Maria Elena Durazo knows about immigrant workers, labor and civil rights. She has been the hospitality union UNITE HERE’s General Vice President for Immigration, Civil Rights and Diversity since 2014. Before that she was the first woman executive secretary-treasurer of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, which represents 600,000 workers, many of whom are immigrants and Latinos. She became a force for labor and living standards in the nation’s second-largest city—and a thought-leader for the rest of the nation.
When she was growing up, Durazo’s farm-worker family picked crops up and down the West Coast. Recalling that time, she told film maker Jesús Treviño, “As migrant farm workers, my dad would load us up on a flatbed truck and we would go from town to town and pick whatever crop was coming up. I think of my dad when he had to negotiate with contratistas [contractors]. I knew we worked so hard and the contratistas were chiseling us down to pennies. What was pennies to them meant food on the table for us.”
Durazo spoke with Capital & Main about the threats to working people and immigrants from a new Trump administration—and how to fight back.
Capital & Main: Let’s begin with the Big Question: What do you see as the next battle fronts for labor and immigration — what needs defending?
Maria Elena Durazo: There is a great degree of worry about Trump giving permission to do harm in our communities, to immigrant families and immigrant neighborhoods–permission for people to attack, to harass kids, adults.
Our job in the labor movement is to create safe-work places. Here in Los Angeles, and in a number of cities, officials are standing up and saying we’re not going to allow our local police to cooperate with ICE [U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.] Our schools are saying we’re not going to allow ICE to come in.
Families have an earthquake plan. Who do you call? How do you react? How do we protect ourselves? That’s the very first level, and we have to give confidence to our communities. We know how to be safe. Let’s remember that and do that stuff right away.
The president-elect has said he intends to cut federal funds to cities that don’t collaborate with federal authorities on immigration policies. Local municipalities are saying no—Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti has staked out his position–but what happens? Los Angeles could lose $500 million this fiscal year.
Remember the threats around apartheid? There were threats that pension funds in cities that divested from South Africa would be breaking the law…threats of lawsuits. Then divestment happened across the board. But it took a few to start it, to have the courage to say we’re not going to be threatened that way.
Some people called President Obama the “deporter-in-chief”—news reports cite 2.4 million “removals” during his administration. Is that title fair?
He certainly dramatically increased the number of border patrol agents. We in the labor and immigrant rights movement had big clashes with President Obama. He did try to do a version of [having] local law enforcement cooperate with ICE. We fought that.
At first he didn’t agree with giving deferred action to young people. [DACA, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals — the Dreamers.] We pushed back, and he eventually agreed with it. He tried very hard to get a complete overhaul of the immigration laws and immigration system. He tried in his way. We certainly pushed in our way. We got as far as bipartisan Senate approval of a piece of legislation.
Other Republicans were adamant about blocking him at every single step. He only got as far as the enforcement part of it, which is why he was given the title. But other than DACA, he was never able to get the other pieces of legislative immigration reform.
What lies ahead for the DACA students? There are some 750,000 young people completing their educations and working under a temporary protected status — it seems that makes them a very vulnerable population for deportation.
Unless we fight back harder they present an opportunity for Trump to be able to say, “See? I’m doing things. I told you I was going to do something.”
How real is President-elect Trump’s immigration rhetoric–“round them all up”? Should people be as afraid as they feel?
We should be worried about that. Not just worried, we should be acting on what he pledged to do, and what he continues to say he’s going to do.
The people that he’s considering for these different [government] positions are very serious. It’s not a threat. It’s a very explicit promise.
The other danger is to use the term “criminals” as a pretext to deport millions. [Trump] never said the majority of immigrants are hard-working men and women. There are at maximum a few hundred thousand immigrants [and] some that have had a run-in with law enforcement. That’s the pretext for going after millions. That’s the scary part because he knows people in this country could fall for that.
How many civil rights laws in our history have been violated–as recently as George W. Bush, as far back as what was done to Japanese Americans? In the 1950s we had the deportations of Mexican Americans and Mexican immigrants. It wasn’t in the millions, but it certainly was at least in the hundreds of thousands. We’ve been through this. Are we in a position to fight back and refuse?
How do we refuse?
There’s no doubt in my mind we have all the makings across this country to push back and show him. We won marriage equality, we’ve pushed and we’ve won a number of things on the environmental front.
A million people march in the streets. We’ll disobey and we’ll have solidarity. We’re showing that in Los Angeles. We’re showing that in other cities. We have police chiefs saying they will not cooperate. That’s a very powerful thing that we have on our side. Community-based organizations saying we’re going to set up family safety procedures. The school districts saying, “We’re not going to allow that.”
I spoke with Reverend James Lawson, the other day– when I talked to him he said, “We know how to win. We’ve got these victories. Feel proud and great about them. This guy, there’s no way we’re going to let him destroy our country.”
Major industries in this country benefit from the immigration system being broken. Are they going to go along with mass deportations– an enormous disruption in the economic system?
It’s a new opportunity to exploit immigrant workers even more. Wage theft will just go through the roof because there will be such a dramatic increase in this atmosphere of fear. There are sectors of our economy where employers will love it because they’ll be more in control. They know that 12 million people are not going to be deported overnight. But they’re going to take advantage of that fear.
A chicken-processing plant in a Southern right-to-work state wouldn’t be happy if all its undocumented workers were deported.
No, they wouldn’t be happy, but let’s say Trump says, “You’re not going to like that. But how about if I give you unfettered guest workers?” They’ll be provided an alternative on that level. That’s one way that they could look at it.
Look at these high-tech industry leaders that pretend to be so liberal. What do they want? Guest worker status for “highly skilled” workers—to be able to have them here, to work them. They don’t care about them being permanently allowed to live in this country.
There are industries like hospitality, where I expect those employers to defend their work force. In the past they’ve shown courage by publicly being on the side of [immigration] legislation. But they haven’t really taken much risk. Now it’s going to take more risk to defend their work force. Courage. Leadership. They’re going to have to do more than just sign off on legislation.