In Philly, union members protest immigration policy

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About 2,000 union members staged a rally at Penn’s Landing in Philadelphia Wednesday to protest the Trump administration’s immigration policies, particularly the separation of children from their parents.

While the event drew support from unions that traditionally back progressive causes — particularly public employee unions — this one also had backing from some construction unions.

The building trades unions have more a conservative membership base than many unions, and some regard undocumented workers as competition for their jobs.

But this protest was organized largely by national leaders of UNITE HERE, which represents hospitality workers, and by the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades, whose national president, Ken Rigmaiden, spoke at the rally.

“We’re united,” Rigmaiden said. “We will not let any child be terrorized — not by a bad contractor, not by an unethical company, and not by an administration that turns its back on what the Liberty Bell stands for!”

When the painters union approached local labor leaders to lend their support for the rally several weeks ago, Local 98 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers endorsed the event, but not all construction unions did.

Local 98 spokesman Frank Keel said in an interview he was proud of the contingent of electricians at the rally.

“We understand, there are probably a lot of our members who voted for President Trump, but we got a lot of buy-in here,” Keel said.

Keel said building trades unions are concerned about immigrants “on construction sites in Philadelphia and elsewhere who are taking jobs from American citizens,” but he said the Trump administration’s policy of separating families motivated many leaders to join the protest.

Several other local building trades were represented in the crowd, and Ryan Boyer, business manager of the laborers district council, also spoke at the rally.

“The building trade is committed to fairness and honor,” Boyer said, “and snatching people away from their families at 2, and 3 and 4 and 5 is not the way you do it. We saw that once, and it was the trans-American slave trade.”

Among the other unions participating in the rally were the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers; the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees; the United Food and Commercial Workers; and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.

Why here?

The protesters focused on Philadelphia, in part, because they said the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement field office in the city refuses to release virtually all asylum seekers from detention pending resolution of their cases.

Last month, U.S. District Judge James Boasberg found that the ICE office in Philadelphia and two other cities had denied 100 percent of asylum-seekers parole pending resolution of their cases over an eight-month period, violating a previously established ICE policy to consider the release of asylum applicants.

I contacted the Philadelphia ICE office for comment, and an official responded with a prepared statement that didn’t respond directly to the charge that the Philadelphia office routinely denies parole to asylum applicants.

The statement said that ICE makes decisions about the “detention and release of removable aliens” based on a number of factors, including “the procedural posture of the alien’s immigration proceedings and the presence or absence of a criminal history.”

“ICE respects the rights of all people to voice their opinion peacefully without interference,” the official said.

ProPublica reported in April that ICE’s Philadelphia field office had arrested more undocumented immigrants without criminal convictions than any of the 23 other ICE offices in the country — a striking number since the state’s undocumented population ranks 16th in the country.

In June, a federal judge in San Diego ordered a nationwide halt to the Trump administration’s policy of separating children from their families at U.S. borders and ordered the government to reunite the roughly 2,500 children already taken from their parents.

The administration wasn’t able to meet U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw’s initial deadlines, but nearly 2,000 children have been reunited with their parents so far. Sabraw ordered immigration officials to work with the American Civil Liberties Union and immigration groups to reunite the remaining children with their parents, many of whom have already been deported.

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