Culinary Union fights for immigration protections as TPS recipients ponder uncertain futures

By: - June 5, 2018 1:08 am

Thousands of Culinary Union members meeting last month to authorize a strike. Courtesy photo.

Immigrants working on the Las Vegas Strip and in Downtown Las Vegas could have the strongest job protections in the country.

The Culinary Union, which represents 50,000 hospitality workers at 34 casinos in Southern Nevada, has reached new tentative deals with Caesars Entertainment Corporation and MGM Resorts International. Those two companies make up 36,000 of the union’s membership. Contracts with the remaining companies, which include Boyd Gaming Corp. and Golden Entertainment, were still being negotiated Monday.

The union’s last contract expired May 31. The union and casinos failed to reach a tentative deal before then, leading the former to threaten a mass strike that could have crippled the Strip and Downtown.

Specifics of the new contracts won’t be known until the union members vote to approve them. However, its known the topics negotiated include salary and benefit increases, panic buttons for employees under duress, curbing sexual harassment, and policies that determine what happens when human jobs become automated by technology.

Then, there’s immigration.

The Culinary Union proudly refers to itself as “the state’s largest immigration organization” and is often the driving force behind large-scale political demonstrations supporting immigration reform and worker rights. Its membership is 54 percent Latino, 18 percent white, 15 percent Asian and Pacific Islander and 11 percent black. Recognizing it as an issue of increasing importance to their members, the union is pushing to protect workers whose lives are being impacted by the shifting of immigration policy under the Trump administration.

The previous contract, which was approved back in 2013, provided protection for employees whose work permits expired. Employees couldn’t work without a valid permit, but they had one year to resolve any issues before losing their job, seniority, shift and rate of pay. Now, the union is fighting for even stronger protections, including a grace period of five years for sorting out immigration issues.

“Immigration is more aggressive now,” says Culinary Union Secretary-Treasurer Geoconda Arguello-Kline on the need for more robust protections. “The situation (when the last contract was approved) was different than this. The immigrants – they are under attack.”

The union is also asking the gaming companies to create policies that protect employees from Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE). Such policies could include banning federal immigration agents from being on their property looking for people unless they have a warrant. That ask is a response to growing fears of roundups taking place at workplaces, schools and public spaces, as well as national stories about companies working with federal immigration agents. At the beginning of the year, a lawsuit was filed in Washington alleging Motel 6 routinely gave ICE personal details of its guests without any reasonable suspicion, probable cause or search warrants.

Of special interest are immigrants whose work permits are based off Temporary Protective Status (TPS) or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). Established in 1990 and kept alive under both Democratic and Republican administrations, TPS suspends deportation for people from certain countries destabilized by wars, environmental disasters and other extraordinary events. It does not provide a path to citizenship but does allow qualified immigrants to obtain a work permit and driver’s license. Similarly, DACA is the Obama-era legislation that essentially does the same for people who were brought to this country as children.

The Trump administration argues the TPS program has run its course and is now being abused. His officials have announced the end of TPS for more than 300,000 immigrants living in the United States. The majority of them come from El Salvador. Most have been here for two decades or more, prompted by a bloody civil war in the 1980s that has had lingering effects and two devastating earthquakes in the early 2000s.

Nery Martinez
Nery Martinez.

Salvadorian Nery Martinez has been in Las Vegas for 18 years.

The Caesars Palace employee and Culinary Union member says he came here for a better future. Now, that future is in jeopardy as TPS for Salvadorians is set to terminate in September next year. If nothing changes between now and then, it means Martinez won’t be able to work in his current job. If he stays in the country, he will automatically become at risk of being detained by ICE, an agency whose policy has broadened from targeting undocumented immigrants with criminal convictions to increasingly picking up people who were in the wrong place.

He could potentially be deported to the country he hasn’t stepped foot in for almost two decades. Martinez says he has no idea what he could do to make a living there. He has no friends or family left to help him get on his feet.

Immigration advocates and experts predict the majority of TPS recipients will choose to remain in the country under the radar after their TPS expires. Like Martinez, many have invested figuratively and literally in lives here in the United States. The Martinezes purchased their home in the early 2000s and customized it with marble tile floors and bright paint. They have stimulated the economy. They have two cars. He notes they pay taxes to support services like social security they as foreign nationals cannot reap the benefits of.

But most importantly, the couple has two children: a 12-year-old son and a 16-year-old daughter. Both are natural born citizens of the United States.

Their kids’ quality of life is the highest priority for the family. Martinez says someone could take away every penny in his bank account and all of his material possessions. He could start over financially. He’s done that once before, after all. What he cannot stand is the thought of his family being torn apart.

One study from the Center for Migration Studies estimated that 273,000 U.S citizens are the children of TPS recipients from El Salvador, Honduras and Haiti.

“I don’t understand how the new government says they want to ‘Make America Great Again,’” he says. “My kids are American. This isn’t helping them.”

The end of TPS is especially worrisome prospect for the Martinez family because both parents receive it.

The couple has tried to shelter the children from the stress of uncertainty, wanting them instead to focus on school — both kids are enrolled in competitive magnet programs. But Martinez has let them know there is a plan in place if the worst-case scenario happens. If they are both detained and deported, the children will stay with extended family. Martinez says he won’t uproot them to a place they have never been to, especially one known for having one of the highest homicide rates in the world. The civil war that first prompted mass immigration to the United States formally ended in the early 1990s, but the country still suffers from persistent low levels of economic growth, according to World Bank.

“I came here for a better life,” says Martinez. “I think I found it — a beautiful family, a nice home. Now, they are trying to take it away, trying to say we are bad people, wanting us to leave behind our kids.”

Culinary Union representatives say stories like Martinez’s aren’t uncommon, and it’s a reminder of why they are pushing as hard as they are.

“(Our members) all understand this is for their families,” says Arguello-Kline. “This is why we think this is so important.”

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April Corbin Girnus
April Corbin Girnus

April Corbin Girnus is an award-winning journalist with a decade of media experience. She has been a beat writer at Las Vegas Sun, a staff writer at LEO Weekly, web editor of Las Vegas Weekly and a blogger documenting North American bike share systems’ efforts to increase ridership in underserved communities. An occasional adjunct journalism professor, April steadfastly rejects the notion that journalism is a worthless major. Amid the Great Recession, she earned a B.A. in journalism from the University of Nevada Las Vegas, where she served as editor-in-chief of the student newspaper. She later earned an M.A. in media studies and a graduate certificate in media management from The New School for Public Engagement. A stickler about municipal boundary lines, April enjoys teaching people about unincorporated Clark County. She grew up in Sunrise Manor and currently resides in Paradise with her husband, three children and one mutt.