump’s guestworker
By Saket Soniguestworkers_201_350

What’s it like being a guestworker for Donald Trump?

I don’t know firsthand. But as director of the National Guestworker Alliance, I’ve met and organized thousands of guestworkers in the same federal visa programs Trump used to apply for over 1,000 foreign workers for his companies since 2000. So I’ve got some pretty good guesses.

If Trump’s guestworkers are like the overwhelming majority of workers in the H-2A, H-2B, and H-1B programs, they were lured by recruiters in their home countries who promised them steady work, good pay, and the chance to provide for their families.

Maybe they’d heard stories from friends and relatives who’d gone to the U.S. as guestworkers with high hopes, only to face brutal conditions, stolen wages, threats of physical violence by bosses, sexual harassment and even assault.
But they must have decided it was worth the risk—likely because the prospects at home were even grimmer. Many guestworkers, especially in the H-2A and H-2B programs, come from areas wracked by economic desperation and violence, such as Mexico’s Sinaloa region, home to the drug cartel that U.S. authorities call the most dangerous in the world.

It would have felt like another world at workplaces like Trump’s Mar-A-Lago Country Club in Florida, which has obtained 350 visas for H-2B waitstaff, cooks, and housekeepers since 2009, according to U.S. Department of Labor records. “Located within 20 acres of perfectly landscaped gardens and with ocean views, Mar-a-Lago is truly the crown jewel of Palm Beach,” Trump says in a welcome message on the club’s website.

But the website’s promises of an “incomparable, royal lifestyle” in “the greatest mansion ever built” wouldn’t extend to Trump’s guestworkers. They would have arrived in the U.S., like all guestworkers in the H-2B program, with two strikes against them.

First, they would be bound to the Mar-A-Lago by program rules. If they left their employer for any reason, they would be immediately out of status and facing deportation. Second, they would be facing crushing debt in their home countries from program-related fees and recruitment costs, and no way to pay them back. In essence, no matter what kind of workplace abuse they might face—from the wage theft and threats of blacklisting faced by H-2B guestworkers at other Florida resorts, to the forced labor exposed by H-2B workers on Walmart’s U.S. supply chain—they’d be trapped.

Any abuse they faced wouldn’t just hurt them. One of the reasons low-road employers love guestworker programs is that by trapping guestworkers in exploitation, they can drive down wages and conditions for the U.S. workers in the same industries. With more than 24 million U.S. workers work alongside guestworkers in the core H-2B industries of hospitality, construction, landscaping, and food processing, that’s a problem that touches just about everyone.

Otherwise, low-road employers can use guestworker programs to simply replace U.S. workers with cheaper, more exploitable workers—as did Disney late last year, laying off 250 IT workers to replace them with H-1B guestworkers, but requiring the local workers to train their replacements first. Employers seeking guestworkers are technically required to certify that no U.S. workers are available for the job, but there’s virtually no way to hold them to their word.

So why is Donald Trump, while promising to be “the greatest jobs president that God has ever created,” relying on programs that are rife with abuse and forced labor, programs that drive down wages and conditions for millions of U.S. workers—or else deprive them of jobs altogether? Why is he seeking H-2B guestworkers, 80 percent of whom come from Mexico, then defaming Mexican migrants as “rapists”? We know Trump’s not afraid of tough questions. So we’d like to hear his answers.

And it’s one thing to guess at what life is like for Trump’s guestworkers. But we’d like to ask them ourselves. It won’t be easy for them to speak up: if the bosses at Trump’s workplaces are like those at many other guestworker employers, they may be holding captive audience meetings with Trump’s guestworkers right now, threatening them with firing, deportation, and blacklisting if they speak up about abuse.

Of course, Trump could just plead ignorance about the whole thing—however out of character that would be.

But at the end of the day, shouldn’t a man who claims his business experience is the reason he should be the next president of the United States be able to answer for how, and with whom, he runs his businesses?

What do you say, Donald?

