This spring, immigrant New Yorkers secured a historic victory: a $2.1 billion fund for workers who lost jobs and income during the pandemic but received not a cent of government relief. 

The victory was won by workers like Rubi Correa, a domestic worker and single mother from Colombia living in Queens, New York, who has taken care of elders and children for almost ten years. When COVID hit, Rubi was one of millions left with no work, no income, no relief. She was evicted, sleeping in airports, and surviving in pantry lines. Enraged by soaring billionaire profits and government inaction, she joined the Fund Excluded Workers campaign. Rubi went on to lead a 23-day hunger strike, going without a meal for more than three weeks and facing great risks to her health to bring home urgent relief. Her fighting spirit, alongside the remarkable commitment of dozens of hunger strikers with similar stories, helped deliver an organizing win that will result in checks of up to $15,600 (before taxes) for undocumented workers — the largest relief package of its kind in the country. 

The victory of these excluded workers illustrates the tremendous power of immigrant workers taking to the streets to demand dignity. But their historic achievement also tells us something else: in the fight for immigrant justice, there is tremendous power in highlighting staggering inequality and exposing those who profit from others’ pain. 


Corporate Backers of Hate

In an edited volume, Immigration Matters: Movements, Visions, and Strategies for a Progressive Future, published earlier this year, we and our colleagues, Javier H. Valdés and Deborah Axt, argue that exposing and organizing against corporate complicity is a critical strategy to curb the criminalization of immigrant communities. Our chapter highlights a campaign, launched in 2017, that our members and allies led against private banks who had positioned themselves to benefit from human suffering by financing morally bankrupt private prison companies like CoreCivic and Geo Group. We called these banks “Corporate Backers of Hate.” 

As the horrors of Donald Trump’s immigration policies played out in real time, we knew that simply organizing against the administration was not enough. We also had to expose the immoral behavior of corporations like JPMorgan Chase and Wells Fargo, which were bankrolling oppression in an immigrant detention system that then-President Trump was boosting at every turn. 

In choosing our targets for this campaign, we opted to focus on the financiers as the primary target. While we consistently highlighted the depravity of CoreCivic and Geo Group, we also knew these for-profit corporations would not willingly change their core business model and stop detaining immigrants for profit. So, as our allies at Dream Defenders and others campaigned directly against private detention corporations, we adopted a parallel strategy to take on the financiers. We believed our organizing would be complementary, knowing that disinvestment could have a seismic impact on the industry. We did this work in partnership with Freedom to Thrive (then Enlace), which had worked for years on the Private Prison Divestment Campaign.

The financial backing of banks like JPMorgan Chase and Wells Fargo helped sustain and expand a system that produced profound harm to people like Melissa Nunez, a transgender Latina immigrant who was detained in a CoreCivic detention facility in Elizabeth, New Jersey, for 183 days after defending herself from an attack based on her gender identity. Melissa was misgendered, mocked by guards, and forced to shower and sleep in open areas with twenty men. She was sexually assaulted by another detainee, and her report of the assault to a guard was ignored. After finally winning her release, Melissa committed to the fight to take on the financiers responsible. She spoke at our first public action outside JPMorgan Chase headquarters: “No one should suffer what I suffered in that CoreCivic facility,” she said. “And no bank should provide financing to companies operating such facilities.”

After two years of consistent protests and creative organizing led by community members directly affected by the private prison and detention industry, we and our allies won a first major victory in early 2019: JPMorgan Chase announced it would not renew its financing of private prison companies. As the public pressure continued to mount, Wells Fargo and seven other banks followed suit that spring. By the summer of 2019, after all these banks had distanced themselves from the private prison industry, Geo and CoreCivic faced a gap of nearly ninety percent of their previous financing

The domino effect was remarkable. We launched this campaign with few resources beyond the determination of our membership. Getting a single bank to withdraw seemed like a very ambitious goal. But by making clear, bold demands and sustaining confrontational direct action over time — including multiple large-scale protests and civil disobedience at JPMorgan Chase headquarters as well as a march to Jamie Dimon’s Park Avenue home, where we blasted the Pro Publica audio of children separated from their families — we secured victories beyond our expectations. One crucial development was our close alliance with the Families Belong Together corporate accountability committee. This group of dozens of organizations, which first came together to confront the Trump administration’s harrowing “zero tolerance” policies at the border, joined forces with us to focus on JPMorgan Chase and Wells Fargo. Under our collective pressure, the banks ultimately conceded, pledging to withdraw their financing.

