In this week’s episode of Scheer Intelligence, Robert Scheer interviews Victor Narro, an immigration and labor attorney who is the project director at the UCLA Labor Center.
Narro tells Scheer about the climate of fear that has engulfed undocumented communities since President Trump took office. Although California has a progressive immigration policy, Narro and others are continuing to work to provide even greater protections for undocumented immigrants in the state.
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Robert Scheer: Hi, this is Robert Scheer with another edition of Scheer Intelligence, where the intelligence comes from my guests. In this case, Victor Narro, who is a lawyer here in Los Angeles, teaches at the UCLA law school, and is director of the UCLA labor center. And that labor center is centered in what I would consider ground zero for President Trump’s attempt to basically destroy a part of the Latino community, the undocumented workers and their families. We’re talking about 11, 12 million people directly, and then their related families; this is in a state that has almost 50 percent or something of its population is Latino—not that all undocumented people are Latino; we have plenty of others from France and Italy and Iran and Ireland and everywhere else, China. But it is the heart of the problem. And I want to just set this up from my view of somebody who lives in California, has been around this issue; I covered it for the LA Times for many years. I can’t even fathom what’s going on. To me, this is the yellow-star moment for Jews in [World War II] Germany. I mean, this is an effort to destroy a whole community that, as I say, is interrelated with the life of not only California, Texas, other states; agriculture, you know, just everywhere. Here at the University of Southern California, our student body and what have you. So let me just ask you for your initial assessment here, somewhat five years into Trump’s crusade against the undocumented, who he demeaned as a group. How does this fear in MacArthur Park area, where you operate?
Victor Narro: Well, first of all, thank you for having me on the show; I greatly appreciate it. I think MacArthur Park is very densely populated, it’s the most populated of foreign-born immigrants anywhere in Los Angeles, mostly from Central America. And people are living in fear. People are afraid to go to the shopping centers; people are afraid to go to the clinics. People are afraid to take their children to school because we had that high-profile case of a few weeks ago where a father in Lincoln Heights was picked up right after he dropped his children off to school.
RS: Yeah, eight-year-old and 13-year-old daughters, and they saw their father being arrested.
VN: Yes, they recorded it and put it out there on social media. So the thought of, you’re 13 years old and you’re recording your father being taken away by immigration, not knowing where he’s being taken to, is traumatic.
RS: Yeah, and the reason they were able to get him, so to speak, was that 20 years ago, he had a DUI. Twenty years ago, and that popped up in some of the files; we don’t know whether it’s Palantir, a CIA-funded data-mining organization that a lot of these so-called intelligence agencies use, and ICE uses. But somehow they can go through the records; you had led a splendid life for 20 years, you’re dropping your kids off at school, and boom, you’re nabbed in this crusade. And the word you used, fear—I think we’ve got a reign of terror here that many people can go about their lives not noticing. You know, just like they didn’t notice the exploitation of these people before. And there’s something frighteningly schizophrenic about it. Which was true of Nazi Germany; I mean, you had one part of the population, first Gypsies and homosexuals and handicapped people, and then of course six million Jews ended up being killed. And a large part of the German population went about their business thinking nothing big was going on. You know, look the other way. Is that what’s happening here?
VN: Well, I don’t think that’s happening in California. I think Californians have really, the last 20 years, have really come together as a state where everybody really feels integrated with each other. And I think in California, really, we should be leading the rest of the country. California has denounced Donald Trump’s immigration policies on so many levels. The majority, more than 80, 90 percent of the public in California denounces what he’s doing. I think the rest of the country, we need to figure out—
RS: And elected officials from the governor on down.
VN: Yes, we’re all working hard on Senate Bill 54, by Senator Kevin De León, that would create a sanctuary state in California. I think the challenge for us is how to get the rest of the country to move in our direction.
RS: Tell me how it feels day in and day out, people coming to your office, you’re an attorney in this UCLA project dealing with this; what do you tell them, what are their rights, what can be done?
VN: Well, we have—we’re engaging in what’s called rapid response. Working with other organizations, we’re working together to create policies in Los Angeles to protect undocumented immigrants as much as possible. Statistics show that immigrant families are mixed households. So you have people with legal resident status or U.S. citizens living in the same household, the same family household as undocumented immigrants. So when you detain and deport an immigrant in this country, you’re separating a family; you’re creating a hardship on the family. You’re deporting, in many cases, the mother, the father, the individual who’s taking care of the families. Virtually overnight, your whole life can change, and it can change for the family. And I think people are in fear of being separated, children are living in fear; many teachers are telling me that the children are bringing up these questions about what’s going to happen to their mothers and fathers if they’re deported. It’s having a traumatic experience on the whole community. So in Los Angeles, we’re working with the mayor of Los Angeles and with the city council to create strong, protective policies, knowing that federal agents can come in and out whenever they please. But we’re trying to make it as restrictive as possible. ICE agents are out of control now. They are going to schools, they are going to public spaces; a couple of weeks ago they were at Union Station. They were, you know, somebody took a picture of five or six ICE agents at Union Station.