Soni is executive director of the National Guestworker Alliance and New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice.

http://thehill.com/blogs/congress-blog/labor/250599-life-as-donald-trumps-guestworker

The Hill op-ed

May 11, 2015

By Saket Sonivarwwwclientsclient1web2tmpphpgJDsww

What do Vietnamese refugees, prison laborers, and H-2B guestworkers have in common? More than they should.

On Wednesday, testimony before the Senate Small Business and Entrepreneurship Committee revealed the dirty truth about why low-road businesses have been fighting so hard to stop the Department of Labor (DOL) from reforming the H-2B guestworker program.

The H-2B program has become notorious in recent years for case after case of severe labor exploitation—often rising to the level of forced labor—especially in the seafood processing industry.
So it was fitting that Wednesday’s hearing included testimony by Frank Randol, owner of a Louisiana seafood processing business. Randol spoke out to condemn new H-2B program rules by the DOL and Department of Homeland Security (DHS)—long-overdue reforms that provide basic labor protections for guestworkers and the more than 24 million U.S. workers alongside them in core H-2B industries.

Randol told how his company had once employed Vietnamee refugees to do his seafood processing work. More recently, he used prison laborers through a “trustee program”—though by his own testimony, the incarcerated workers found conditions so poor that they preferred to return to prison rather than continue working at Randol’s plant.

Now that Randol has come to rely on H-2B workers, he complained that he was facing a threat he suggested was as dangerous to his business as floods and hurricanes: workers standing up for their rights.

For low-road employers who are determined to shop for the cheapest, most exploitable workers possible—those least able to exercise basic labor rights—the H-2B program has been a boon. H-2B employers routinely subject their guestworkers to brutal conditions and pay far below minimum wage, and use threats of firing and blacklisting to silence worker complaints. The H-2B program binds workers to a single employer, so firing means deportation to workers’ home countries, where they face crushing program-related debts and no way to pay them back.

The DOL has been trying to institute protections against this kind of abuse since 2012. Employers, industry groups, and their Congressional backers have fought desperately to block them—even while federal courts and the General Accounting Office affirmed that the program’s flaws were driving down wages and conditions for all workers.

So what exactly is in the new rules that Randol and others find so threatening?

  • prohibitions on employer intimidation, blacklisting, or other discriminatory behavior against guestworkers who seek to enforce their rights or consult with workers’ centers or attorneys;
  • protections to prevent employers from shifting the costs of travel, visa, and recruitment to H-2B workers, which would help eliminate debt servitude;
  • stronger guarantees that unemployed U.S. workers have a chance to learn about and apply for the jobs;
  • an employer registration process that could expedite the labor certification process; and
  • stronger rules to debar employers and agents who abuse the program.

 

If these don’t sound like radical measures, it’s because they’re not. They’re commonsense, long-overdue rules that will protect millions of U.S. workers, guestworkers, and the high-road employers who are currently being undercut by businesses that profit from exploitation.

Low-road employers will always put greed over worker dignity. And business lobbyists will meet any rule or reform, however good for workers and high-road employers, with cookie-cutter complaints of overregulation.

The DOL and DHS have taken an important step against the race to the bottom that’s taken a toll on every worker in the U.S. You don’t have to listen to workers and their advocates to understand why we need these new rules. It’s just as clear when you listen to their critics.

Soni is executive director of the National Guestworker Alliance.

http://thehill.com/blogs/congress-blog/labor/241500-low-road-employers-hit-a-dead-end

On May 6, 2015, the U.S. Senate Committee on Small Business & Entrepreneurship held a hearing on H-2B guestworker program regulations.

Below is a statement by Jacob Horwitz, Organizing Director of the National Guestworker Alliance (NGA):

6-4-14 action 4 350We applaud the new H-2B program regulations by the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) and Department of Homeland Security (DHS). These new rules—one instituting a new wage methodology and one regulating the H-2B program—are long overdue, having previously been blocked by industry and Congressional backers who put greed over basic worker dignity. The new rules help protect wages and working conditions for the 24 million U.S. workers who work alongside guestworkers in core H-2B industries like seafood processing, construction, landscaping, and hospitality.

