WASHINGTON -- Three years ago, Antonio Vanegas took a job at a pita shop inside the food court at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center in D.C.
For an undocumented immigrant like Vanegas, the venue was a particularly ironic fit. The Reagan Building, after all, is home to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, an agency of the Department of Homeland Security that enforces immigration and trade law. Working the grill and the cash register, the Guatemala native was apparently dishing out pitas to some of the very federal workers tasked with keeping folks like himself out of the country.
But like many undocumented workers, Vanegas said his immigration status was never an issue on the job -- at least until he claimed publicly that his boss had been violating labor law. Not long after that, he said, he was detained for four days, and now has an immigration hearing scheduled for August.
"This country is a country of laws," Vanegas, 26, told HuffPost through an interpreter. "Regardless of my status, I should have some protections based on the labor laws that have been violated."
Vanegas claims that he was paid under the table and below the minimum wage for much of his time at a shop called Quick Pita. He said he earned $6.50 per hour his first year and $7 his second year, in a city where the minimum wage is now $8.25. He also claims he routinely worked more than 40 hours per week but was never paid time-and-a-half for those additional hours, as federal overtime law requires. He said he simply wrote down his hours for the week on a piece of paper and was paid in cash.
Earlier this year, Vanegas met a labor organizer at the food court who talked to him about minimum wage and overtime laws. The organizer was with Good Jobs Nation, a new union-funded group that's trying to draw attention to the low-wage jobs found in many federal buildings, particularly those funded through food and vending contracts. As a recent report by the left-leaning think tank Demos found, a lot of the concessions workers inside federal buildings are in the same boat as Vanegas: paid low wages, without health or other job benefits, and scraping to get by in an expensive city.
In May, Vanegas joined an estimated 150 workers who went on a one-day strike in D.C. to protest their low wages. Vanegas spoke as part of the demonstration, accusing his employer of not following the law and asking the federal government to be a "good landlord" and rent space only to scrupulous employers. He was featured in a story in In These Times after the demonstration.
According to Vanegas, when he showed up for work a few days later he was stopped by an officer with the Federal Protective Service, a security police force of the Department of Homeland Security. There was a problem with his work badge, Vanegas said he was told, even though he'd used the same badge for years. Vanegas was then turned over to immigration officials and spent four days in detention before being released, he said. His hearing is slated for next month.
"What they told me was I shouldn't keep working there because I'm undocumented," Vanegas said. "When I worked at the food court I talked to a lot of police officers and some of the customs and border agents. I had no problems with them until I decided to raise my voice."
It still isn't clear who, if anyone, decided to make an issue out of Vanegas' undocumented status, and the timing of his run-in with the Federal Protective Service may well have been coincidental. A DHS spokesperson didn't respond to inquiries on Vanegas' case, and a man who answered the phone at Quick Pita and identified himself as a manager said he wouldn't comment on Vanegas' claims.
It's not uncommon for employers in low-wage industries to threaten undocumented workers with deportation if they make allegations of wage theft or other kinds of abuse. Organized labor, including the Change to Win union federation that backs Good Jobs Nation, has made it part of their case for comprehensive immigration reform. Legally or not, workers like Vanegas are here, the thinking goes, and the threat of deportation discourages them from speaking out about exploitation, dragging down standards for everyone.
The Senate recently passed an immigration reform bill that, were it to become law, would eventually provide a 13-year pathway to citizenship for undocumented workers like Vanegas. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), however, has said House Republicans won't take up the bill as a comprehensive package.
During Vanegas' detainment, the Latino advocacy group Presente.org circulated an online petition calling the situation "outrageous." Kyle de Beausset, senior campaigner with the group, told HuffPost he felt Vanegas was ultimately punished for doing a brave thing.
"When undocumented workers are trying to organize, they're threatened with deportation, and that keeps everyone's wages down," de Beausset said. "We're hopeful this will help people realize that when folks are here in the country and unable to organize, it hurts everyone."
Vanegas was named in a complaint Good Jobs Nation filed with the U.S. Labor Department last month, accusing a host of restaurants inside the Reagan Building of wage and hour violations, including a Subway, a Smoothie King and a Great Wraps franchise. Vanegas, the letter stated, "ordinarily worked 59 hours per week but [has] never been paid an overtime premium for any hours worked." The Labor Department has said it's investigating the allegations.
Vanegas said he lost his job after the detainment. He's currently unemployed and living in the Maryland suburbs in a shared apartment as he looks for work.
He said he'd be more worried about deportation if he had a criminal record. The Obama administration has been racking up a record number of deportations, and it's on track to surpass the totals of the George W. Bush White House, with more than 1,100 people deported each day on average last year. The administration has said it's focusing its resources on removing criminals, and more than half of last year's deportees had misdemeanor or felony records, according to DHS. (A court record search for Vanegas in Maryland and D.C. turns up only two traffic cases.)
Asked how he responds to people who say he shouldn't be in the U.S. in the first place, Vanegas said his status shouldn't prevent him from speaking out if he's been cheated out of wages like he claims.
"I'm just asking to be afforded the same protections as other people," he said, "whether they're citizens or not."