RS: That’s the main train station in downtown Los Angeles.
VN: Yes. So people are living in fear. They’re thinking, what happens when somebody knocks on the door? Families are telling me that they just don’t open the door to anybody. Now we’re hearing about cases where ICE agents are misrepresenting themselves as police officers when they’re knocking on doors. So people are going to be afraid to report crimes. It came out this week, [Police] Chief [Charlie] Beck and the mayor reported this week that domestic violence reports are 25 percent down in Los Angeles because victims of domestic violence are afraid to report their crime to the police station, because they don’t know if that police officer is working with ICE or not working with ICE. People are afraid to open their doors to anybody. So they’re living in constant fear every day, and that’s trauma. That’s the trauma that they live through every day.
RS: You know, what’s so crazy-making about this—there was no big immigration crisis. First of all, it has nothing to do with terrorism. I don’t know of a single documented case of somebody sneaking across the border from Mexico because they want to do harm as a terrorist or so forth. Just, you know, the people who did the biggest harm to us had valid passports, papers issued by Saudi Arabia, our big-buddy nation; they came in legally, they went out legally, they sent money legally. And yet the trauma of 9/11, which does not concern a single undocumented person, certainly not from Central America or from Mexico, has been used as the big excuse, right? We have to secure our borders. There was no big crisis of labor people coming, because with the Great American Recession, you actually had more people returning to Mexico than coming here. So this is, as with any incredible demagogic act, not based on fact; it’s a fake crisis that was invented by Donald Trump as his main election ploy. And it was his answer to why American workers are not doing better. Well, that’s nonsense! American workers are not doing better because they’ve been replaced by robots, by foreign labor in China and India, outsourcing, trade agreements that hurt them. But somehow, people from Mexico and Central America were made the villain. That’s classic scapegoating. And what’s interesting is now, the police response—I mean, California basically had a more humane—this goes back to Ronald Reagan. Ronald Reagan actually thought we should not demonize the undocumented and the immigrant. He actually made speeches, even when he was running for president, about this. Pete Wilson, a republican governor, at first when he came in, had fairly enlightened—I know you worked on some of those programs. And it goes to this question of crime. Because what you want are people in the community to trust the police. If they see something happen, whether it’s domestic violence or they see a crime, or violation of the labor law, you want them to be able to say, ‘Hey! Somebody ought to put a stop to it.’ Now you have the opposite situation, where they’re intimidated, they’re not going to testify, they’re afraid to say what they saw. And you’re a lawyer. I want to get this across to people listening: this is not an abstract discussion. I covered this as a reporter for the LA Times. But you have worked this side of the law day in and day out, so put us in the shoes of some undocumented person facing the current situation.
VN: You’re afraid to go into any public spaces now because of what’s been happening recently. You know, you’re no longer safe being in a public space because of ICE agents being reported to have detained individuals in different spaces. So it’s the fear of going to the supermarket, the fear of taking your children to school, the fear of going to work. Because I think we may go back to the days when we saw a lot of workplace raids, in the workplace. So you’re living in constant fear, looking out the window before you go outside to make sure there’s not ICE agents there, looking behind you all the time. When you hear the knock on the door, the anxiety, the stress, the fear that comes into the family when somebody knocks on the door. And always living under the fear of being suspicious of every activity, and it’s just, it’s a mental health issue as well, because you can only absorb so much of that trauma before it starts to impact you in physical and mental ways. We’re trying to work hard in Los Angeles to get the chief of police, the mayor, to create the protective policies [so] that we can send a strong message to the Trump administration, but also to the undocumented immigrant communities, that we’re here to—this city is trying to become as protective as possible against these vicious policies of Donald Trump. On the county level we’re trying to do the same thing. Unfortunately, Sheriff [Jim] McDonnell opposes the California Values Act. He thinks it doesn’t go far enough. The LA County Sheriff’s Department does collaborate with ICE in many ways. And we’re trying to move the Sheriff of LA County in a good direction to shift away from those kind of policies and take the lead of what other law enforcement agencies have been doing throughout California, where they have been making strong statements that we will not collaborate or cooperate with ICE agents under any circumstance. I think it’s time to move in that direction. There’s going to be confrontation with the administration, because he is trying to sue cities like Los Angeles for these kind of policies, but then we challenge it in court, you know. I think we have to make a strong statement that we have to protect the most vulnerable in our communities, who contribute the most. California is the sixth largest economy in the whole world—
RS: Actually, Jerry Brown now says it’s the fifth largest.
