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Undocumented workers in the South are exercising their right to organize

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Tina Vasquez: Siembra NC first emerged in 2017 in response to both the Trump administration and the lack of support and resources for North Carolina’s large Latinx community. Most people familiar with Siembra’s work know of its organizing against ICE and anti-immigrant sheriffs, but tell me why you started to wade into labor organizing.

Juan Miranda: For a while, we’ve had a hotline called Migra Watch for people to report ICE raids, but people in the community started to call the hotline for help with other issues. Now that the conditions have changed a little bit and the threats of ICE raids aren’t as present as they used to be under Trump, we wanted to be able to expand our work to include workers’ rights.

Just like in the rest of the South, it’s very hard to organize workers in North Carolina because it’s very anti-labor. But all workers—including undocumented workers—have rights, and that means being able to organize without retaliation or discrimination. We decided to take on this fight and support workers to take collective action to recover their wages because wage theft is a big problem here. So far, we’ve supported workers who work in hotels, restaurants, and housekeeping, but the bulk of the bigger cases we’ve taken on were in construction. A disproportionate number of undocumented people work in construction and they’re hired by subcontractors who don’t pay them. More recently we’ve also started to work more with restaurant workers like Rosita, an undocumented worker at a Winston Salem IHOP who fought for the wages she was owed from a manager wouldn’t pay her. A video about her story went viral on TikTok and had millions of views.

Vasquez: This might sound like a weird question, but what does wage theft look like for North Carolina’s undocumented workers? Is it always as blatant as a subcontractor disappearing on a worker on pay day or a manager not paying a worker a cent they’re owed?

Miranda: Because wage theft is so rampant, most victims of it aren’t even fully aware that it’s happening because it does take place in many different kinds of ways. Sometimes it’s not getting paid overtime, or sometimes it’s not getting paid for every hour or getting paid the amount per hour that was agreed on. It’s most obvious when you don’t get your paycheck at all, which is what was happening at IHOP. Many workers there were getting their paychecks late or not at all. Some of those workers were undocumented and they were told they couldn’t be paid because of their [immigration] status. In this case, the workers decided to stand up for each other and when Rosita wasn’t paid, all of the workers walked out for her and they shut down the store.

Vasquez: I think people outside of the South don’t always understand the kind of powerful labor organizing that is happening here. Before joining Siembra, you organized as part of the Fight for $15. Do you see an overlap between Siembra’s organizing of undocumented workers and the Fight for $15?

Miranda: Absolutely. I think for too long workers in North Carolina were told that certain things weren’t possible for people in low-wage industries. The Fight for $15 has disrupted that. If you can organize low-wage workers, you can organize the most vulnerable and precarious undocumented workers because these communities overlap. You have to build those relationships really intentionally and like I said before, make it clear that workers know they are not alone. That’s how we build people’s confidence to protect their rights and fight for a bigger vision of what’s possible when they come together, and the Fight for $15 has provided a real model for that.

Vasquez: What are the particular challenges of organizing undocumented workers in North Carolina?

Miranda: Part of it is that we are a right-to-work state, but what that means is completely misunderstood. Workers here are banned from collective bargaining for public sector unions, but it doesn’t mean that you can’t organize with your coworkers. You still have the ability to do that and it’s protected by federal law, but a lot of people think that they can’t do labor organizing in a right-to-work state.

One of the biggest challenges is that we can’t really rely on state agencies here to enforce labor laws that exist. When it comes to wage theft, there are thousands of claims that make it to the Department of Labor (DOL) and very few that actually get investigated. They’re not using the resources they have and they don’t have the political will to ensure that large corporations are held accountable for their crimes—and that’s what wage theft is; it’s a crime. There’s this general assumption that undocumented workers don’t have the same rights because that’s how they’re treated and it’s normalized, and a lot of workers internalize that. They feel like they’re here as guests who are not protected in the same way, so they just put their head down and work. But that’s not always the case. Look at the case of Rosita. She stood up and so did her coworkers. They knew they deserve respect and dignity, too. They work hard and they deserve to get paid, too.

Vasquez: I can understand just wanting to put your head down because in a state like North Carolina, there have been workplace raids and retaliatory immigration raids. I’m not an organizer, but I imagine another big challenge is helping folks overcome deep-seated fears of retaliation—whether that’s an ICE raid or losing your job and being unable to support your family.

Miranda: There is fear of retaliation and there’s fear because of their status, but what we want our communities to know is that they don’t have to settle and live here in fear. They don’t have to put up with having their money stolen from them and putting their families in economic distress.

Vasquez: As an organizer, how do you help people begin to overcome that overwhelming fear that if they speak out or organize, something bad will happen to them?

