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Abolish ICE’s Union

The labor movement needs to take a stronger stand against agents of Trump's barbarous immigration policies.

Scott Olson/Getty Images

The labor movement now finds itself at a crossroads on a host of issues, from surviving the climate crisis to navigating the looming specter of automation to outmaneuvering the most anti-labor presidential administration and Department of Labor in generations. One thing that the majority of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations’ (ALF-CIO) sprawling membership seems to agree on, though, is the need for workers to unite against the forces of discrimination and bigotry that have created a humanitarian crisis at the U.S. southern border.

Unions such as UNITE HERE and the Association of Flight Attendants have made it clear that their members will not lend support to ICE’s detention regime. Service Employees International Union 32BJ’s late President Hector Figueroa was adamant about the need to “eradicate this deportation machine” targeting working people. The New York Teamsters declared themselves a “sanctuary union” in order to protect their undocumented members. Even AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, who leans toward the center on many issues, has strongly condemned the current administration’s cruel immigraton policies. He’s also voiced support for the hundreds of undocumented members of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union who were taken prisoner in the recent Mississippi ICE raids at several major food-processing facilities. It seems obvious which side labor is on.

The labor movement needs to continue to protest against ICE’s vicious detention and deportation policies, and to grapple with its own shameful past stances on immigration. Beyond that, though, there’s a critical moment of reckoning for labor leaders seeking to underline their commitment to human rights, and show real solidarity with all workers—namely, by abolishing the ICE union.

It’s not a surprise that ICE agents have union representation, since the 20,000-member agency is a big segment of the federal workforce. Still, the cognitive dissonance here can be staggering. Not only do ICE’s brutal border operatives enjoy the same union protections that generations of leftist radicals fought and died for, they’re also members of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE). AFGE is ostensibly a left-leaning union, one that’s currently marshaling support for Communications Workers of America strikers and tweeting about #BlackWomensEqualPayDay. AFGE was among the first unions to create a Women’s Department and a Fair Practices Department. With a proud history of advocating for inclusion and a diverse rank-and-file (minorities make up over a third of its membership), AFGE represents 700,000 workers in the federal government and the government of the District of Columbia. So it’s unfortunate that people who are actively working against the best interests of humanity—whose violent actions disproportionately target marginalized people—are included among those workers. I’d bet money on the notion that a good number of AFGE’s other members are none too pleased about it, either. (AFGE leaders have not replied to repeated requests for comment about the status of ICE and Border Patrol agents within its membership.)

There’s some relevant precedent here: The armed forces are not unionized. The legal reasoning is that a military labor action might jeopardize national security, but from the standpoint of labor solidarity, there’s abundant reason to see the enforcers of American imperial policy and corporate privilege abroad as something other than true believers in worker solidarity. By the same logic, a genuinely radical labor movement should group police, prison guards, border patrol agents, and ICE agents in the same category—even though they all now fall within AFGE’s organizing purview. They are an occupying military force, sworn to serve only the interests of capital and the state to the detriment of humanity. They protect and serve property, not people, and the only solidarity they feel is with their own kind.

It’s true that after the labor movement’s long tour on the frontlines of the Cold War and its associated push to organize government workers has left it with more than its share of conservative holdovers. And some labor strategists contend that a successful mass movement needs all the allies it can get, even if they are ardent enforcers of unjust laws. (This case took another recent hit, however, when the New York police union organized protests against the necessary and long-overdue firing of NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo, the cop who killed Eric Garner in 2014.) But even if one brackets such disputes, it seems clear that ICE and their border guard colleagues present a special and urgent case running directly counter to the goals of labor and civil-rights solidarity: Their entire professional raison d’etre is to terrorize people of color.

Ever since President Donald Trump’s border crackdown was launched in earnest, calls to “abolish ICE!” have rung out at protest after protest. The slogan has been emblazoned on T-shirts, and invoked at city council meetings. The movement to abolish the agency gains greater traction with every new report of the horrors at the border, and every photo of a migrant child enduring unconscionable separation from family and being subjected to illness and death.

So why do ICE agents have a union, beyond the obvious (if ever precarious) right of all workers to collectively bargain with their employers? The question of ICE’s union representation strikes at the deeper political goals of organized labor at a time when more than the right to organize is under siege: The work that ICE and the U.S. Border Patrol does every day is undermining the humanitarian goals that must animate any serious labor movement. The yawning contradiction may indeed be why so much of the labor community has remained silent over representing ICE and the Border Patrol, even as we continue to rally behind social democratic causes and cry out for justice: Perhaps if they pay it no public attention, it will somehow just go away.