Testimony at yesterday’s hearing shows why low-road employers are opposing the rules: they are afraid of workers standing up for their basic rights. Seafood industry representative Frank Randol suggested that guestworkers’ joining the NGA and exposing forced labor was as worrying to him as floods and hurricanes. Low-road employers in the seafood industry have consistently opposed regulations that provide basic protections for workers, and have sought to employ those least able to enforce their rights. As Mr. Randol noted in his testimony, his own business turned from Vietnamese refugees to H-2B guestworkers, and most recently, to prison labor.

As in 2012, industry lobbyists are now making tired complaints of overregulation. But the evidence shows—and the Federal Courts and GAO have agreed—that the lack of adequate regulation has harmed U.S. workers and guestworkers alike. The reality is that the current system rewards employers who abuse the H-2B program as a source of cheap, exploitable workers.  Without the protections provided by these new rules, guestworkers like Olivia Guzman Garfias and Fausto Garcia Figueroa will continue to face retaliatory firing or blacklisting when they advocate for better conditions or come forward to expose abuse. Retaliation chills the ability of workers to enforce their rights, creates a race to the bottom, puts high-road employers at a competitive disadvantage, and drives down wages and conditions for all workers, including the 24 million U.S. workers who work alongside H-2B guestworkers.

The commonsense rules issued last week by the DOL and DHS provide important protections for all involved, including guestworkers, U.S. workers, and high-road employers:

  • prohibitions on employer intimidation, blacklisting, or other discriminatory behavior against guestworkers who seek to enforce their rights or consult with workers’ centers or attorneys, among other frontline advocates;
  • protections to prevent employers from shifting the costs of travel, visa, and recruitment to H-2B workers, thereby helping to prevent debt servitude;
  • stronger protections to ensure that unemployed U.S. workers have an opportunity to learn about and apply for the jobs;
  • an employer registration process valid for up to three years, which will expedite the certification process; and
  • stronger debarment provisions for employers and agents abusing the program.

These new rules are an important step in stopping the rampant forced labor and workplace abuse in the H-2B program, which the NGA has exposed on the supply chains of Walmart and other major corporations. They’re long overdue. And they should be supported by anyone who cares about the dignity of immigrant workers and the U.S. workers alongside them.

CONTACTS: Jacob Horwitz, jacob@guestworkeralliance.org, 504-452-9159

Stephen Boykewich, stephen@guestworkeralliance.org, 323-594-2347

E-2 “investor” visas are in the news with a lawsuit filed in Los Angeles by E-2 workers charging severe labor abuse by their employer, including $3/hour pay.

But what are E-2 visas? How widespread is abuse? How are they connected to immigration reform?

A new NGA fact sheet (download PDF) answers these questions and more.

Learn more ...

Immigrants’ Greatest Fear Isn’t What You Think

indianworkers_katrina_apA federal jury recently awarded $14 million in damages to a group of courageous H-2B guestworkers from India who captured national headlines in 2008 when they exposed severe labor exploitation by a Gulf Coast ship and oil-rig builder called Signal International.

In 2015, Signal’s violations sound like something out of another era: human trafficking, forced labor, discrimination and racketeering. Their practices violate the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act, Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act and Ku Klux Klan Act.

I first met the workers one Sunday in 2007, weeks after they arrived in the United States. They had stolen away from a labor camp on Signal’s property to attend a clandestine meeting with me in a small church in Mississippi.

They told me how agents of the company had promised them good jobs as welders and pipe-fitters, along with green cards and a better life for themselves and their families. The workers paid up to $20,000 each based on these false promises. Some took on crushing debt; others sold ancestral homes to buy an American Dream.

They arrived in an American nightmare, subject to brutal working conditions, living with twenty-four men in a trailer and facing constant threats of firing and deportation. Instead of green cards, they received temporary H-2B guestworker visas. Now they were asking me: How can we make the company keep its promises? I said: By taking collective action.

A year later, late one night in March 2008, hundreds of workers and I were huddled in a room in Mississippi, just hours before they launched their public campaign to expose Signal’s abuses. As the organizer, it was my job to prepare them.