Miranda: One of our biggest principles we try to communicate to the community is that we cannot worry about things that we don’t see. If we don’t have evidence of something, we cannot spend our time panicking. It doesn’t serve us. When bad things happen to our community, they’re amplified. But there are many more instances of undocumented workers coming together and organizing and getting positive results—and these incidents aren’t publicized as much. It’s helpful to share stories and examples of wins that will counteract their fears and assure them that yes, there are real threats, but those threats can also happen if you’re in the shadows or not. There is safety in coming out and taking a stand publicly and having the community stand behind you.

For riskier actions, it’s our job to make sure there is support for people. It’s our job to make sure that they know their coworkers are by their side, that there are members of Siembra and there are faith leaders and community supporters who will stand with them and fight for them if anything goes wrong. This is how we move people to take action and it’s why they are now sharing their stories publicly or marching into their boss’ office and delivering a list of demands.

Vasquez: President Joe Biden signaled that he has far more of an interest in worker protections that Trump did, but undocumented workers will still face many of the same challenges under the new administration. What do you expect to change or stay the same?

Miranda: It’s the nature of the movement to have these ups and downs or have these trigger moments and then moments where things feel like we’re going to be okay. Post-election, a lot of people are just burnt out. They gave it their all to make sure we wouldn’t have another four years of Trump. That is something to celebrate because I think his defeat was the people’s victory. I also think people have taken time to take a breath and they have a little more hope and faith that things are going to change. But we know it won’t be perfect. Already some of what we’re seeing goes against what [Biden] promised and definitely against what we wanted. At Siembra, we know the work has to keep moving. During these lulls when our communities aren’t under constant attack, we need to build up our organizing so that when attacks ramp up again, we have leaders who can sustain their communities. We need to keep building a bigger and bigger support net so that when the next wave comes, we’re stronger at each iteration of this never-ending cycle.

Vasquez: What does that look like in the coming weeks and months?

Miranda: We’re going to keep experimenting in how we reach workers—whether that’s going to work sites or in certain neighborhoods or outside of grocery stores. We try to reach people where they’re at because no matter the administration or COVID-19, the conditions that undocumented workers are up against aren’t changing overnight.

During the pandemic, people have been talked about as “essential workers” and we acted like these workers were celebrated, but conditions did not change for them. In many cases, conditions worsened and workers were put at more risk. Now is a real time to develop some momentum for undocumented workers because we’re not constantly under threat of immigration raids. We want to take this time to reach out to workers, educate them about their rights, and support them taking collective action and doing it in a way that makes them feel safe and models that it’s possible to defend your rights—not just in your house and in the streets, but also in your workplace.

Tina Vásquez is a contributing writer at Prism. She covers gender justice, workers’ rights, and immigration. Follow her on Twitter @TheTinaVasquez.

Prism is a BIPOC-led non-profit news outlet that centers the people, places, and issues currently underreported by national media. We’re committed to producing the kind of journalism that treats Black, Indigenous, and people of color, women, the LGBTQ+ community, and other invisibilized groups as the experts on our own lived experiences, our resilience, and our fights for justice. Sign up for our email list to get our stories in your inbox, and follow us on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.


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Luis Grijalva’s DACA status put halt to his Olympic dreams. A last-minute approval has changed that

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Grijalva and Jessica Smith Bobadilla, his attorney, “were unsure whether immigration officials would be able to grant Grijalva permission on time, but on Monday, he got cleared to travel after weeks of uncertainty,” CNN reported. Advance parole, the process that allows some DACA recipients to travel internationally for employment, humanitarian, or educational purposes, can take as long as 90 days to get approved, she told CNN.

They said they put together “a very detailed” application, then traveled to a USCIS in Phoenix to continue pleading their case. “Tomorrow morning I will be marching down the USCIS office in Phoenix to make one last effort in gaining an advance parole that allows me to leave the country and be able to return safely,” he wrote in an Instagram post the day before. Following the good news Monday, he told The New York Times“[i]t’s just a lot of emotions—excitement, just really happy.”

But even though he’s lived here since he was a baby and has excelled in American competitions and American schools (including winning a full scholarship to Northern Arizona University), Grijalva will be competing with the Guatemalan running team in Tokyo. CNN reports “he couldn’t represent the US in the Olympics for several reasons, including his immigration status.” The Times reported that the time Grijalva finished at last month’s NCAA race is a national record in Guatemala.

“It would be pretty special to represent Guatemala at the Olympics,” he said in that report. “To be able to represent my parents and my roots—that was where I started.” In his Instagram post the day before traveling to the Phoenix USCIS office, Grijalva had also said he was seeking “to be a voice and represent over 600,000 Dreamers like me.”

