New York union workers are taking undocumented immigrants under their wing

A city of workers.
A city of workers.
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Donald Trump is selling his proposal to dramatically cut immigration to the US as a necessary protection for the blue-collar workers of the US. Fewer immigrants would mean higher wages for American workers, and more opportunities for them to flourish, White House officials told reporters during a Feb. 14 call about the president’s plan.

At least 120,000 workers are not buying that argument. Teamsters Joint Council 16, a union that represents workers in New York City and surrounding areas, has declared itself a “sanctuary union” to protect its undocumented members. Like some of the cities and states that have implemented “sanctuary” policies, it is refusing to cooperate with federal officials attempting to deport them, and will not collect any information that could be used for that purpose.

“Supporting workers and supporting immigrants are completely intertwined,” said Alex Moore, a spokesperson for the union. “If you allow immigrants to be exploited, you’re just going to lower the wages and working conditions of everybody.”

The Teamsters’ position runs counter to the idea—spread after Trump won many blue-collar areas in the 2016 election—that workers see immigrants as adversaries. That same notion has prompted divisions within the Democratic party about whether focusing too much on immigration puts off voters who care more about dwindling jobs and stagnant wages.

For the Teamsters, an undocumented worker and a blue-collar worker are often the same thing. About a third of its members are immigrants. The union, which represents a variety of workers, from truck drivers to airline employees, doesn’t ask about immigration status, but president George Miranda estimates many of them are undocumented.

Defending those members became a top priority after one of them, a sanitation worker from Guatemala living in New York, was deported last year. He had been part of the union for 26 years.

In addition to refusing to cooperate with federal authorities, the Teamsters are also offering workshops about immigrants’ legal rights, and advice from immigration lawyers. Meanwhile, union leaders are pushing for protections by employers in collective bargaining agreements—for example, asking that immigration-enforcement officials not be let into a workplace without a warrant.

“We’re in dangerous times,” said Miranda. “Unless you’re an American Indian, you are an immigrant of some sort. That’s what made this country great.”