Three years ago, Antonio Vanegas took a job at a pita shop inside the food court at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center in D.C.
For an undocumented immigrant like Vanegas, the venue was a particularly ironic fit. The Reagan Building, after all, ishome to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, an agency of the Department of Homeland Security that enforces immigration and trade law. Working the grill and the cash register, the Guatemala native was apparently dishing out pitas to some of the very federal workers tasked with keeping folks like himself out of the country.
But like many undocumented workers, Vanegas said his immigration status was never an issue on the job -- at least until he claimed publicly that his boss had been violating labor law. Not long after that, he said, he was detained for four days, and now has an immigration hearing scheduled for August.[...]
Earlier this year, Vanegas met a labor organizer at the food court who talked to him about minimum wage and overtime laws. The organizer was with Good Jobs Nation, a new union-funded group that's trying to draw attention to the low-wage jobs found in many federal buildings, particularly those funded through food and vending contracts. As a recent report by the left-leaning think tank Demos found, a lot of the concessions workers inside federal buildings are in the same boat as Vanegas: paid low wages, without health or other job benefits, and scraping to get by in an expensive city.
In May, Vanegas joined an estimated 150 workers who went on a one-day strike in D.C. to protest their low wages. Vanegas spoke as part of the demonstration, accusing his employer of not following the law and asking the federal government to be a "good landlord" and rent space only to scrupulous employers. He was featured in a story in In These Times after the demonstration.
According to Vanegas, when he showed up for work a few days later he was stopped by an officer with the Federal Protective Service, a security police force of the Department of Homeland Security. There was a problem with his work badge, Vanegas said he was told, even though he'd used the same badge for years. Vanegas was then turned over to immigration officials and spent four days in detention before being released, he said. His hearing is slated for next month.