They had much to fear. They’d soon face covert surveillance by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the possibility of arrest and deportation at every step, and even threats of physical violence as they marched from New Orleans to Washington, DC, to hold a thirty-one-day hunger strike.

But that’s not what they feared most. To my surprise, their greatest fear was telling their families back home that they’d failed. They’d come to America, the land of opportunity, the freest place on earth, and they had nothing to show for it. In their darkest moments, it wasn’t Signal’s abuses that haunted them. It was the fear that they’d let down the ones they loved.

At first this amazed me—then I remembered I’d had exactly the same fear.

I came to the United States from India, to attend college at the University of Chicago. For a time, I thought my foothold in America was secure. Then, in 2000, I missed an immigration deadline and became undocumented. Unable to work legally, I fell behind on rent. I was evicted from my apartment. I lived on friends’ couches, and worked minimum-wage jobs alongside undocumented immigrants from around the world.

After the 9/11 attacks, the threat of deportation increased. More than once, I faced physical violence from strangers who projected onto my brown skin their own nightmares of another terrorist attack. Even so, what I feared most—more than homelessness and physical violence—was telling my family that I had failed. Here I was, in the land of opportunity. And I’d let them down.

The fear of admitting that you’ve failed to achieve the American Dream is hardly unique to immigrant workers. The reality for tens of millions of US workers today is not the climb toward prosperity they were promised, but the sense that they’re losing ground every day. That they’re one slip away from disaster. Workers in the US are working harder every yearwith less to show for it. They struggle each day with their own fear of failure, of letting down the ones they love—and with the sense that somehow it’s their own fault.

It’s not. They haven’t failed at the American Dream; the American dream has failed them. College professors are now poverty-level adjuncts. Educated millennials are now just-in-time retail staff. Seniors who should be retired have become migrant warehouse workers for Amazon. Contract attorneys with six-figure law-school debt are reviewing documents for $8 an hour.

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So how did the Signal workers overcome their greatest fear? By coming together to take collective action.

All around America, there are workers coming together to imagine an economy in which they’re truly free. They’re fighting for the new generation of rights and guarantees that would let tens of millions of US workers trade anxiety and constraint for dignity and creativity.

Those who believe in the promise of the American Dream need to remember that opportunity in America has always been won through generations of collective struggle. If we can imagine freedom in the face of fear, as the Signal workers did, then we can start to build an economy that will guarantee it.

http://www.thenation.com/article/200473/immigrants-greatest-fear-isnt-what-you-think

workermarch_350On Wednesday, February 18, 2015, a federal jury awarded $14 million in damages to five H-2B guestworkers from India who joined the National Guestworker Alliance (NGA) and launched a nationwide campaign in 2008 to expose human trafficking and forced labor by Gulf Coast marine services company Signal International, together with its labor recruiters.

The following is a statement by NGA Legal Director Jennifer J. Rosenbaum:

“If any further vindication was needed, workers whose brave action exposed human trafficking to the Department of Justice, Equal Employment Opportunity CommissionU.S Congress, and the national press have now been vindicated by a federal jury as well.

“The jury found Signal and its agents guilty of a shocking list of violations: labor trafficking, fraud, racketeering, and discrimination, based on the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act, Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, and Ku Klux Klan Act.

“But more shocking is the reality that thousands of H-2B guestworkers in the Gulf Coast and throughout the U.S. continue to face the same dynamics of forced labor that the Signal workers did. Guestworkers continue to be legally bound to one employer, trapped by debt from recruitment fees and costs, and subject to employer threats of firing and deportation in retaliation for organizing.

“The most extraordinary part of the Signal story is the actions the workers took. After joining the NGA, hundreds of workers escaped the Signal labor camp, reported the company to the Department of Justice, marched from New Orleans to Washington, DC, testified before U.S. Congress, and held a 31-day hunger strike that burned the realities of guestworker abuse into the national consciousness.