VN: The fifth largest, and it’s because of the immigrant workforce. And within this immigrant workforce are a large number of undocumented. They sustain the economy of California.
RS: Well, this is what’s so crazy-making about it. We know in California, we have a good part of the solution that America requires. We’ve become the fifth largest economy in the world; we produce stuff the rest of the world wants, whether it’s in design of computers, whether it’s in movies, what have you. We have the greatest agriculture. And all of this is going to be torn apart because of a demagogue who has considerable appeal to people who are hurting because their lives are not good. And they aren’t. There are real issues. But the fact of the matter is, you don’t make it better by attacking your fellow workers. That’s really—
VN: Just to add to that, I’ve been focusing a lot with children. So I just came out with a children’s book to try to connect with children. Because many undocumented parents have children who are U.S. citizens; they were born here.
RS: You’ve written a children’s book?
RS: Oh. What’s the title, can we get it?
VN: Yes. It’s “Jimmy’s Car Wash Adventure.” It’s about workers in the car wash industry that work hard every day, many are undocumented; they contribute to our lifestyle by washing our cars and polishing and waxing our cars every day. These are the workers that contribute to our lives, and the story is focused—
RS: “Jimmy’s Car Wash Adventure.” And it’s in bookstores and on Amazon?
VN: It’s not in bookstores, but you can order it from the publisher.
RS: Oh. Well, who’s the publisher?
VN: Hard Ball Press, it’s a publisher in New York. So I’ve been reaching out to children because I think it’s traumatic for children who are—what happens to these children when their parents are deported? They’re U.S. citizens, they’re here, who’s going to take care of these children? You know, it’s a human disaster that’s happening, and it’s—you’re creating suffering with many people, but the children, you’re—children should not have to be exposed to that kind of situation where they have to fear every day that they may not go back home to their parents.
RS: Yeah. So where is the pro-life movement now that children are being hurt? People who cared about family values, the people who said, you know, that they cared so much about traditional religious values. Which, after all, every major religion centers on protection of the other, you know, no matter their nationality, no matter their papers, right? This is the whole theme. The Pope has said this very clearly. Where is the Catholic church, where are the churches on this?
VN: So there’s a sanctuary movement that has emerged, very analogous to the sanctuary movements of the 1980s. Many interfaith organizations, many local churches are getting involved, that we’re going to start—and we’ve been doing the trainings, the workshops—soon you’re going to see a sanctuary statement by many churches that they’re willing to harbor undocumented immigrants as a confrontation to the Trump administration. The Catholic archdiocese in Los Angeles has recently moved forward to give workshops for immigrant families about their rights and participate in some of these efforts to reach out to immigrant families about what to do if they suffer the unfortunate situation where a member is being detained, subject to deportation by ICE. And then, the Pope has been making strong statements about how inhumane it is to target particular immigrant communities. And he’s been denouncing the Muslim ban. Donald Trump has tried two times, the courts have pushed back on him twice, but he’s determined to move forward with his ban on the Muslim community. But even if he doesn’t get his ban approved by the court system, he’s already created this fear in that community throughout the country. And what happens is, these ICE agents, these border patrol agents, these ICE agents, they get empowered by the Trump administration. And this is an [agency] that’s been plagued with so many violations. It just came out yesterday that the ACLU is filing a lawsuit against the Department of Homeland Security because two Guatemalan teenagers who tried to cross the border were sexually assaulted by border patrol agents here in California. So this is an agency that’s plagued with so many violations, and they’ve been empowered by the Trump administration to pretty much do what they want to do. It would be against the law for me if I were to knock on somebody’s door and say I’m an LAPD officer, but it’s not against the law for them to do. And they feel empowered to do anything that they feel necessary, to go out there and detain people.
