Unions Protest the “War on Immigrants”

On June 10, 2002, protesters marched down Constitution Avenue with signs reading “STOP ASHCROFT’S WAR ON IMMIGRANTS” and “ASHCROFT: WHERE IS THE COMPASSION?”  These impassioned union members of SEIU (Service Employees International Union) Local 82 called for fair immigration laws and fair treatment of immigrants. This protest came in response to Attorney General John Ashcroft’s statement four days earlier:

“…arresting aliens who have violated criminal provisions of [the] Immigration and Nationality Act or civil provisions that render an alien deportable … is within the inherent authority of the states.” [1]

Ashcroft delivered this statement in light of the attacks on September 11, 2001, after which President George W. Bush’s administration tightened immigration restrictions in the interests of national security. Ashcroft called this policy a “new war [in which] our enemy’s platoons infiltrate our borders … The vulnerabilities of our immigration system became starkly clear on September 11.”[2] Bush and Ashcroft’s critics, including the SEIU and the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) accused the administration of conflating the War on Terror with a war on immigrants in the United States and treating immigrant workers unfairly.

Founded in 1921, the SEIU has a long history of organizing workers in the service industry, including many immigrants. The Labor Collections team selected a photograph from the SEIU’s June 2002 protest in Washington, DC for the exhibit display “Immigrants Get the Job Done” because the SEIU is historically active in support of immigrant worker’s rights. In the photograph, you can see a “Justice for Janitors” banner, referencing one of the SEIU’s most famous campaigns. The Justice for Janitors movement, mainly comprised of low-wage immigrant workers, uses methods such as civil disobedience, in order to achieve social and economic justice, including fair wages, improved working conditions, and better healthcare.[3]

SEIU_Justice for Janitors

SEIU Local 82 marching against criminalization of undocumented immigrants, June 10, 2002. Photographer Bill Burke. Page One, Photography, Inc. Records. You can see this photograph in person in the exhibit “For Liberty, Justice, and Equality: Unions Making History in America” in person or online.

SEIU Local 82 marching against criminalization of undocumented immigrants, June 10, 2002. Photographer Bill Burke. Page One, Photography, Inc. Records. You can see this photograph in person in the exhibit “For Liberty, Justice, and Equality: Unions Making History in America” in person or online.

Our Page One Photography collection includes over 230 photographs taken during the protest. SEIU members arrived by bus carrying signs, banners, and a flag decorated by SEIU local chapters from around the country. They delivered emotional speeches in hopes to call attention to the fact that immigrants were taxpaying citizens making vital contributions to the U.S. economy. Here is a selection of images:

Despite the SEIU’s protests, Ashcroft’s Justice Department later announced a related policy that undocumented immigrants could be detained indefinitely without bond, if their release was determined a threat to national security.[4] SEIU and others again criticized the DOJ’s ruling as too broad and unfair to individual immigrant workers.

The SEIU’s advocacy efforts stand out, given the labor movement’s evolving position on immigrants’ rights. For example, as recently as 1981 then-director of research at AFL-CIO (American Federation of Labor – Congress of International Unions) Rudy Oswald appeared before the Senate Committee on Immigration and Refugee Policy requesting employer sanctions for hiring “illegal immigrants.”[5] Within the decade, however, under former AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland, the AFL-CIO argued that there was too much disparity in the quality of life between the United States and other countries. At that point, the AFL-CIO decided that legislation could not effectively restrict illegal immigration and that such sanctions were unrealistic. The AFL-CIO’s current position is:

“The entire workforce suffers when millions struggle to support their families without a way to speak up on the job, and ramping up fear in our workplaces only serves to increase exploitation. Instead of deporting immigrants, we need to ensure that all working people have rights on the job and are able to exercise without fear of retaliation.”[6]

The momentum built by the AFL-CIO and SEIU is critical in today’s contentious debate surrounding the rights of immigrants in the United States. Only this past weekend, the federal government shut down in part because of political disagreements over the DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) immigration policy.

To learn more about the labor movement’s stances on immigration policies, visit our exhibit For Liberty, Justice, and Equality: Unions Making History in America. You can visit in person at Hornbake Library or online, and be sure to explore the section on Immigrants’ Rights! This post is one of a series of on immigrants’ rights, so be sure to check the immigrants tag for more!

All images in this post are photographs by Bill Burke from the Page One Photography, Inc. Collection at the University of Maryland Special Collections and University Archives. If you are interested in the archival records of the SEIU, visit the Walter P. Reuther Library.


Jen Wachtel is a graduate student at the University of Maryland pursuing an M.A. in History (Modern Europe), a Master of Library and Information Science (Archives and Digital Curation), and a graduate certificate in Museum Scholarship and Material Culture. She is a Coordinator for Labor History Collections and Mass Media and Culture Processing Archivist at Special Collections and University Archives. Jen expects to graduate in December 2018 to pursue a career in museum archives.

[1] Attorney General Prepared Remarks on the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System, June 6, 2002, https://www.justice.gov/archive/ag/speeches/2002/060502agpreparedremarks.htm (accessed January 17, 2018).

[2] Ibid.

[3]“Justice for Janitors,” UCLA Labor Center https://www.labor.ucla.edu/what-we-do/labor-studies/research-tools/campaigns-and-research/justice-for-janitors/ (accessed January 18, 2018).

[4] Maia Jachimowicz and Ramah McKay, “Ashcroft: Undocumented Immigrants Subject to Indefinite Detention,” Migration Policy Institute https://www.migrationpolicy.org/print/4850#.WlkVHainGUk (accessed January 12, 2018).

[5] AFL-CIO Legislation Department, RG21-002, Legislation Department Testimony, Series 29, Box 12, University of Maryland Special Collections and University Archives.

[6] “Immigration,” AFL-CIO https://aflcio.org/issues/immigration (accessed January 18, 2018).

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