Category Archives: News

From Michael’s desk

Why is ORS 181A.820 so important, and why are anti-immigrant organizations working so hard (and spending so much money from out-of-state millionaires and alt-right organizations) to put a measure on the ballot to overturn it?

Sometimes called Oregon’s sanctuary law, actually, ORS 181A.820 doesn’t provide immigrants with sanctuary at all; indeed, no state has the constitutional authority to do so. Under Article II of the constitution, immigration is a matter completely reserved to Congress.

What the law does do is to assure that local police resources are reserved for enforcing Oregon’s criminal laws, and aren’t squandered doing the work of federal ICE agents in finding and apprehending hard-working, law-abiding berry harvesters and landscapers who are working in Oregon without authorization. Local police departments have plenty to do investigating real crimes against people and property. Immigration law is quite complicated, and local police aren’t trained about the nuances of enforcing it. This is a recipe for violation of the rights of those of perceived foreign appearance. If an immigrant violates the criminal laws of Oregon, ORS 181A.820 permits police to arrest them and to communicate freely with ICE about their identity and status. It is only when a person’s sole offense is how she entered the country that the law restricts local police activity.

This is partly to protect public funds from waste and misuse, but the implications are far broader. The derivation of the term “outlaw” comes from old English law under which the king could ordain that certain persons were outside the protection of the king’s laws. Such persons became completely vulnerable to the predations of others who abused them. They had nowhere to turn for help or protection. At the end of the day, their only remedy to protect their lives, families and property was to arm themselves and resort to self-help.

Prior to the adoption of ORS 181A.820, unauthorized immigrants in Oregon found themselves in virtually such an “outlaw” state. I’m reminded of a client who sought my help some years ago. He’d given a hitchhiker a ride, was robbed of his car and money at knife-point, and left, barefoot, along the side of a country road. He walked eleven miles into town, found the police department, and reported the robbery. Rather than investigating this violent crime, the police arrested and jailed him. When he was released weeks later, no steps had been taken on his complaint, and the car had not even been reported as stolen. However one feels about unauthorized immigrants in our communities, surely we can all agree that failure to enforce laws like assault and armed robbery is a bad idea.

Cases like this would certainly return if ORS 181A.820 were repealed. People in the immigrant community would lose confidence in the police, and would not report crimes or cooperate in their investigation. Police leaders across the state agree that this would severely hamper their efforts at effective community policing.

A ballot measure to repeal ORS 181A.820, IP22, is being circulated for signature by out-of-state millionaires and by Oregonians for Immigration Reform, a nativist group that is hostile to the rights of immigrant workers.

If you are asked to sign IP22 to repeal the law, you should decline. And if the huge sums pouring in from out-of-state result in the measure being certified for the ballot, all of us must unite to defeat this hate-inspired step backward.

Update on ICE Presence at Local Courthouses

On January 10th, ICE released a directive outlining its civil immigration enforcement actions at federal and local courthouses. The enforcement policy outlines what we already know---ICE will continue to target undocumented individuals at courthouses “with criminal convictions, gang members, national security or public safety threats, [individuals] who have been ordered removed from the United States but have failed to depart, and [individuals] who have re-entered the country illegally after being removed.”

According to the directive, family members and friends of the targeted undocumented individuals will not be targeted at courthouses. The directive also states that ICE agents are supposed to avoid enforcement actions in areas that are non-criminal, including family court and small claims court, unless otherwise approved by the respective field office director.  

Nationwide, courtroom appearances by ICE agents have had an impact on immigrants too afraid to attend court proceedings. These tactics instill fear in immigrants, including our clients, who go to courts to enforce their employment rights, to access orders of protection and to defend themselves against criminal charges.

In our local courthouses, we know for sure that ICE is targeting undocumented individuals who attend criminal and DUI diversion hearings.

Despite the risks described above, NWJP hopes that this knowledge doesn’t dissuade our clients from attending their court hearings. Avoiding the courts will only complicate the lives of community members and will prevent access to the system of justice to vindicate important rights in the workplace. To serve as a support network, we currently work with partner organizations who will show up at courthouses as legal observers, and who will monitor and record ICE arrests at courthouses in an effort to assess legality and respond rapidly.

Introducing Maggie Black and the Low-Income Worker Housing Stability Project

The Low-Income Worker Housing Stability Project will aim to address what the Willamette Week* classified as the "thorniest problem" that Oregon faces: homelessness, and lack of affordable housing. Complementing what we already know to be true about employment law, we aim to concretely prove a connection between wage theft (and other forms of employment abuse) and housing instability. Then, we will muster evidence to prove that implementing a small, revolving loan fund, with the loan secured by the client’s ultimate civil recovery, would be an effective strategy to preserve family housing during the interim of fighting a wage theft case.