But repression never works that way. The historical record shows not only that law enforcement unions are not merely a conceptual stumbling block for reform-minded labor organizing, but a political one as well, one that is traditionally and demonstrably conservative and right-wing. As the Garner scandal has reminded us, police unions regularly protect killer cops, and the head of the AFL-CIO-affiliated National Border Patrol Council (NBPC) has called for even more draconian immigration policies than Trump has. Members of the NBPC and the National ICE Council have both publicly pushed for the Trump administration to veer even further to the right, even as the vast majority of AFL-CIO affiliates have decried the administration’s racist, xenophobic agenda.

The NBPC itself seems uncomfortable with its own union affiliation, and spends a lot of time justifying its role in the AFL-CIO to its members. As In These Times first reported in 2018, the remarkably combative FAQ on the NBPC’s website handles the question in something of an extended huff, noting that if the organization were to sever its affiliation with the AFL-CIO, it would lose its assets and ability to represent its members. (Indeed, in that scenario, AFGE national would step in, a possibility that the author seems to regard with horror.) The anonymous author of the FAQ also cautions, a propos of very little, that under direction of the national union, “agents will be used as scapegoats for political correctness”—all while also deriding the strawman specter of open borders and the prospect of returning California to Mexico under a mythical immigrant-friendly federal government. The web site also notes that the NBPC only makes up a small minority within the AFL-CIO’s eleven million members; this means, according to our beleaguered union interlocutor, that on immigration questions, the union has to pursue a bore-from-within strategy: “Although NBPC is opposed to the shameless promotion of illegal aliens by the AFL-CIO, the NBPC must work through internal measures to change the position of AFL-CIO or risk jeopardizing our status.”

This is the sort of uneasy alliance that any competent couples counselor would flag as a divorce-in-the-making. And it’s not as though ICE and the Border Patrol would need to surrender all of their workplace benefits in the custody negotiations.The Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association (FLEOA), a nonprofit professional association, represents more than 26,000 federal law enforcement officers from more than 65 different agencies. The FLEOA performs several common functions of a union, including providing insurance, but crucially, is not itself a labor union. If the ICE union were to be shown the door, they’d have a perfectly good place to go—an option that the border guards’ union discusses in its own FAQ, which seems to arrive at no clear conclusion as to why they shouldn’t just ditch the “open borders” pinkos and decamp to FLEOA.

In contrast to the NBPC, the ICE Council website does not appear to have been updated since April 2019, and offers little more than a series of press releases. The most recent ICE Council-related post on the AFGE website dates back to 2012, and is just a dead link with “press-release-ice-blames-its-own-employees-policy-delays” in the hyperlink. The group’s Twitter account boasts exactly two followers, and one 2018 tweet, asking Portland, Oregon Mayor Ted Wheeler to send police to secure an ICE facility during last summer’s Occupy ICE movement. One can only assume that ICE officials are too busy releasing inflammatory statements and caging migrant children to keep up a robust web presence.

Abolishing the ICE union would be no simple thing, and would require AFGE and the AFL-CIO to truly get behind the idea to evict them from their rolls. During the Red Scare, leftists were purged, and that period remains a stain on the union movement’s history. But unlike that dark episode, this is no mere moral panic. Nor is it a question of politics per se; it is, rather, a matter of morality. Now that we have a chance to make a very different kind of change that will also affect future generations of workers, we must not falter.

At a recent event celebrating the release of a new book from venerable labor reporter Steven Greenhouse, I asked how the labor movement can remain true to its values when right-wing conservative police, prison guards, and ICE unions are all still represented within the AFL-CIO. The answer I got was along the lines of, Well, they’ve democratically voted to be represented by these unions, so decertification isn’t really an option. Greenhouse is absolutely right, on procedural grounds: Decertification is voted on by the membership itself, so if ICE wants to keep its union, the current rules are on its side. That means the ball is in the labor movement’s court.

An older gent with a formidable white mustache pulled me aside afterward and told me a story about how local police in New Hampshire had tugged on the ears of their Republican pals and managed to defeat a particularly odious right-to-work bill in the state senate. The moral here seemed to be that while these unions aren’t everyone’s favorite, they can serve a purpose.

But such appeals ignore the considerable moral cost entailed in such provisional trade-offs. The friend of our enemy is still our enemy. The idea that we must pull together with every union member out there for the sake of the greater good becomes far less compelling in the face of the state violence—and even outright murder—committed at the hands of these nominal labor movement allies. As their own unions have made clear, ICE and Border Patrol agents are not interested in solidarity. Rather, they’re modern-day Pinkertons, and as such, they deserve the same pariah status that America’s first wave of industrial labor leaders reserved for the company strikebreakers and gun thugs of our first Gilded Age.