Following this massive victory, Geo Group and CoreCivic’s stock prices dropped to their lowest point in at least fifteen years. In addition, leading Democratic candidates (including eventual winner Joe Biden) pledged to phase out the use of private prison companies in both the criminal legal system and immigrant detention. While there is still much to be done, the combined organizing of groups directly exposing the moral bankruptcy of private prison companies, and our coalition’s work to secure real disinvestment put the entire industry on the ropes.


Fund Excluded Workers

Fast forward to 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic disproportionately took the lives of immigrant, Black, and brown communities. Faced with economic devastation and excluded from government relief, countless undocumented immigrants did not have the choice to shelter at home. They were far more likely to be on the front line as essential workers in cleaning, delivery, elder care, food preparation, farm work, and health care. And while millions of others in the country received unemployment assistance and stimulus checks, undocumented people like Rubi, who lost work or income, received nothing. Meanwhile, New York’s billionaires tripled their wealth. 

The campaign to Fund Excluded Workers brought together more than one hundred community and labor organizations across New York — including Make the Road New York, New York Communities for Change, the National Day Laborers Organizing Network, and Street Vendor Project — to amplify the stories of essential but excluded workers. Thousands of immigrant workers took to the streets to march, rally, and cry out, “Who feeds us while we feed you?”

As in the Corporate Backers of Hate campaign, our push to fund excluded workers articulated a bold demand — in this case, one that had never been made before. Most of our state budget asks in prior years had been for items that totaled, at most, tens of millions of dollars. In this campaign, we demanded billions. While our neighbors died around us and faced eviction and billionaire profits tripled, we were done asking for crumbs. The crisis of the working poor alone has never made the state act, so our coalition knew that we would need sustained, confrontational organizing that took the fight directly to the doorsteps of billionaires, the Governor, and any other elected officials who stood in the way. 

This campaign highlighted the gross economic inequality and injustice laid bare by the pandemic. Outraged by the reality of surviving in pantry lines, excluded workers organized direct actions on billionaires like Jeff Bezos, whom our members had already identified as a corporate backer of hate because Amazon provided the technological infrastructure for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Excluded workers called for back pay — reclaiming the contributions so many had already made to the safety net programs they could not access. They also demanded that the state raise taxes on billionaires to pay for the fund, whether or not the federal government stepped up. The rallying cry — make billionaires pay to fund excluded workers — caught on, especially as workers dramatized it by protesting Amazon and sleeping outside Bezos’s Manhattan penthouse.

The coalition’s steering committee brought in more and more organizations to create the broadest possible organizing force, representing everyone from farmworkers to domestic workers to construction workers. Coalition partners also built regionally-focused organizing efforts, especially in more conservative regions like Long Island and the Hudson Valley. Throughout the campaign, the statewide coalition organized its strengths accordingly, with active policy, political, direct action, and arts and communications committees that served as branches of a larger tree. Community leaders were engaged and informed on weekly virtual calls, in addition to participating in phone banking, art-making, and direct actions. These leaders represented an intergenerational base of diverse immigrants, whose first languages include Spanish, Bengali, Arabic, Nepali, Tagalog, and Chinese and who have been employed in domestic, service, construction, and delivery work.

The Fund Excluded Workers coalition did not shy away from bold direct action in the final weeks of the budget. We shut down two major bridges simultaneously and launched two hunger strikes, one of which lasted 23 days. While excluded workers put their lives on the line, a core group of vocal legislators — led by the bill’s sponsors, State Senator Jessica Ramos and Assemblymember Carmen de La Rosa — pushed from the inside to bring home this unprecedented victory. 

The win for New York’s excluded workers has given momentum to immigrant rights groups across the country, from Washington to New Jersey to Iowa and beyond. Still, it’s not enough. We must continue to expose the elite few who are exploiting immigrant, Black, and brown communities and hoarding unfathomable wealth while millions cannot afford to feed their families. Our members aren’t done yet. We will not rest until the powers that be are forced to redistribute the wealth back into frontline communities, whose labor saved lives. 


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