We are pleased to announce that Maggie Black has been hired to coordinate this project. Originally hailing from Fairbanks, Alaska, Maggie moved to Portland in 2011 and graduated with a BA in Spanish Literature from Reed College in 2015; she is fluent in Spanish and English. After having worked directly with people experiencing homelessness on housing initiatives, she is excited to further pursue the investigation of housing as a key player in the cycle of poverty— and particularly how violations in the workplace may trigger these issues. Together with NWJP staff, she will be researching the ways in which wage theft directly contributes to homelessness. Her project will include analysis of the devastating effects of loss of income leading to loss of housing, via community discussions; client testimonials; and frank, honest conversation regarding the often seemingly despairing intersectionality of wages and the rising cost of rent.

If you are someone who is interested in being part of the conversation or has personally experienced a loss of a home as a result of unjust workplace circumstances, please do not hesitate to reach out to Maggie or the rest of the staff at Northwest Workers’ Justice Project.

NWJP Participates in Oregon Women’s Equity Coalition’s Special Panel on Sexual Harassment

What do you get when you combine a social services director, an attorney, a local representative, and a state worker from the Bureau of Labor & Industries, with a room full of powerful women? The Oregon Women’s Equity Coalition panel discussion on Friday, January 19th. NWJP’s Deputy Director and attorney Corinna Spencer-Scheurich was a poised and informative presenter on the panel. Speaking to employment rights in general, and more specifically women in the workplace, Spencer-Scheurich joined BOLI Civil Rights Division’s Amy Klare, Representative Andrea Salinas of District 38, and Kristin Schlotterbeck of Clackamas Women’s Services.

The women on the panel kicked off the discussion by each presenting a short but informative bit on their roles within their workplaces. Klare discussed the approximately 200 sexual harassment cases that are assessed in BOLI Civil Rights Division every year. She pointed out that females without work authorization are provided the same protections. Schlotterbeck enumerated a myriad of useful statistics and findings on the #MeToo movement, and explained the social services Clackamas Women’s Services offers to the community. Representative Salinas spoke about being a woman of color in a political role. She said she is “most proud of” her work on HB 3391, the Reproductive Health Equity Act (providing all Oregon women with access to the health care they need), which she helped pass.

Finally, NWJP’s Spencer-Scheurich detailed the often painstaking reality of litigating cases involving sexual assault violations in the workplace, noting that it was often a “long and arduous process”—one which many women fear to undertake. However, she did not to leave us feeling hopeless in the wake of her presentation. “We need to celebrate women who stand up for themselves,” she said. “There is power in what the #MeToo movement is doing to make women feel supported. When workers come together to support each other in the workplace, that’s where the real power is. That’s where I see hope.”

Thank you, Corinna, for speaking on behalf of those women who have been brave enough to come forward. Here’s to those who overcome their fear and let their voices be heard. NWJP is here to say: “We hear you!”

From Michael’s Desk

We are rapidly approaching the end of the first year of the new age of Trump, so it’s perhaps a moment to reflect.  For those engaged in the struggle for social justice it’s been a Helluva year. During this year we’ve been challenged to work harder, dig deeper, be stronger in our advocacy, be smarter about what we do. Above all, it’s been a time that has demanded great energy to rise to the defense of our communities and our values.  We’ve won some very significant victories—but we’ve also taken some painful blows. It has been exhausting.

But folks, this is only the beginning.  We’ve got at least three years to go. And under the very best scenario, we’ll be battling the demons let out of Pandora’s box for many years more.  The normalization and legitimization of extreme racism, sexism, xenophobia and mindless international aggressiveness will live on past Donald Trump.

So it’s also a time to refuel ourselves, support our friends in the movement, redouble our resolve to stand with workers for economic and social justice.

We just don’t have any other choice.

NWJP Recognizes the Loss of Preeminent Indigenous Leader and Organizer

When Rufino Dominguez Santos came to the United States as a migrant farm worker at the age of sixteen, he was already a veteran organizer on behalf of Mixteco farm workers in his native San Miguel Cuevas, Oaxaca.  After he was threatened by local land owners for his organizing work, he moved north, first to Baja California, and then on to the Central Valley in California. His migratory journey is common for many indigenous workers from Southern Mexico. In both places, Mr. Dominguez-Santos began organizing his countrymen to improve their working conditions.

Native peoples in Mexico historically have experienced discrimination at the hands of the mainstream culture in Mexico. As the balance of migration to the west coast began to shift from states like Michuacan to the more indigenous south, newly arriving indigenous workers found that most of the labor contractors and farm foremen did not come from indigenous communities, and were very abusive.  Often not speaking Spanish, except perhaps as a crude market language, indigenous workers found life in Northern Mexico and the United States to be brutal and grueling.  A Mixteco, Rufino learned that Oaxacan workers were organized only based upon village identity and tribal affiliation. But even among Mixtecos, inter-village rivalries were often deep and bitter, based upon centuries of competition for local resources. Primary identity was to a municipality, not to tribal affiliation.

