Pennsylvania: union protests ICE arrests

On July 31, ABM Janitorial Services Inc. lured 42 of its employees to its office in King of Prussia, Penn., in the suburbs just northwest of Philadelphia, where US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents were waiting to arrest them for immigration violations. The company had sent the workers a memo telling them to attend a 4:30 PM meeting at the offices for training and discussion on new policy procedure, according to Kate Ferranti, a spokesperson for Local 32BJ of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), which represented most of the workers. The employees that attended the meeting were promised one hour of overtime, and were told that they could pick up their weekly paychecks at the beginning of the training; they were warned that if they did not attend, their paychecks would be withheld and they could face disciplinary actions, including termination.

According to union shop steward Rob Houston, once all the workers had gathered in a large room, ABM personnel left the room and ICE officers walked in. Houston, who is white, and several others were allowed to leave. Outside the room, Houston said, he heard an ICE agent telling someone that Houston and others who were allowed to leave were “not it.”

ICE agents released 22 of the 42 workers the same day for “humanitarian” reasons, such as health conditions and child care, ICE spokesperson Mike Gilhooly said. Those 22 workers, mostly mothers with young children, were strapped with tracking devices and placed under house arrest. At least five other female workers were taken to a detention facility in Clinton, Pennsylvania, while at least 13 male workers were taken to York County Prison. All 42 workers face deportation proceedings. ICE reportedly confiscated workers’ documents issued by the Mexican government, including passports. A woman who had her Mexican passport confiscated said she wants to process her children’s documents for her family’s imminent departure from this country and now has no legal documentation to prove her identity.

According to Gilhooly, the arrests were planned after federal agents audited ABM’s records and found that the workers had gained employment through fraudulent documents. Gilhooly said ABM was not at fault and has fully cooperated. Sources claim ICE gave ABM two options: gather the employees at one location or agents would arrest them at their work sites.

Nine of the detained worked as janitors in the county courthouse and at One Montgomery Plaza, a building of office suites acquired by the county in 2006, said County Communications Director John Corcoran. The county accepted ABM Janitorial Services’s low bid of $242,016 for cleaning services in March 2007, and extended its contract for one
year in February. Corcoran said that if the county commissioners’ office “were to find out later that” ABM wasn’t cooperating with authorities in the investigation, “then we would terminate the contract.”

Local 32BJ organized a rally on Aug. 5 in front of St. Patrick’s Church on DeKalb Street in Norristown to protest the arrests and show solidarity with the workers. On Aug. 7 a crowd of 150 people, including members of Local 32BJ and United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1776, attended a second rally on the Montgomery County courthouse steps in Norristown. “We find that ABM’s decision to lead their workers to that room under false pretenses to be deplorable,” Wayne MacManiman, Mid-Atlantic director of Local 32BJ, said at the Aug. 7 rally. (Philadelphia Inquirer, Aug. 8; Norristown Times Herald, Aug. 6, 8)

From Immigration News Briefs, Aug. 10

See our last post on the politics of immigration.