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The only thing Grijalva should have been worrying about right now was the competition itself, yet his immigration status would have ended his Olympic dreams for now if the last-minute approval hadn’t come through. But even that process is on shaky ground: When DACA was killed by the previous administration in 2017, so was advance parole. While it was forced to reinstate the program under court order last year, a federal judge this month has halted new applications for now. The lives of Grijalva and many others will continue to be in limbo until there’s permanent relief.

Democrats right now have the best chance in years to pass a pathway to citizenship for young undocumented immigrants, as well as temporary status holders and essential workers. Just this week, more than 80 mayors across nearly 30 states issued a call to President Joe Biden and legislators to pass legalization through the budget reconciliation process, writing that “it’s time for Congress to act.”

“It is a failure of our government not to move forward in passing comprehensive immigration reform,” Tucson mayor and letter signatory Regina Romero said during a press call this week. “Now, we have the chance to pass a comprehensive plan for those who stepped up to support our country during the pandemic while contributing to our economy. For more than two decades, Congress has failed to act and now is the perfect opportunity through reconciliation.”

“I’ve been here for 21 years, some ways I feel as American as anybody else who was born here but just that having that birthright, that being born here, just takes away so many opportunities for myself but also for everyone else who’s on DACA,” Grijalva said according to CNN.


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New energy data shows solar and wind rising as ‘King Coal’ continues an epic crash

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That chart comes from a report issued by the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) on Wednesday morning. And it looks like this:

Renewable sources replace coal as the nation’s second largest source of electricity.

The headline here is certainly worth celebrating: Renewable sources of energy are now the second-largest source of electricity in America, generating 21% of the total. It’s not actually the first time this has happened; back in 1950 when the agency first began, hydro power was the nation’s No. 2 source of electricity. But there are only so many places that can be, or should be, dammed to produce electricity and unfortunately, coal is abundant. The next 60 years were the Age of Coal, with that most destructive of fossil fuels growing ever more dominant. 

But what’s happened since 2005 is genuinely amazing. King Coal was toppled from his throne in a revolution that was one part natural gas fracking and one part increasingly cheap wind and solar. And this is the first time that the EIA has placed production from renewables above that of coal.

The reason natural gas grew so rapidly over the last two decades is easy to describe. Gas is easily used in the same kind of steam-cycle power production as coal, but it has several advantages. First, gas need not be stored in huge stockpiles on the ground—stockpiles that are subject to both weathering and to spontaneously catching fire. Second, burning gas produces a lot of CO2, but in terms of other byproducts, it’s almost infinitely cleaner than coal so there’s no need for expensive “scrubbers” that eliminate things such as the sulfur dioxide from coal that causes acid rain. Third, gas doesn’t leave behind tons of ash that has to be stored in great eroding mounds or slurry pools that constantly threaten to flood the area in toxic sludge.

But more important than any of that, gas plants can be small. Utilities can create gas generators of almost every size, and simply add more when needed. Coal plants range from merely huge to absolutely titanic, and the economies of coal make it difficult to scale them up or down.

So why didn’t companies use gas to begin with? Because before the mid-1990s, the price of natural gas varied widely. That made gas suitable for building small “peaking” plants that could handle extra demand on those days when the grid was at maximum demand, but left cheaper coal to carry the main demand. It was only after fracking became widespread and the price of gas stabilized at a rate that made it competitive with coal that the big switchover began.

What’s striking about the renewables line on the chart is how fast it doesn’t grow until about 2005. That line reflects mostly more hydro power, small-scale solar, and an irregular trickle of wind projects over the span of decades. It’s not until prices for both wind and solar became cost-competitive with coal that things started to change quickly. The decades in which annual changes in renewables could be measured in a fraction of a percentage point charge abruptly into a steady rise, and the rate of that rise is increasing. 

By 2018, the cost of building new solar or wind power from scratch had reached a point where it was less than the cost of simply maintaining an existing coal plant, even ignoring the cost of coal. That’s a powerful incentive to switch. Even as Donald Trump was talking about how he was going to “save” the coal industry, it was plummeting in a near freefall, shedding both capacity and workers.

Overall, what the chart shows is just this: Things can change. With the right motivations, they can change quickly. The one problem with this chart is that it might tempt everyone to just sit back and let the market handle it. After all, the last two decades show that gigawatts of production can change almost overnight when dollars are on the line.

Only there are reasons that the government still has to shove, and shove hard, to make things move rapidly enough and in the right direction.

