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."
Also on HuffPost:
The Naturalization Act of 1790
The Naturalization Act of 1790 was our country's first set of laws dealing with citizenship. Applicants had to be "<a href="http://rs6.loc.gov/cgi-bin/ampage?collId=llsl&fileName=001/llsl001.db&recNum=226 " target="_hplink">a free white person</a>" of "good moral character." This excluded indentured servants and slaves. Good moral character was substantiated by establishing residence for at least one year in the state from where he was applying, and at least two years of residence in the country. The Naturalization Act of 1795 would extend that requirement to five years, and is still standard today.
The Fourteenth Amendment, 1868
A Reconstruction Amendment that was added to the U.S. Constitution following the Civil War, the Citizenship Clause of the 14th Amendment establishes for the first time that children born on U.S. soil would be conferred U.S. citizenship regardless of their parent's citizenship status, race, or place of birth. Last year, Rep. Steve King (R-IA) introduced the <a href="http://www.govtrack.us/congress/bills/112/hr140 " target="_hplink">Birthright Citizenship Act of 2011</a> to Congress, and challenged this. The bill would require that at least one parent be a U.S. citizen or permanent resident for a child to be granted citizenship. According to the <a href="http://www.opencongress.org/bill/112-h140/text " target="_hplink">bill's text</a>, the Birthright Citizenship Act of 2011 would amend the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952, and "clarify those classes of individuals born in the United States who are nationals and citizens of the United States at birth." Prior to this, Rep. Nathan Deal (R-GA) <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/05/26/nathan-deal-georgia-lawma_n_207485.html " target="_hplink">introduced</a> a similar <a href="http://www.opencongress.org/bill/111-h1868/show" target="_hplink">bill</a> in 2009.
The Naturalization Act of 1870
The Naturalization Act of 1870<a href="http://thepoliticsofimmigration.org/pages/chronology.htm " target="_hplink"> explicitly extended</a> naturalization laws to "aliens of African nativity and persons of African descent." This meant that for the first time, African-American children would be conferred citizenship upon birth. Asian immigrants and other people of color are excluded per the Naturalization Acts of 1790 and 1795.
The Page Act of 1875
Named after Republican Representative Horace F. Page, this is the first U.S. federal immigration law to explicitly prohibit the immigration of a particular group: persons of Asian descent. Primarily meant to limit Chinese immigrant labor and prostitution, the Page Act prohibited the immigration of: (1) contracted labor from "China, Japan, or any Oriental country" that was not "free and voluntary," (2) Chinese prostitution and (3) criminals and women who would engage in prostitution. Ultimately, the <a href="http://www.uchastings.edu/racism-race/pageact.html " target="_hplink">Page Act</a> severely <a href="http://immigration-online.org/228-page-act-united-states-1875.html " target="_hplink">restricted</a> the immigration of Asian women. Only 136 of the the nearly 40,000 Chinese immigrants who arrived in the months before the bill's enforcement were women. And, it would pave the way for the Chinese Exclusion Act. In this picture, Michael Lin, chair of the 1882 Project, a coalition of rights groups seeking a statement of regret over that year's Chinese Exclusion Act, speaks on May 26, 2011 in Washington, DC, at the US House of Representatives in front of a reproduction of a 19th-century sign that aimed at rousing up sentiment against Chinese Americans. Lawmakers introduced a bill that would offer an official statement of regret for the act, which banned further immigration of Chinese to the United States and ended citizenship rights for ethnic Chinese. (AFP PHOTO/SHAUN TANDON).
The Chinese Exclusion Act, 1882
Signed by President Chester A. Arthur, the <a href="http://www.pbs.org/weta/thewest/resources/archives/seven/chinxact.htm " target="_hplink">Chinese Exclusion Act</a> was the first federal immigration law to prohibit immigration on the basis of race. The bill barred all Chinese laborers, skilled and unskilled, from immigrating to the U.S. for ten years. It was made permanent by 1903, and was not lifted until the 1943 Magnuson Act. The 1898 Supreme Court <a href="http://ocp.hul.harvard.edu/immigration/exclusion.html " target="_hplink">decision</a> in <em>United States v. Wong Kim Ark</em> finally extended naturalization laws to persons of Chinese descent by ruling that anyone born in the United States was indeed a U.S. citizen. This editorial cartoon from 1882 shows a Chinese man being excluded from entry to the "Golden Gate of Liberty." The sign next to the iron door reads, "Notice--Communist, Nihilist, Socialist, Fenian & Hoodlum welcome. But no admittance to Chinamen." At the bottom, the caption reads, "THE ONLY ONE BARRED OUT. Enlightened American Statesman--'We must draw the line <em>somewhere</em>, you know.'" (Image Source: Frank Leslie's illustrated newspaper, vol. 54 (1882 April 1), p. 96. [Public domain], via <a href="http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_only_one_barred_out_cph.3b48680.jpg" target="_hplink">Wikimedia Commons</a>).
The Naturalization Act of 1906
The Naturalization Act of 1906 further <a href="http://www.understandingrace.org/history/gov/eastern_southern_immigration.html" target="_hplink">defined</a> the naturalization process: the ability to speak English was made a <a href="http://www.enotes.com/topic/Naturalization_Act_of_1906" target="_hplink">requisite</a> for immigrants to adjust their status.
The Immigration Act of 1924
U.S. President Coolidge signed this U.S. federal <a href="http://history.state.gov/milestones/1921-1936/ImmigrationAct " target="_hplink">bill</a> into law. It capped the number of immigrants who could be admitted entry to the U.S. and barred immigration of persons who were not eligible for naturalization. And, as the Naturalization Act of 1790 required, an immigrant had to be white in order to naturalize. The quotas varied by country. Image Source: Flickr Creative Commons, <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/nycmarines/6306315902/" target="_hplink">NYCMarines</a>.
The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 (The McCarran-Walter Act)
The <a href="https://docs.google.com/viewer?a=v&q=cache:zwaVG82lZisJ:www-rohan.sdsu.edu/dept/polsciwb/brianl/docs/1952McCarranWaltersAct.pdf+&hl=en&gl=us&pid=bl&srcid=ADGEESjEwx76FIBTixZAfyncZz-1CSuSeciv5qB6vvWTrUfW58XRpXq8zkpnI57XSuuG5Bu-WSySGbEhxYvZxP7y6qDQuOsDhgDa6qUqUaJ8F4imTzKJsVtppHc_-eew2dK6vGhoIUZs&sig=AHIEtbTNQ5GFiNMVS-xyThq8VVSj_gG9KA " target="_hplink">McCarran-Walter Act</a> kept up the controversial Immigration Act of 1924, but <a href="http://history.state.gov/milestones/1945-1952/ImmigrationAct" target="_hplink">formally</a> ended Asian exclusion.
Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965
When President Lyndon Johnson signed the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, it <a href="http://library.uwb.edu/guides/USimmigration/1965_immigration_and_nationality_act.html" target="_hplink">abolished</a> the quota system that favored immigration from Europe and limited immigration from Asia and South America.
Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996
The 1996 <a href="http://www.uscis.gov/ilink/docView/PUBLAW/HTML/PUBLAW/0-0-0-10948.html " target="_hplink">Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act</a> (IIRIRA) is a piece of legislation that <a href="http://library.uwb.edu/guides/usimmigration/1996_illegal_immigration_reform_and_immigrant_responsibility_act.html " target="_hplink">defined</a> an array of issues to do with legal and illegal immigration -- from outlining how border patrol agents should administer visa processing, to the minutiae of how to handle deportation proceedings -- IIRIRA established enforcement and patrolling practices.