I wrote this recently as a reflection of a difficult period in my career as a union leader and organizer. I remembered it today as I watched news coverage of President Obama’s announcement tonight (Thursday) that he will take executive action to provide temporary relief for millions of immigrants living in the US but in the shadows. It weaves the very personal with a story about organizing work, and it feels incomplete, but I thought I’d post this today as a personal reflection on this moment. The president’s announcement is only a partial victory; we cannot fully celebrate until our laws are actually fixed. We must go beyond temporary fixes. This does, however, seem like a good moment to reflect on the pain we have been living and on the work ahead we have to create a future of joy.
This vacation was supposed to be a break from stress. It was on the tail end of a short sabbatical from work, and the hot sun on this beautiful beach in Puerto Morelos, 30 minutes south of Cancun, was supposed to be a reprieve. But no sooner had I put on shorts and gone out onto the sand, I noticed the spot on my foot and I start to panic. I know what that is. And it’s not the first one so I definitely know what that is. I tell myself not to freak out, that after a week of sunning I’ll see if it goes away. And I actually did manage to forget it. But on Friday of that week, when I was admiring my tan brown body –I’m Puerto Rican, I get very dark in the sun—and there is that one spot, as discolored and white as it had been before, now standing out even more from my tanned skin.
I know what this is and a few days later my doctor in Minnesota confirms it. He took one look at the spot on the foot, said “it’s vitiligo.” My eyes well up. “Oh,” I say. “Were you worried about that?” and I say yes as a tear falls. He gives me a referral to a dermatologist and doesn’t say another word. As angry as I was at my hip, gay Uptown doctor and his utter lack of bedside manner, looking back I kind of understand why he didn’t think it was the big deal I did. Vitiligo is Michael Jackson’s disease. No one ever believed he had one, they thought he was just lightening his skin to be white, but he actually suffered from this autoimmune condition where your skin gradually loses its pigment. The darker your skin the more noticeable it is because of the contrast. Vitiligo is not deadly. It’s not a symptom of anything and it doesn’t cause anything. It doesn’t hurt, unless you count vanity.
I read everything I could about vitiligo and found a dermatologist who specializes in its treatment. There’s no real cure, although there are some effective treatments. I learned that, although they don’t know what causes it, for people who get it later in life it often comes after a period of extreme stress. That I knew about.
I am the president of a union of close to 6,000 over 4200 of them janitors. The members of the union come from all over the world – the industry has always been sort of an Ellis Island of occupations. Our members clean all of the downtown buildings, the skyways, the airport and commercial office buildings across the metro area. I had taken that brief sabbatical from work because the previous year and a half had been brutal. Around 4,000 janitors are members of the union and on June 6, 2009, hundreds of janitors and their families were packed into our union hall for a big meeting. Our member meetings are not usually that well attended, but just two days before we had gotten word that our largest employer was being audited by Immigrations Customs Enforcement.
What happens during one of these audits is ICE collects from an employer all of the documents that employees fill out when they’re first hired. We got word that 1,256 janitors were on a “Notice of Suspect Documents” and that every Monday for six weeks 200 would be notified they were on the list and told they had until Thursday to present new documentation or be fired immediately. No due process, no time to correct honest mistakes – they didn’t even tell people what was allegedly wrong with the documentation they did present, sometime 10 to 12 years prior, when they first applied for the job.
1256 people on a list. This was the Obama administration’s supposedly softer, gentler version of immigration enforcement. They did away with the swat team raids of the Bush era and replaced them with these silent, desktop raids. We were all, of course, panicked. What we fought for when we worked to elect president Obama was quick immigration reform. We did not get that, but we did get access. Within a week I was in a meeting in Washington DC with the Chief of Staff of ICE, and for the next month I shuttled back and forth, was on constant phone calls, begging. We need more time. You can’t expect people in three days to be able to figure out what is wrong and fix it. What if people are mistakenly on the list? When we finally got the complete list it didn’t take long to find US citizens, residents on the list. But even if someone on the list was not authorized to work, if they are indeed undocumented, can they at least be given more than 48 hours to prepare?
Hundreds turned out to meetings we’d have where we had an army of volunteer attorneys trying to help find people who might have legal recourse to a work visa. At those meetings, members agreed and understood that until we fix our insane, broken immigration laws that all we could do was buy time. We knew that people who had non-union jobs in situations like this got fired on the spot. And every day of work was eight more hours on a paycheck. We got the company to back off their initial plan of 200 letters going out a week while I continued to try to get DC to say definitively they would give us more time. For six weeks we were in limbo. DC would tell us one thing, local ICE would say something different to the employer.