  • Gas is cheap. Thanks to fracking, there is an absolute glut of natural gas—so much that at several points, all the storage facilities in the nation have been nearly choked with the stuff. How long will fracking allow fields from Texas to North Dakota to Pennsylvania to continue producing at a record pace? No one knows. But right now the use of natural gas is still increasing. That means more CO2 and more spilled methane. 
  • Innovation needs to come home. When Republicans fume about Chinese solar panels, they’re at least half right. Part of the price reduction for solar has come through availability of cheap panels manufactured mostly in China or India. The U.S. continues to make breakthroughs in solar cell efficiency, but needs help in turning those improvements into an industry that sees American panels being shipped around the world.
  • Inequity is a market inevitability. Left to itself, the market will gradually close out coal plants and create more renewables. But it will also leave behind ecological disasters. Coal is a dying extraction industry. What such industries leave behind are unreclaimed lands, crumbling plants, and communities in ruin. Government intervention is absolutely necessary if this failing industry is going to be ushered out the door in a way that gives workers and the surrounding areas a soft landing rather than seeing coal executives wave bye-bye beneath golden parachutes. And the government needs to pay particular attention to both cleaning up and providing jobs to communities of color, which are often right in the zones of heaviest pollution.
  • It’s not fast enough. The chart shows the energy industry can change more quickly than anyone believed. Now it has to change faster. We don’t have more decades to make this transition, not when every wasted year represents more of that drought, fire, and flood we mentioned back at the beginning.

The abrupt change in America’s energy mix should be good news to everyone. Even if much of that production has switched to natural gas, it shows that enormous change is possible. 

Now let’s make it happen again. Faster.


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Latino officer and U.S. military vet says insurrectionists told him ‘you’re not even an American’

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Gonell testified during the hearing that at first he was “not even entertaining” this claim. “I mean, when I heard that, I wasn’t even thinking about any racial stuff.” He was just trying to survive the mob’s attack, which resulted in five deaths and hundreds of injuries. “Two other officers killed themselves after,” the Associated Press reported. Officers were “pulled into the crowd and trampled, assaulted with scaffolding materials, and/or bear maced by protesters,” an Arlington County Fire Department memo stated, the AP continued.

But Gonell said that only with some time did he realize what had been said to him, telling legislators that “it takes time for you to process that, and you only realize what was happening after you go back and see it from a different point in time.” He was just trying to do the job he was sworn to do, he said. “I’m there to stop them regardless. I’m not thinking what they were yelling in terms of my skin color or my race. I know I’m an American former soldier and a police officer. I didn’t take that into account when I was defending all of you guys.”

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The officer’s experience drives home the point that for racists, there’s simply nothing a person of color can do or achieve to be fully accepted as what they believe an American to be. To them, a person who isn’t white simply can’t be an American. Even if they’ve lived here since they were a child, even if they served in the U.S. military for eight years, even if it’s literally there on a piece of paper, or in their heart. Yet the white terrorists trying to overthrow the election dared to call him un-American.

“I was falsely accused of betraying my oath, of choosing my paycheck over my loyalty to the US Constitution, even as I defended the very democratic process that protected everyone in the hostile crowd,” Gonell continued. “While I was at the lower west terrace of the Capitol working with my fellow officers to prevent the breach and restore order, the rioters called me traitor, a disgrace and that I, an Army veteran and a police officer, should be executed.”

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Gonell said during his testimony that even relatives abroad were “frantically” trying to contact him to see if he was safe after watching images of the siege on television. “More than six months later, I’m still trying to recover from my injuries,” he said. “I could have lost my life that day, not once but many times. But as soon as I recover from my injuries, I will continue forward and proudly serve my country in the US Capitol Police. As an immigrant to the United States, I’m especially proud to have defended the US Constitution and our democracy on January 6th.”

Of course, Gonell wasn’t the only officer of color to be assaulted with verbal attacks in addition to physical blows. From the very start of his first campaign, when he called Mexicans criminals and “rapists” and then two brothers took a metal pipe to an unhoused Mexican American man in Boston in 2015, racist violence has been a key tenet of the previous president’s beliefs.

Capitol Police Pfc. Harry Dunn told the committee he has sought therapy and continues to struggle with emotional scars left by the assault, which became racially charged for him as a Black member of law enforcement,” Daily Kos’ Kerry Eleveld wrote yesterday. “The officer in fact described “a ‘torrent’ of racially offensive epithets,” she continued. “”Boooo! Fucking n****!’ they screamed, recalled Dunn. ‘No one had ever, ever, called me a n***** while wearing the uniform of a Capitol Police Officer,’ Dunn added.”

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“I hope that everyone in the position of authority in our country has the courage and conviction to do their part by investigating what happened on that terrible day and why,” Gonell continued. “This investigation is essential to our democracy, and I’m deeply grateful to you for undertaking. I’m happy to assist as I can and answer any question you may have to the best of my ability.” I’d say he’s done more than enough already (and I don’t mean only his service on Jan. 6). The question now is what we’re going to do for him.


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