In October, four popular Mexican restaurants in Buffalo were the subject of the biggest workplace raid conducted under the Obama administration. The events since the raid highlight the complexities facing undocumented immigrants, but may also point to new enforcement tactics and legal recourse, which advocates fear will become more common in the future.
The raids were the product of a two-and-half-year investigation that targeted the business practices of restaurant owner Sergio Ramses Mucino, who ran Don Tequila, Agave, El Agave, and La Divina Mexican Store. That investigation—led by Homeland Security Investigations (HSI)—resulted in the arrest of Mucino and two of his managers, but also led to the discovery and apprehension of 25 undocumented workers among the four restaurants.
In the month following the raids, a whirlwind of events transpired.
The deportation charges against these 25 individuals—some of whom have spouses and children—drew an outpouring of support from various community members. Enter Movimiento Cosecha. The nascent nonprofit —whose mission is nationwide—was contacted by members of PUSH Buffalo to take up the cause.
Movimiento Cosecha has spearheaded the campaign to pressure immigration officials to terminate the deportation charges against these individuals, since referred to as the “Buffalo 25.” Movimiento Cosecha has relied on publicity, the pressuring of public officials, and legal tactics to achieve their goal. Although the Buffalo 25 is their highest-profile case, the organization plans to organize a nationwide strike in two years for all undocumented workers, to demonstrate the country’s economic reliance on this workforce.
The weekend prior to the presidential election, Movimiento Cosecha led several of the workers on a sit-in at the campaign headquarters of then-candidate Hillary Clinton in Pittsburgh, demanding the deportation charges be terminated. As the workers were wearing GPS ankle bracelets monitoring their whereabouts, they risked apprehension for having crossed state lines.
“Our primary goal was to get the Democratic Party to support the cause,” said Movimiento Cosecha volunteer Carlos E. Rojas.
Leading up to the election, Hillary Clinton was perceived by many as the imminent victor. The shock and uncertainty caused by Donald Trump’s victory on election day has been perhaps most palpable among the immigrant community, particularly among those without legal status. Trump’s hardline immigration rhetoric may signal new enforcement tactics and legal recourse that could become common under the new administration.
Workplace raids and criminal charges
In addition to their public advocacy, Movimiento Cosecha has worked alongside University at Buffalo law professor Nicole Hallett. Hallett’s legal team is consulting directly with Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Office of Chief Counsel to drop the deportation charges before the case goes to immigration court.
At the crux of their argument, Hallett—who herself is representing three of the individuals—maintains that the workers should not have been arrested in an investigation that targeted the business owners. She explains that the Obama administration largely abandoned the use of workplace raids around 2009.
“These investigations were to target employers,” Hallett says. “But by apprehending individuals, you would make them less likely to report labor abuses in the future.”
Given the president’s previous directives, Hallett maintains the workers were unfairly targeted: “[The charges] never should have been issued in the first place,” Hallett says.
If Hallett is unsuccessful, the case will enter immigration court, where Hallett will argue on other grounds that these individuals be permitted to stay. She declined to outline her specific legal tactics.
Immigration attorney Matthew Kolken explains that, in general, deportation proceedings can be terminated, “depending on the facts of the individual case.”
He explained one form of relief from deportation is called “cancelation of removal.” The individual would qualify if they had resided in the US for 10 years before receiving the removal order and had a qualifying family member who “would suffer an exceptional or unusual hardship,” according to Kolken.
Kolken explains they might also be eligible for asylum, or else “administrative closure of the case,” where the case would simply be taken off the court’s active docket. “It’s like the pot still being on the stove, but it’s put on the back burner with the stove turned off,” Kolken says.
In addition to the use of workplace raids, advocates are concerned with another facet of the case. Two of the 25 workers were issued felony charges of illegal reentry following a deportation.
Presently, immigration and criminal matters are outlined under separate sections of federal law. Violations of immigration law would not necessarily result in criminal prosecution, but criminal charges can have serious impacts on a non-citizen’s status.
According to Kolken, these felony charges would eliminate the individual’s ability to “pursue defense against deportation in a fresh immigration court setting.”
In addition, Kolken explains that this felony charge could result in jail time, after which these individuals would then be deported. Prosecution on these grounds has been steadily increasing under the Obama administration, Kolken says, and he believes The Trump administration will maintain that trajectory.
Future enforcement under Trump
Obama has shifted away from the use of workplace raids, both because of the fears it instilled in workers and because his priority for immigration enforcement shifted to criminal offenders. (To be sure, the Obama administration did not abandon the use of raids altogether. During the past several years, ICE has frequently used raids to apprehend the wave of undocumented children and families who have fled here from Central America.)
Trump’s immigration plans outlined thus far maintain Obama’s focus on criminal violators, but his pledges to deport between two million and three million criminal offenders immediately—and all 11 million eventually—indicate that the Buffalo 25 may be a microcosm of what’s to come.
Workplace raids could become more common, and advocates believe this will push the undocumented workforce further underground. As Hallett explained, the tactic may unfairly target the undocumented workers, making them more susceptible to labor abuses and deterring them from reporting these abuses to law enforcement.
Others, such as Kolken, believe the situation is simply a continuance of already broken policy: “You can’t push the undocumented workforce underground, because they’re already working in the shadows.”
Some advocates have also speculated that the Republican-controlled White House and Congress could result in legislation that changes current immigration violations into criminal offenses. They fear this, especially given the high number of criminal violators Trump has aimed at deporting.
While future policy remains hypothetical, if the Buffalo 25 are any indication of the mindset of undocumented workers at large, they are fearful of what’s to come. The Public’s request to interview several workers—who previously agreed to the interview and had already spoken to various news outlets—was turned down following the election. According to Hallett, they remain “spooked” and no longer want to draw attention to their plight.