Homeland Security Targets Immigrants Working With Hazardous Chemicals

New cars are shiny because of special and toxic chemical that's added to their paint jobs.

At Powder Cote II, outside Detroit, undocumented Mexican immigrants paint the car parts (using paint with this toxic additive) that are used by the Big Three auto companies.

Inadequate training and the cumulative effects of daily exposure pose significant threats to their safety and health. In early October a new and pressing threat was added to the lives of these workers: the threat of arrest and deportation.

Citing national security concerns, the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)-a section of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS)-arrested 58 undocumented workers at Powder Cote II, with help from the company, solely because their job is to work with these dangerous chemicals.


ICE and Powder Cote II were brought together by the domestic front of the War on Terror.

Companies across the country will find themselves in a similar relationship with ICE, as ICE is in the process of reviewing employee files of companies that work with a range of chemicals to determine whether the workers pose a threat to national security.

While reviewing the employee files of Powder Cote II, ICE discovered that many workers were undocumented. Management was most likely presented with the choice of facilitating mass arrests in the plant, or paying a $10,000 fine per undocumented worker.

The company apparently opted to cooperate with the agency in a plan to arrest undocumented Mexican workers at the plant.

The company scheduled a mandatory meeting for the morning of October 6, in which the workers were told their health care plans would be discussed. Once all of the workers were gathered, the supervisor opened the door to welcome not representatives from the insurance company, but rather three ICE agents who proceeded to read a list of names and make arrests.

Most of these workers were back in Mexico within two days, having signed a "Voluntary Departure," which is essentially a waiving of one's right to a hearing in return for immediate removal to the worker's home country.

The Border Patrol and ICE frequently pressure people to sign this paper without informing them of their right to a hearing because it is an efficient way to remove large numbers of people.



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A few other workers had enough knowledge of immigration procedures to request a hearing, and are currently free on bond.

Inadequate training and the cumulative effects of daily exposure to toxic chemicals posed a serious threat to workers at Powder Cote II. In October a new and pressing threat was added: the threat of arrest and deportation.

Undocumented workers at Powder Cote II reported that they are forced to achieve higher levels of production than U.S.-born co-workers.

Mexican and U.S.-born workers work separate lines at Powder Cote II. Mexican workers say that their line is often required to pick up the slack for the U.S. workers.

The supervisors also use other tactics to divide the U.S.-born workforce from the immigrant workforce.

Supervisors reportedly told arrested workers that it was their African-American co-workers who had called immigration on them, though there is no evidence that this is the case.

By assisting in the arrests of their workers, the company avoided government sanctions, yet Powder Cote II management has requested the return of the workers who are still in the United States. Management has also promised, via word of mouth, to rehire those who can survive another treacherous crossing from Mexico to the United States.

Workers who attempt to return from Mexico risk being charged with a felony if they are caught undertaking a second crossing or after their arrival.


Arrests and deportations similar to Powder Cote II have begun to spread to workplaces across the country. In a well-publicized action in late October, ICE arrested more than 250 cleaners employed by contractors at Wal-Mart.

Though these arrests were for different reasons than the arrests at Powder Cote II, it is clear that the DHS, via ICE, has no qualms about attacking workers in their places of work, but rather is targeting workers quite specifically.

Because undocumented workers have few rights, are quickly removed from the country, and tend to be a private community because of their legal status, their arrests and deportations occur under the radar of the broader public. This lack of attention leaves them vulnerable to continued exploitation.