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Why Union Support for Immigrants Differed in Houston and San Francisco

By BETH HARPAZ

In the mid-1980s, the labor movement shifted from an anti-immigrant stance to positions that were more broadly supportive of immigrant rights. But a recent study found that the extent and efficacy of union support for immigrant rights programs varies depending on “local context,” which includes local politics as well as the strength of local unions and immigrant advocacy groups.

Baruch College Professor Els de Graauw co-authored the study published in Critical Sociology that compared union support for immigrant rights programs in San Francisco with that of unions in Houston. The research drew on 69 interviews conducted between 2012 and 2016 with union and immigrant rights leaders in the two cities. Researchers looked at the union and immigrant groups’ engagement with two Obama-era immigration initiatives: Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and Deferred Action for Parents of Americans (DAPA). 

Labor unions in both San Francisco and in Houston are “publicly committed to advancing the rights of undocumented immigrants.” But the study found that San Francisco’s progressive local politics and numerous immigrant advocacy groups enabled unions there to “build deep institutional solidarity with immigrant communities” around DACA and DAPA. 

In contrast, there was far less solidarity between unions and immigrant communities in Houston, which is more divided along partisan political lines than San Francisco and which also has weaker unions and fewer immigrant organizations.

San Francisco unions, the authors wrote, “have been historically powerful actors in local politics, and they operate in a local political and civic context that facilitates deep transversal solidarity building.” The unions’ work on behalf of DACA and DAPA included opening their own center for legal services to immigrant union members and their families.

Houston unions, in contrast, are “notably weaker political actors in a more moderate political context with fewer immigrant organizations.” Their connection to DACA and DAPA was more focused on legal service referrals and media coverage. 

In their conclusion, the authors note that much has been written about the U.S. labor movement’s “complicated role in pushing for federal immigration reform.” But “the national story does not necessarily determine the longer-term on-the-ground reality,” especially since “local central labor councils operate” with great autonomy. 

“We need to look beyond the national immigration policies that diverse coalitions of immigrant advocates strive to enact,” the authors say, “to consider also the local strategies that emerge to implement them.”