Building a Rapid-Response Network to Defend Immigrant Workers

Pioneer Valley Workers Center activists celebrated victories defending immigrant workers at the municipal level on May 1, 2018. Photo credit: Pioneer Valley Workers Center

As the Trump administration cracks down on undocumented immigrants, it’s urgent for worker centers and unions to organize to defend immigrant members.

In Western Massachusetts, the Pioneer Valley Workers Center has created a rapid-response network it calls “Sanctuary in the Streets” (SiS). The worker center, founded in 2014, organizes restaurant workers and farmworkers in the area. Worker committees set the network's priorities.

The rapid-response network consists of a 24-hour emergency hotline, 2,000 members, and 20 religious congregations. Forty bilingual responders are trained to manage the hotline, where they instruct callers in their constitutional rights, connect them to services, and activate the response team if necessary.

Since November 2016, members of the network have supported 35 families and individuals facing deportation and workplace abuse, including wage theft and sexual harassment.

The network has trained 800 Rapid Responders to document and peacefully denounce a deportation or raid as it is taking place, and is currently training to accompany immigrants to court hearings. It’s also defending two immigrants who have taken sanctuary in local churches after facing threats of deportation.

Here’s some advice from Pioneer Valley Workers Center organizers on setting up a rapid-response network:

1. Make sure it’s led by immigrant workers.

The volunteers in the network include many non-immigrant supporters from all walks of life. But “what makes our model strong is that we have an existing worker committee, and the Sanctuary in the Streets network is accountable to the worker committee,” says Diana Sierra, an organizer with the Center.

In a series of forums, members of the worker center identified the most urgent issues affecting their community: workplace abuse; detentions, raids, and deportations; and hate crimes. These became the network’s priorities to organize against.

Without a base among immigrant workers, it can be hard to know the community’s real needs. For example, some activists in Western Massachusetts have called for shutting down the ICE detention center in Greenfield, which houses 100 immigrants. But there's a debate within the worker center and the immigrant community around this approach. “For immigrants here that detention center means that they’re not shipped off far away without access to legal aid or their families being able to see them,” says Rose Bookbinder, another Center organizer. So the group is proceeding cautiously around this issue, while focusing energy on others that its immigrant members have identified as top priorities.

2. Divide up into groups with defined assignments.

Sanctuary in the Streets has seven volunteer-led subcommittees: education and research; media; fundraising; solidarity, which includes rides and food; events; childcare; and hotline and technology.

Each subcommittee was created to answer a need. “When we started Sanctuary in the Streets,” says Bookbinder, “we had direct asks from our immigrant members: free legal support; a 24-hour line to call in emergency situations; childcare support for organizing or in case of deportation; and ways to research all that.” Other subcommittees were added over time.

3. Push specific demands with local politicians and businesses.

“Sanctuary in the Streets isn’t just reactive,” says Sierra. Instead, the network is fighting for concrete reforms.

In anticipation of this year’s May Day demonstration, the worker committee asked researchers on the education subcommittee to look for victories that immigrant rights groups had won in other cities. They put the best ones forward as demands to elected officials in local municipalities.

As a result, in Northampton, Sanctuary in the Streets has won a number of commitments from the mayor’s office: to warn the community of potential immigrant raids; to support sanctuary congregations; to organize trainings where employers and workers learn how to interact with immigration officials; and to allow non-citizens to vote in city elections. The group is now working to enforce these commitments.

4. Pounce on opportunities to recruit more volunteers.

In the immediate wake of Donald Trump’s election in 2016, many people were searching for meaningful forms of activism and organizing that extended beyond electoral politics.

“People were incredibly motivated to take action, and we took advantage of that whirlwind moment,” says Bookbinder. Sanctuary in the Streets was launched in the weeks following the election. Eighteen hundred people signed up to participate, and 100 packed the group’s meetings.

The lesson? “Prepare all the infrastructure you need,” says Bookbinder, “and the next time Trump or ICE screws up, launch it, and you can capture these people into your organization.”