RS: I just want to cut to the chase here, because as a lawyer, you’re up against the old arguments about states’ rights and federal rights. And most of us have grown up asserting federal power as pro-human rights. That was true, certainly, of desegregation; it’s been true in many cases where the federal government was considered more progressive, particularly than southern states and others in advancing human rights. But here you have the reversal, states like Washington which pushed back on the immigrant ban on the grounds that it’s hurting the economy of Washington, the cybereconomy. California seems highly unified; there’s, I believe, a two-thirds majority in the state House and Senate now in California; the governor, the attorney general of the state, and down to the mayors of all of the major cities are supporting some notion of sanctuary, of California pushback. So as a lawyer, let me ask you this question, because federal has generally, the federal government has controlled the border situation and the old INS and border patrol. And by the way, on your point of some of those people not being so wonderful, the former head, the outgoing head of the border patrol warned that they have serious problems of morale in training. And the idea that Trump has pushed through of suddenly hiring tens of thousands of new officers who can arrest you, shoot you, do anything, he says is a prescription for disaster. But let me get you back to the Tenth Amendment argument. I mean, here California is going to be positioned not of arguing for a reactionary, pro-segregation position, but now we have a major constitutional challenge on whether California, Washington, maybe even Texas can protect its own people and its own agriculture, its own economy. That’s really the issue here, because if you get border patrol and you get ICE coming through and just ripping people out of their homes, as you say, who’s going to watch their children? Who’s going to go to work the next day? What happens to our economy? So there’s really a good states-rights argument for saying you don’t want the federal government destroying the fabric of life here.
VN: Yeah. I’m not a legal expert or scholar on the Tenth Amendment and federal versus states’ rights, but I think the issue is, you really got to look at it issue by issue; I think there are certain issues where the states’ rights argument makes a lot of sense. In this case, you know, the California economy would suffer tremendously if they were to move along with a Trump immigration policy. And that’s the economic argument. But there’s also the argument about protecting the rights of residents here in California. Whether or not you’re documented or undocumented, you live in California, you’re a resident of the state. And the states have to do as much as they can to protect their residents. I think some issues, you know, like abortion for example, I tend to lean more towards looking at the judiciary system, looking at, sometimes the federal government might be the better approach to look at issues like abortion and the right to choose. But with issues in immigration, when you’re dealing with issues of people’s lives, so vulnerable and subject to the negative, harsh consequences of a policy of what Trump is trying to do, I think we’re doing the right thing arguing that it rests in the state of California to protect its residents against these kind of policies.
RS: [omission] Hi, this is Robert Scheer with Scheer Intelligence, and my guest is Victor Narro. And we’re back for the concluding second half of this interview. And we’re talking to a lawyer here in Los Angeles who operates out of a UCLA labor [center], he teaches in the UCLA law school. But he also operates at ground zero of the immigration crisis around MacArthur Park, which is a center of a lot of people who are undocumented, who look for work, are working and so forth. And what I’m trying to get across in this podcast is that this is not just some abstract policy discussion. Now we look back on the internment of Japanese-Americans in World War II, and there are books that have come out and so forth recently, saying how did we just sit by while a hundred thousand people were ripped out of their homes and their farms and put into concentration camps, effectively? You know, that’s what happened. We wonder, why didn’t they speak up—people say, ‘Well, we had Pearl Harbor and we had the hysteria of war.’ OK. Now you have a tragedy in the making of even greater dimension because of the numbers involved. How do you—you’re saying you are starting to get support for this, but it’s happening right now, right? People are being arrested right now. So what is it out there—when you go back to MacArthur Park now and people come into your office looking for help at your labor project, tell me what they face.
VN: Many who are workers come with stories of exploitation. I think employers, bad employers, the unscrupulous employers also get empowered by these kind of policies, because then they feel they can exploit workers based on their immigration status. And so in the workplace, workers are feeling this kind of fear. But many are just people in the community trying to survive, residents in Los Angeles trying to survive, and because of their undocumented status they live in total fear of even just going out in public. And so we have strong networks now; we’re very well networked in Los Angeles, we have great immigrant rights groups, a lot of the major unions, we’re all working together on rapid response, on know your rights programs. We have a good rapid response network of immigration lawyers that is able to respond right away. Our goal is to prevent any deportation that happens. I always come from the perspective, one deportation is too much. And every life merits an immediate response and immediate attention. We’re working with the city of Los Angeles and the county to create a special justice fund for universal representation, similar to what they have in New York, where if anybody is being detained you will have access to counsel, to a lawyer, to represent you in your deportation proceedings. Because you really stand very little chance, if you go before an immigration judge, of being able to stay in this country. That’s, we have documented that most likely you will be deported if you are in deportation proceedings and you are undocumented and you go before an immigration judge. But your likelihood of being able to stay in this country increases dramatically if you have legal counsel. In California, in addition to the California Values Act, we’re also moving forward with Senator [Ben] Hueso to pass Senate Bill 6, which will create universal representation throughout all California. So that every immigrant who is detained and going through deportation proceedings will have due process in the way of a lawyer.
