Park Slope moms are not quite the demographic that comes to mind when one thinks of the campaign to protect immigrants from the long arm of the Trump administration. But as thousands of immigrant workers take part in marches across the country, and U.S. senators live-tweet the cruel consequences of the White House’s deportation policy, new frontlines are forming in the privacy of people’s homes.
Immigrant domestic workers—nannies, home care aides, housekeepers—find themselves under attack from the White House. In February, Press Secretary Sean Spicer said that the president wanted to “take the shackles” off of Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents. The administration has called for hiring 5,000 more border agents and 10,000 ICE officers, and officers on the ground have already gotten to work. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has promised to bring back tough-on-crime policies, while Trump himself has threatened to take federal funding away from so-called sanctuary cities, which attempt to limit cooperation between local and federal authorities in enforcing immigration laws.
And the general sense of menace isn’t just emanating from the White House. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center’s tracker, hate crimes spiked after Donald Trump’s election, the most frequent targets being immigrants and women.
“I’m experiencing a lot of anxiety,” June Barrett, a 53-year-old home care worker who immigrated to Miami from Jamaica, tells me. She works night shifts taking care of her employer’s 91- and 92-year-old parents. “I’m as dark as midnight. Can you imagine? Recently somebody told me, ‘I would like to see you with a noose around your neck.’”
She added, “Suddenly, I’m scared. I don’t like to walk late at night. I get out at one in the morning, I have to walk home from the train. It’s a lot of anxiety.”
Somewhere between two million and three million people—mostly women, immigrants, and people of color—work in someone else’s house. For many employers, these are people they consider close to them—those who do the essential and intimate work of taking care of their children, their parents, and their homes. Organizations like the National Domestic Workers Alliance and Hand in Hand: The Domestic Employers Network have been pushing a new campaign for employers to create what they call “sanctuary homes.” The term, which plays off of the more familiar sanctuary city, has the advantage of being almost instantly understandable. It brings something that operates on the scale of policy—an abstraction for most people—down to human size.
“It’s about creating safe and welcoming homes and communities,” says Ilana Berger, the director of Hand in Hand, a national network of domestic worker employers. This can include employers simply starting conversations with their employees about the election, giving them time off to be with their own children, finding and sharing legal resources related to immigration and deportation, and offering safe rides home from work.
But it’s also about economics—people realizing that their own homes are someone else’s workplace. “People will often do this thing and say, ‘My nanny we’re like family,’” Berger says. “But you also have obligations as an employer.” Dating back to the racist exclusion of domestic workers from many New Deal labor policies, the industry has historically seen very little regulation when it comes to fair labor standards. Over the past decade, some states, including New York, Hawaii, and California, have taken steps to rectify this, passing domestic workers bills of rights, which help to secure certain benefits like overtime pay.
In this vein, a core part of the sanctuary home model is to push employers of domestic workers to follow fair employment practices, such as paying a living wage, offering paid time off, and communicating clearly about expectations at work—all things many people often take for granted at jobs in more traditional office settings. “You have to live your politics everywhere,” Berger says. “You can’t do one thing in the streets and do something else at home.” In other words, if we want the Trump administration to treat these workers as valuable contributors to society, then their employers have to as well.
Organizers have found that the enormous backlash to Trump has brought many such employers to the table, some of whom may not have been politically active beforehand. The relationship that people have already established with their caretakers and nannies often acts as a good starting place for further action. “You have to meet people where they are,” says Gillian Kaye, a 54-year old volunteer for the sanctuary homes campaign. “People are motivated by that real small space and personal connection.”
Over the past few years, Barrett has gotten involved with organizing domestic workers at the Miami Workers Center. She recently told her employer that her activism would sometimes take her away from her job, and asked for notice if she was going to be let go. To Barrett’s surprise, her employer not only offered her support, but also continued to pay her for the days she was out organizing. “She was willing to be a part of the conversation,” Barrett says. “But to be honest, I’ve seen only a few people who want to have the conversation, and some people who aren’t even close.”
The idea of a sanctuary home only works if employers are already sympathetic to the needs of their workers. It’s no panacea for the systemic problems of the domestic worker industry, which is made up of people who do some of the most essential, but worst-paid work in the country. (The median hourly wage for domestic workers is $10.21 per hour, and almost a quarter of domestic workers live in poverty.) And it doesn’t address the need for a humane, nationwide immigration policy that shields these workers from brutal, family-splitting crackdowns.
But the benefits of such campaigns are that they make political alliances out of local economic arrangements, creating solidarity between employers and workers to change the system. “My dream,” Barrett tells me, “is that we will have more employers opening up and reaching out. If they do, they can understand the heart of the domestic worker, appreciate us, and value our work more.”