5. Build for the long term by prioritizing organizing.

This worker center prioritizes providing aid to immigrants who are involved in organizing—meaning that they are participating in collective action to improve their workplaces or defend their communities, such as by coming to meetings or events or participating in campaigns.

The group has raised $10,000 for a solidarity fund specifically to support people who are organizing, with needs ranging from bond money to rent. It has had to turn down requests from those who aren’t, though it still helps connect them to free legal services.

“We’ve gotten criticism from some people who think you should provide services to everyone, but we have limited time and resources,” says Sierra. “It’s a careful balance—when someone’s in crisis, and asks you to accompany them to court, you don’t say, ‘Can you come to a meeting?’

“But you might talk to them about how there are a number of other immigrants going through the same thing.” And that might help them start thinking about organizing.

Parts of this article are taken from 'Building Working Power: The Organizing Model of the Pioneer Valley Workers Center'; for a copy, visit the website:

Preparing for Workplace Raids

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has set a target of quadrupling its worksite enforcement actions this year.
The Obama administration largely relied on I-9 audits, so-called “silent raids,” in which employers are forced to turn over documents proving that their workers are legally authorized to work in the U.S.

These audits have continued under Trump, but ICE has also brought back high-profile workplace raids, last seen in 2006. In the largest raid yet, 146 workers were arrested in June at Ohio meat supplier Fresh Mark. Workers at the plant are members of the Retail Workers (RWDSU).

To help unions defend immigrant members, the AFL-CIO last year put together a 200-page manual, We Will Defend and Resist: Toolkit for Organizers and Advocates on Workplace Raids and Audits. The below advice is adapted from that manual, available here.

The full toolkit includes sample contract language, letters to send to ICE, sample questionnaires, “know your rights” fliers and palm cards, and more. Every union should have a copy.

Before a raid:

  1. Form a rapid-response team or network, which could include worker leaders, organizers, immigration attorneys, labor attorneys, family law attorneys, faith leaders, and community members.
  2. Conduct “know your rights” and rapid-response training for workers and their families.
  3. Where possible, negotiate with the employer to establish protocols for its interaction with ICE. Contract language can help decrease the likelihood that ICE will be permitted into a worksite or that workers will suffer adverse consequences.
  4. Create clear channels of communication. Members should create:
    1. A list of contact information and roles of rapid-response team members, including name, email address, and phone number.
    2. A preferred means for internal communication, like a phone tree or messaging app.
    3. An emergency hotline phone number that all workers should know and write in on the blank line of their “know your rights” palm cards.
    4. A contact sheet of key individuals and offices, including local media, the local ICE office, local politicians, clergy and community leaders, and local consulates.
  5. Produce and distribute “know your rights” materials. Fliers, palm cards, and safe workplace posters can be found at Workers should carry the card with them at all times.
  6. Help workers prepare personal and family plans. Workers should gather important documents before a raid and keep them in a safe place.
  7. Create an action plan with your rapid-response team or network.

During a raid:

  1. Activate your rapid-response team.
  2. Send off a rapid-response squad to the worksite.
  3. Send a legal team of at least two attorneys to the nearest ICE holding facility.

After a raid:

  1. Allied attorneys who are part of the rapid-response team should immediately demand to see all the workers being detained.
  2. Call an emergency meeting between the local rapid-response team and other local stakeholders.
  3. Local labor leaders should call the national AFL-CIO, the director of the ICE Field Office of Enforcement and Removal, the local county sheriff’s office, the local police department, and local elected officials.
  4. Assess whether this workplace raid was an isolated operation by ICE or if it was part of a cluster of raids at other workplaces the same day or week.
  5. Talk to family members of detained workers.
  6. The first evening, organize a vigil outside the facility where workers are detained.
  7. Launch an online petition supporting the detained workers.
  8. The union that represents affected workers should send an official letter regarding the workplace raid to the local ICE Field Office of Enforcement and Removal director.
  9. Collect as many letters of support for the workers as possible.
  10. From here, the rapid-response team should consider every possible tactic and manner of escalation.
A version of this article appeared in Labor Notes #473. Don't miss an issue, subscribe today.