RS: Let me conclude this by dealing with what is really the central question for decent people who do want to change the immigration situation. And that is, are we sanctioning a system of exploitation because people don’t have rights, they work for less, they undermine the wages of people who do have documents, and so forth. This is a traditional argument; traditionally, many democratic politicians and labor unions were against the undocumented, including the farmworkers union of Cesar Chavez in our own state. And the traditional argument had been not to be anti- the undocumented, but the undocumented prevent the organizing and struggling for the rights of people who do have documents, so OK. And you were involved in a program started by a republican governor in California, Pete Wilson. Unfortunately he also went for another program, Prop 187, that was quite anti- the rights of people and their children to go to school and so forth. But he had hold of, I thought, a very important idea. And as a reporter for the LA Times, I covered that program; I went on the raids. And what it said was, we have laws in this country about labor, human rights, occupational safety, right? Working conditions. Let’s address this argument if there are documented people who want those jobs, or do we need more immigrants, OK? And we’ll do it by enforcing minimum wage laws, workers’ compensation, right? Overtime pay, all of you know, facilities, bathrooms, everything. And under a guy named Jose Millan, who was the state labor commissioner—before him Victoria Bradshaw, who had pioneered this program, a department store executive—Pete Wilson, a republican governor who started out as a moderate from San Diego, put through the TIPP program. And when I observed it as a reporter, it seemed to me a very effective program. Because the first thing they said—and they also had people from the federal labor department—they said, we’re not immigration. We’re not here to arrest you. We’re here to find out if the law is being observed about your working conditions and your occupational safety. And I thought that was a model, a very effective model for answering the question of, do we need more workers from Central America and Mexico? Or are there indeed documented Americans who would take those jobs in agriculture, right, and the service industry? And you worked on that program.
VN: Yeah. I mean, I come from the perspective that if you hire an individual, you’re creating employment in this country. So whether or not the individual is documented or undocumented, you have an employment relationship. And because you have an employment relationship, that person is afforded all the labor and employment protections in this country. If you really want to do something about businesses that hire undocumented workers and exploit them, you will enforce labor standards. I think that’s the best way to address that issue; it’s not to create fear in these communities by trying to deport undocumented immigrants. They’re already in this country working; many have been working for many years in this country. We have to create the most effective form of labor enforcement systems in this country to send a strong message out there: when you hire somebody, that person is your employee. Regardless of their immigration status, you chose to hire that person, you have to comply with all the labor standards.
RS: The ugly reality here is you are either going to have mass deportation on a level never imagined in this country, or you’re going to have a subservient workforce whose limited rights now have been taken from them. And as a lawyer in this UCLA project, this labor project which I think is admirable, as a lawyer there, you’re going to find people not coming forth to defend their rights.
VN: Yeah. I mean, we’ve been documenting wage theft in Los Angeles and throughout the country for many years. And Los Angeles is considered the wage-theft capital of the entire country.
RS: Tell us what you mean by “wage theft.”
VN: Wage theft is any attempt by employers to deny you your wages, whether it be not paying you overtime, not giving you required breaks, or paying you less than minimum wage, or even nonpayment of wages. And we documented through many years of research and surveys that in Los Angeles every week, every work week in Los Angeles, $26.2 million are stolen from workers in wage theft. That workers are not receiving $26.2 million that they should be receiving from their employers in wages. And that adds up, $1.4 billion a year that’s really, I think, that’s taken out of the LA economy. And we need to—it drains the economy, because we have to subsidize that $1.4 billion. And these are already workers who live in low-income, they live in poverty, because they’re low wages to begin with, and then on top of that they’re not being paid the wages that they’re owed. And we think that’s going to get worse under this president, because in many of these industries where we have low wages, it’s not only native-born workers who are suffering, but many immigrant workers in these industries. And many of them are undocumented workers that are going to be afraid to come forward to exercise their rights to file wage claims. And because of that, this issue is going to get even worse.
RS: OK, that’s it for Scheer Intelligence. Victor Narro has been my guest. Alana Bracken has been the engineer here at the USC [Annenberg] School for Communication and Journalism, which hosted the program. Our producers at KCRW are Rebecca Mooney and Joshua Scheer. Our engineers at KCRW are Mario Diaz and Kat Yore. See you next week.
Adapted from Truthdig.com