“They also exposed that Signal had a powerful ally in trafficking the workers: Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Court testimony revealed that ICE advised Signal on performing illegal private deportations to punish workers for organizing and cover up the abuse.”

 

NGA Executive Director Saket Soni said:

“When these workers escaped the Signal labor camps in 2008, many lawmakers had never even heard of guestworker programs. Since then, thousands of guestworkers, including hundreds of NGA members, have come forward to expose the coercion inherent in the H-2B and other guestworker programs. As widely reported, WalmartHershey’s, and McDonald’s have joined Signal in the shameful club of companies that have been exposed while trying to escape responsibility for severe abuse of guestworkers on their supply chains.

“As policymakers and employers enter a new round of conversations on expanding guestworker programs, we need to remember that what happened at Signal International wasn’t an exception but an extreme example of the rule.

“As long as these programs continue to tie workers to a single employer, trap them in program-related debt, and leave them subject to threats of retaliatory deportation, severe abuse of guestworkers will be an everyday American reality.”

CONTACT: Stephen Boykewich, stephen@guestworkeralliance.org, 323-594-2347

Immigrant workers and families say that Governor Jindal does not speak for Louisiana

10860251306_0a3536a7d1_zNEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA, February 17, 2015—A federal district court judge in Texas yesterday blocked the implementation of President Obama’s November 20, 2014, expansion of deferred action programs for undocumented immigrants. The case the judge ruled in was brought by 26 states, including Louisiana, represented by Governor Bobby Jindal and Attorney General Buddy Caldwell.

Saket Soni, Executive Director of the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice and the National Guestworker Alliance, issued the following statement:

“This temporary setback is based not on law, but on the politics of a small but vocal minority of ideologues. This group is putting the politics of panic ahead of a modest action by the president that would let immigrants with deep ties to their communities and no criminal records take a modest step toward normalcy in their daily lives.”

“We are confident the president’s actions are in the country’s best interest and will withstand full legal scrutiny. We urge the Department of Justice to act swiftly to appeal the Texas judge’s decision and put implementation of these expanded deferred action programs back on track.”

“In supporting this lawsuit, Governor Jindal does not stand for the workers, families, faith communities, high-road employers, or others in the New Orleans community who value the dignity of our state’s immigrant families. Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman joined dozens of other major city law enforcement leaders in a brief against the lawsuit, stating that ‘a preliminary injunction [against Obama’s immigration action] would cause significant harms and would injure the public interest.’”

“We urge New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, together with Louisiana elected officials, businesses, and community organizations, to express their confidence in the President’s immigration action and their support of Louisiana’s immigrant families.”

CONTACT: Stephen Boykewich, 323-594-2347, stephen@guestworkeralliance.org

The Hill op-ed

Feb. 6, 2015

By Saket Soni

dignity vid still 350Even before they took control of Congress, Republican Party leaders were promising they would show America what their party is all about in 2015. So far, they’ve been keeping their promise.

As early as this week, a federal judge in Texas could rule on a lawsuit by 25 governors and attorneys general, overwhelmingly Republican, meant to block implementation of Obama’s executive action on immigration. Here in Louisiana, Republican Governor Bobby Jindal joined the lawsuit, and senior senator and likely future governor David Vitter (R) said stopping Obama’s immigration action was his top priority. And in the House, just hours before the lawsuit’s first hearing in January, Republicans also voted overwhelmingly to block implementation of the president’s immigration action.

Republican leaders know all eyes are on them, and the party’s reputation is at stake. Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) has sought to shake the image of his party as led by spoilers, nay-sayers, and ideologues, telling the Washington Post, “I want the American people to be comfortable with the fact that the Republican House and Senate is a responsible, right-of-center, governing majority.”

Why then is a party so concerned with proving it can be “responsible” focused on crushing Obama’s immigration action?

It’s worth recalling exactly what the president’s order would and wouldn’t do. It would provide only a temporary reprieve from the threat of deportation for about 5 million of the 11 million undocumented immigrants in America. Rather than living in daily terror of being seized in racial profiling-based raids at school bus stops, grocery stores, and Bible studies and torn apart from their families, immigrants with deep ties to their communities and no criminal records would be able to take a modest step toward normalcy in their daily lives.