Rufino became the first organizer to try to forge a Mixteco identity, and to organize across villages.  After significant success at this, his organization began to reach out to other Oaxacan indigenous workers in the United States, particularly organizing Zapatecos, Triques and Mijes.  (After centuries of abuse at the hands of Spanish colonizers and their descendents, indigenous groups are traditionally suspicious of working with those outside of their tradition.) Eventually, in 1991 they formed the current Frente Indigena de Organizaciones Binacionales (FIOB), which provides a basis for access to work, services, communication and respect among the seventeen Oaxacan indigenous language groups and beyond.  Although FIOB’s work is centered in Fresno, it reaches well into migrant streams in Oregon and Washington.

In 2010 Dominguez-Santos was named director of the Institute for Migrant Affairs Abroad for the state of Oaxaca, a post that he held from January 2011 to August 2016. But working for the government in the face of so much corruption and political division proved to be extremely challenging.  When violent confrontations between state and federal law enforcement left several teachers dead and many injured, Rufino decided to quit his post. He returned to the United States to continue working here on behalf of indigenous people.

Sadly, Rufino died of complications with brain cancer on Nov. 11 at the premature age of 52. His brilliant leadership will be missed. We are honored and proud that Rufino joined other leaders, including Ramon Ramirez and Arturo Rodriguez, in NWJP’s original Advisory Board.

¿Rufino Dominguez? !Presente!

Please help us welcome our newest staff member Laura Galindo Palomera!

Laura will be helping us launch the Immigration Client Support Project as a paralegal.

She is a recent graduate from Oregon State University where she studied Political Science and Women/Gender/Sexuality Studies. Previously, Laura was the leadership development coordinator at the Oregon Latino Health Coalition where she created and managed a leadership program called Latinx Leadership Movement (LLM). LLM develops Latinx leaders across Oregon to self-advocate for more inclusive policies at the local, state, and national levels. Laura was also part of the advocacy team that led and passed the Cover All Kids legislation.

As a former field organizer for Acción Politica PCUNista (APP), Laura was part of the team that successfully helped Teresa Alonso Leon become the first Mexican indigenous immigrant State Representative in the State of Oregon, "Laura brings a new and awesome leadership ability to the worker rights movement." -Ramon Ramirez, President of PCUN.

At NWJP, Laura will help inform the community about their workplace rights and our services, while strengthening our ability to address our clients’ immigration needs and threats. (Many thanks to Meyer Memorial Trust and the Collins Foundation for making this possible.) ICE continues to target the Latinx community including low-wage and immigrant workers, NWJP’s primary client base. Our clients are feeling threatened to come forward to report wage violations and discrimination particularly since it would mean having to go to court. ICE has been arresting immigrants in and around the courts. By supporting our client’s immigration needs and creating plans of action against ICE, we will help alleviate some of the fear in the community, as well as serve a warning to employers attempting to exploit immigrant workers.

Restaurants Need to Do More Than Ethically Source Their Food

Leonora and Fernando* came to NWJP with an all too common story. They worked in a restaurant, as a cook and dishwasher. For years they had worked long hours, six to seven days a week, doing whatever needed done behind the scenes in the restaurant to bring amazing food to the table on sparkling clean dishes.

Despite their tireless work their paychecks never quite seemed right. They were paid for most of their time, though not the 15-20 minutes they were often required to come in before their shift. And they were not paid an overtime premium for any of their many hours over 40 in a given week.

This is one of the most common stories we hear at NWJP. The Oregon restaurant industry is thriving; it has brought innovative, delicious, and ethically sourced food into the spotlight. But it also has a serious problem with wage theft, especially among those workers that are tucked away behind the scenes, often invisible to customers.

Fortunately Leonora and Fernando's story ends well. Confronted with the evidence, the restaurant owner quickly acknowledged her wrongs and we were able to negotiate a resolution that resulted in our clients receiving all their unpaid wages, and significant penalties, as well, to help compensate them for the time and energy they had to put into enforcing their rights.

Not all workers are as successful in fighting their exploitation. Which is why we have to find a way to improve the food scene in Oregon from the inside out and make treating workers ethically as important as finding ethically sourced ingredients.

*Not their real names

NWJP to Address Housing Instability Caused by Wage Theft

As housing becomes more and more expensive in our community, the impact on low wage workers has grown increasingly severe. Many workers are living paycheck to paycheck, and are dangerously close—sometimes one late or lost paycheck--from losing their housing. Despite the progress made with the relocation ordinance in Portland, workers who are victims of wage theft currently have little support when it comes to keeping their housing.

Thanks to a new grant from the Oregon Law Foundation we are going to target a problem that we have long known existed, but have not had the resources to address.  The funding comes as a result of the 2014 settlement on mortgage-related litigation between the U.S. Department of Justice and the Bank of America Corporation.

Beginning in 2018, we will begin targeting wage theft cases where housing stability is in play.  In addition to helping such workers recover wages, we hope to create opportunities for cheated workers to get through a difficult time caused by not getting their pay. Working with community partners, we will first seek to establish the links between non-payment of wages and housing instability and the effectiveness of temporary relief in keeping families in their housing in such circumstances. Our long-term goal is the development of a revolving loan fund that will help workers pay their rent while they work to recover those lost wages. The loans would be repaid with the recovery from the workers’ wage claim.