Michael Theriault headshot

La loi, dans un grand souci d'égalité, interdit aux riches comme aux pauvres de coucher sous les ponts, de mendier dans les rues et de voler du pain.

The law, in a great concern for equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets and to steal bread.

— Anatole France

A frontpage story in this month's Organized Labor reports on the detention by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, of Building Trades members Rodrigo Nuñez and Hugo Mejia. In May Nuñez and Mejia reported for work at a hospital on Travis Air Force Base. Authorities apparently determined that the taxpayer identification numbers through which they had been paying taxes were not Social Security numbers. ICE then seized them.

Nuñez has been deported. As of 11 August, Mejia is still being held at the Rio Cosumnes Correctional Center.

Nuñez is a member of Lathers Local 68L. His three American citizen children and wife have followed him to Mexico.

Mejia is a member of Painters and Tapers Local 83. His wife and children remain separated from him and without the income he provided.

Laws are not magical objects, but human creations, meant to mediate between us, to allow us to live more successfully and happily with each other. They are functional things that often function imperfectly. They do not of themselves provide justice. To the contrary, sometimes their intended functions are themselves unjust, as of the laws that in this state and country long forbade interracial marriages such as my own.

Many Building Trades members entered the Trades in degree because of a sense of independence and impatience with authority, and they retain a suspicion of the law.

Even those who are in the Trades for other reasons altogether have the example of the Great Recession of 2008-2012. In the crash the actions of bankers produced, all of us saw pensions and prospects for a dignified retirement damaged. Many also lost home, family, health. Some, yes, were reduced to sleeping under bridges.

Just as in the bitter century-old quote from Anatole France, it was sleeping under bridges that could lead to jail, while bankers went unpunished.

If anyone should understand the fundamental imperfection of law and of notions of illegality, it is us.

Immigration law might be said properly to serve two functions (and even these highly questionable): To protect us from physical threat by controlling access at borders and to regulate the workforce so that wages are not driven down through excessive competition.

Nuñez and Mejia posed no physical threat. They were family men and taxpayers.

Nor did they threaten our wages. Instead, they earned the wages we negotiated, and they earned them the same way we do.

We hear from some that if those who arrive outside of the regulated immigration system are allowed to stay, it is unfair to those waiting in line to immigrate.

To claim this as a reason for deporting a Nuñez and Mejia, though, is as if to say: You who are in line must wait so that we can ensure that you are no threat to our persons or wages, and meanwhile we will deport those who have demonstrated they are no threat to our persons or wages.

Immigration law can have much darker functions that go unacknowledged in public debate, but that emerge in a moment when white supremacists march by torchlight and when one of them has mowed down counterprotesters with a car.

Even if we hesitate to acknowledge these functions, we should suspect that yet another is served, one that benefits bankers and their class and hurts us.

We in the Building Trades have far more in common with a Nuñez and Mejia, who pulled on belts beside us at gang boxes in the morning dark, who hurried down with us in the man lift to the roach coach at break, who sweated as they held up their ends as we held up ours, and who returned each at the end of each day to children grateful for their father's labors and with no expectation that he would bring home also wealth and power, than we ever will with a New York billionaire developer and heir to a real estate fortune.

The Trump administration knows that it cannot deport eleven million undocumented immigrants. It can, instead, make them afraid, and it does. When afraid, those immigrants will be less likely to work in the above-ground economy. They will be here but work off the books, and one of the industries where off-the-books work is most common is ours.

Far from preventing undercutting of our wages by deportation of a Nuñez and a Mejia, then, the Trump administration encourages it. It plays us against our fellow workers.

Only the rich benefit from this.

I do not here encourage disrespect for the law, but instead a judicious skepticism of it. Law should be applied always with a recognition of its imperfection and an eye to the higher calling of justice and the possibility of mercy, where humanity asks it.

Hugo Mejia should be allowed to stay in this country, and Rodrigo Nuñez allowed to return.

Organized Labor


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