This falls short of the true aspirations of America’s immigrants—good jobs and a meaningful path toward citizenship in the communities they already call home—but it would be a step in the right direction. And as the amicus brief by the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice and other national immigration groups in the Texas case argues, Obama’s action would be an economic boon not only for immigrant workers, but for U.S. workers and the economy as a whole.

So what has driven Republicans to the politics of panic? Quite simply, something progressives have forgotten, but Republicans know all too well: you can’t win the nation without winning the South.

Of the 25 states suing to stop Obama’s immigration action, 15 are in the South or the Southwest. At first glance, it may not be clear what Southern Republicans think they have to fear from the immigrants Obama’s action would cover. In absolute terms, Northern states have a significantly higher number of undocumented immigrants than the South does.

But small margins matter. As Ben Jealous pointed out in his recent report True South, as little as a 30 percent increase in voter registration among people of color in Southern states could transform the political calculus in the region.

Take Georgia, where the net average margin of victory over the past three gubernatorial elections has been 260,704 votes, according to the study. A 30 percent rise in registration by voters of color would add 200,100 likely Democratic voters. The Migration Policy Instituteestimates that Obama’s executive action would cover 170,000 undocumented immigrants in Georgia. If those immigrants stepped out of the shadows and went on to win full citizenship and voting rights, they could end up tipping the scales in Democrats’ favor.

The same is true across the South. Again, the temporary reprieve Obama’s action offers is a long way from full citizenship. But it’s a step along the way, and Republicans know it. That’s why they’re going all in on trying to stop it. They’re looking ahead and seeing a very different South—and a very different America—and they’re panicking.

It’s time for progressives to look ahead with hope—and to get to work on a new Southern strategy to match it.

Soni is executive director of the National Guestworker Alliance and the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice.

http://thehill.com/blogs/congress-blog/politics/231913-the-politics-of-panic

On Thursday, November 20, 2014, President Barack Obama announced a plan for administrative immigration reform that will grant work authorization and temporary legal status to up to 5 million undocumented immigrants.

The following is a statement by Saket Soni, Executive Director of the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice and the National Guestworker Alliance:

url-5We applaud President Obama for getting on the right side of history. The reforms he announced tonight were possible because millions of immigrant workers raised their voices, and the president listened.

Why these reforms are needed is nowhere clearer than in New Orleans, where Immigration and Customs Enforcement has created a brutal regime of racial profiling-based community raids that have undercut basic civil and labor rights.

Still, the temporary reforms are exactly that. They are not a substitute for full citizenship in our democracy and our economy, and we will continue to fight for a path to citizenship for all 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States.

Because the 5 million people covered by the president’s reform are overwhelmingly the workers at the bottom of the U.S. economy, raising their wages and conditions will be crucial to lifting the floor for all workers in the U.S.

For years, we have exposed how employers in the South and around the U.S. use the threat of deportation as a weapon to stop workers from exposing labor abuse, and as a form of retaliation against worker organizing.

This makes it a major victory that the president’s reforms include expanded protections for victims of trafficking and other crimes who are participating in government investigations, as well as the creation of an interagency working group to “explore ways to ensure that workers can avail themselves of their labor and employment rights without fear of retaliation.” When the immigrant workers at the bottom of our economy can organize for their rights without fear of retaliation, it helps raise the floor for all workers.

At the same time, the millions of immigrants not included by the president’s reforms are at risk of becoming a permanent underclass of exploitable workers. Those workers deserve the same fundamental civil and labor rights that we all do—and we’ll keep fighting for them.

Finally, we are concerned that the U.S. will be bringing more guestworkers into the tech sector without fundamental changes to the H1-B visa program that give workers the right to organize and access basic labor rights. We will continue to be a voice for guestworkers and the U.S. workers alongside them.

CONTACT: Stephen Boykewich, stephen@guestworkeralliance.org, 323-594-2347


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