Painters Union Fights to Free Member from Immigration Jail

The Painters have launched a national “Free Hugo” campaign to push for the release of a member currently detained by ICE. Photo: IUPAT District Council 9

Imagine being arrested and detained for months just for showing up to work.

That’s what happened to construction workers Hugo Mejia and Rodrigo Nuñez on May 3, when their company sent them to work on a hospital inside Travis Air Force Base in Fairfield, California. A military official at the base held them and called Immigration and Customs Enforcement after the two men showed their driver’s licenses but were unable to provide valid Social Security numbers.

ICE has held Mejia ever since. Nuñez, a member of the Carpenters, was deported in early August. Both are undocumented immigrants from Mexico with young children who are U.S. citizens.

In response, Mejia’s union, the Painters, launched a national “Free Hugo” campaign, calling on ICE to release him from detention so he can be with his family while his asylum petition is heard.

“These two union members were only detained because they showed up for work,” said IUPAT General President Kenneth Rigmaiden. “We will not allow the act of showing up to work to be criminalized.”

Mejia’s been a member of Local 83/District Council 16 in the Bay Area for four years.

“Most of our union members move between states, cities, and towns, going from job to job building a better future for themselves and their families,” said Rigmaiden. “That’s what we do; we go where the opportunities are. Hugo and Rodrigo moved from their home countries for similar reasons.”




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As part of the Free Hugo campaign, Painters members and community allies have held national call-in days to the ICE regional director and actions in front of the field office in San Francisco.

“More and more of our future members will be in the same situation as Rodrigo and Hugo,” said Tamara Brummer, who recently joined the union’s new Strategic Organizing Division. “What kind of union are we if don’t defend someone who just went to work and something like this happened?”

Locals have also organized their own actions across the country. In Providence, Rhode Island, Painters Local 195 has teamed up with Jobs with Justice and the worker center Fuerza Laboral (Labor Power) to hold weekly demonstrations in front of the federal building. “The Trump administration’s narrative is that ‘we’re not going after hard working people, we’re going after bad hombres,’” said Justin Kelley, a business rep. “But this is a guy who’s fully integrated into his community.”

Local 195 members had already built a relationship with the immigrant community by collaborating with Fuerza Laboral on direct actions to fight wage theft, including noisily demonstrating outside a cheating contractor’s home at 6:00 in the morning.

“If we want to be any type of a union, any semblance of an organization, we have to organize immigrant workers,” said Brummer. “That’s the reality right now. And this is what bread and butter issues look like right now for working people—it’s not just benefits and wages, it’s about safety in your community.”

For more information, visit The Painters are asking for calls to ICE Regional Director David Jennings at 415-844-5503. Ask him to free Hugo Mejia until his asylum petition is heard.

And for a helpful resource for immigrant workers, check out Labor Notes' new Spanish book, Secretos de un organizador exitoso.

Dan DiMaggio is assistant editor of Labor