Six weeks the uncertainty lasted. I got a phone call from the Chief of Staff of ICE. It was brief. She asked how much time we needed. I said 90 days. She hung up. Not long after, I got a call from our employer. They confirmed ICE had finally loosed their grip and provided the time extension.
Right after that call we scheduled another meeting attended by hundreds. I was so happy, we had done it. I had done it. I did what no one said could be done—I got us more time. At this meeting, I think I even had a smile on my face as I gave everyone the good news. But as soon as the words came out of my mouth I realized the mistake I had made. You fucking idiot. You self-involved prick. You. Fucking. Idiot. You come in here declaring we’ve staved off the execution but here is your date certain –and you expect people would cheer? That they’d be happy? Yes, everyone said they understood that until our laws are fixed all we could hope for was borrowed time. But now, you’ve given them a date. You have 90 days. In 90 days you will be fired. And you come in here with a fucking smile?
We thought – I thought – that if we had had a big public fight with the Obama administration about this raid that we would essentially be admitting that many of our members were not authorized to work and that that would accelerate the process of firing people. And so we chose silence. Members agreed, but that’s where I led. And I was wrong. Our members felt betrayed by everyone – their employer, who of course knew, the government, who also knew, and the union, who didn’t stand up to all of this hypocrisy, even if it meant people getting fired immediately. I didn’t stand up and publicly say. This is fucking wrong. This union that had had big, public campaigns to win good contracts and affordable healthcare was silent. We were invisible. And it has eaten at me ever since.
I don’t know that I can ever forgive myself for that mistake. Yes, we bought more time. And in those 90 days a couple dozen people were able to be helped by lawyers and got their papers fixed. Others at least had time to prepare. When we surveyed members, 600 said their home was in foreclosure or they feared it would be soon. During those 90 days and after, rumors flew around. We heard some were saying that in my shuttling back and forth to DC I had actually sold everyone out. As much as those rumors still pierce my heart like a bullet, the frustration they express had an essential truth at its core. Of all the characters involved in this drama – the employer, ICE, President Obama, the union—we, the union, we are the only entity whose charge, whose reason for being, is empowering and protecting workers. And we were powerless to do anything. That we should get disproportionate blame – it may not be correct, but it is understandable.
This was not the first desktop raid we suffered. A year later, 250 more members lost the jobs. Then they started going after smaller companies. I started joking with my friends about the stress and my vitiligo, These mother fuckers are not going to stop until I am completely white.
There is a lot I love about my job. When you work in social justice and you have a victory, you take part in adding joy into the world. It’s now five years later and the raids have stopped, or paused. We’re still waiting for DC to fix our immigration laws. The vitiligo is still around, though it has not spread, and I know that the stress that I feel doing this work is nothing compared to the stress experienced by undocumented workers living in the shadows every day.
When I am in a bad place about work, I try to remember all of the joyful moments in organizing. When we work together and win healthcare and wage increases, when we fight a Big Bank and save someone’s home from foreclosure. There are many. And then I think, if only the work was more about all of those moments of joy and not all of this pain, or at least a lot less of it. I had a prolonged moment of funk centered around these thoughts.
I came out of that mental cloud reading the work of a Tibetan Buddhist, Yongey Minghur Rimpoche, author of The Joy of Living. I was especially drawn to a meditation on compassion where you visualize yourself on your in breath, taking in pain, suffering, all of the pain and suffering in the world, and on the out breath you emit life. Breathe in, pain. Emit light. Pain. Light.
I realized that in this kind of work you can’t wish for just one side of that. “If only I didn’t have to deal with all this…” The work is both. Breathe in Pain. Emit Light. And I try to remember this, especially at times when it feels just too hard to breathe.
Tonight, the President will be announcing temporary relief for millions of people. I’ve been going through my head today the names and faces of former member who I know will be helped by this action, and it is overwhelming. I’m looking up old phone numbers, calling people up to invite them to a party we will be having to watch the president’s speech in Nevada where he will detail the impact of the relief the administration will provide. Yes, the Right Wing is already fighting back, talking retaliation and outrage that the President is doing the same thing that Presidents Bush and Reagan did before him.
But, tonight and tomorrow, all that stuff is just noise. We are celebrating the lessons learned of the past. We will not lead from silence any longer. We are celebrating the promise of the future. This fight is not over until we have not just temporary relief but have fixed our unjust laws. We are celebrating the lives of men, women and children who have worked through years of pain and fear to seek what all of us seek–because we all deserve to live lives of joy.