Health Care Workers Bring Sanctuary Movement into the Union

Union members may not agree on immigration policies, but we can all rally around the right to quality representation and due process. Porfirio Quintano made the case to co-workers that NUHW should push to guarantee a fair hearing to undocumented brothers and sisters in the union. Photo: Ryan Olds

I had no money and spoke no English when I illegally crossed the border into California 23 years ago, but I worked hard and fought for the right to stay here.

Had I made that harrowing journey this year, I’m sure I’d be deported right back into the crosshairs of the Honduran government’s death squads that had targeted me and many other community organizers.

Instead I quickly won a grant of political asylum—and later received full American citizenship.

I know I’m one of the lucky ones. At the San Francisco hospital where I work, nine out of 10 members of my union are foreign-born. We never ask anyone about their immigration status, but I know several green card holders who are getting ready to apply for citizenship now that their place in America seems less secure.

People might think the Bay Area is one big protective cocoon for immigrants, but that’s not the case. The suburb where I live is not a sanctuary city. And my elected county sheriff contracts with the Department of Homeland Security to house people awaiting deportation hearings.

Who can my co-workers count on if Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents come looking for them or their family members? Our union, thankfully.


As President Trump was preparing to bar Syrian refugees and bolster his deportation force, the National Union of Healthcare Workers was convening members across California to discuss how best to protect each other.

These weren’t always easy conversations, but we emerged with a consensus that we would declare ourselves a “sanctuary union” and that protecting our members from Trump’s deportation dragnet would be as high a priority as defending them from management retaliation.

To fulfill that mission, our union is partnering with a Bay Area immigration rights law firm to advise and represent members and their relatives at risk of deportation. We’re also educating members on their rights. Everyone has the right not to answer questions from immigration agents, and the right to deny agents entry to your home unless they have a signed warrant.

Likewise, we are reviewing our records to make sure we aren’t preserving any data that could reveal a member’s immigration status, and we are refusing to voluntarily share any information about our members with ICE officers.



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Standing up to the state is not something I take lightly. In Honduras, I worked as a community organizer for human rights organizations that helped people resist land seizures and other unlawful acts. I saw lawyers, organizers, and union leaders killed by drug dealers, police officers, and government-backed thugs.

When a soldier at a government checkpoint in 1994 made it clear that my life also was in danger, I fled to the U.S., leaving behind my wife and young daughter. We were reunited later that year after I was granted asylum.

I don’t think that America under Trump will devolve into the Honduras I left behind. But for many of us, it’s a much scarier place than it used to be.


By declaring itself a sanctuary, our union isn’t just making us feel safer—it’s giving members a safe space to discuss what’s happening in our country and help make a difference.

During the union meeting I attended in San Francisco earlier this year, two members questioned becoming a sanctuary union, fearful that we would be “protecting criminals.” It fell to me and another member to explain that our goal wasn’t to hide our undocumented brothers and sisters, but to guarantee them a fair hearing.

I wish everyone in our union agreed that our country’s immigration laws are unfair, and that there should be a path toward legalization for undocumented people. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. But with the Trump administration pushing for expedited deportations that bypass immigration courts, we can all rally around the principle that everyone has the right to quality representation and due process.

We have another goal in becoming a sanctuary union: to make our workplaces sanctuaries, as well. We are encouraging the hospitals, clinics, and nursing homes where we work to adopt policies that protect patients and caregivers alike. That includes employers refusing to share information with immigration agents and refusing to let them inside health care facilities.

A February article in the health care journal STAT reported that one Bay Area clinic serving mostly immigrant patients had seen appointment cancellations double, because patients feared putting themselves at risk for deportation. Though ICE has a policy to avoid actions at sensitive areas including health care facilities, schools, and places of worship, in February agents removed a Salvadoran woman from a Texas hospital where she was awaiting treatment for a brain tumor. Another alleged ICE raid occurred at a church-run hypothermia shelter in Virginia.

Many of our members will never march against Trump or protest a law passed by a Congress that’s 3,000 miles away—but they’ve never been shy about standing up for their co-workers and their patients. If our employers won’t shield our co-workers and patients from a racist president, they should expect a fight from this sanctuary union.

Porfirio Quintano is an environmental services aide at Sutter Health’s California Pacific Medical Center and an elected rank-and-file member of the National Union of Healthcare Workers’ executive board.

A version of this article appeared in Labor Notes #457, April 2017. Don't miss an issue, subscribe today.