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Why Philadelphia hosted anti-deportation training for Latino workers

A look inside the city's new initiative to empower and educate immigrant workers.

Attendees and trainers at the third session of the Immigrant Workers Academy organized by the City of Philadelphia in Kensington on Friday. Symbol Lai, the city official who founded the academy, is at far left.
Attendees and trainers at the third session of the Immigrant Workers Academy organized by the City of Philadelphia in Kensington on Friday. Symbol Lai, the city official who founded the academy, is at far left.Read moreJESENIA DE MOYA CORREA / Staff

Hey, the police officer says. What's your name? Show me your ID. 

Carlos Trinidad freezes. He looks around, unsure of his next move.

Trinidad, a 40-year-old Mexican construction worker who lives in North Philly, and the officer — actually an organizer with the union Unite Here — aren't out in the street on this cold Friday night. They're in the community center of St. Joan of Arc Church in Kensington, role-playing for a small audience, to go over their rights in case of a run-in with the cops or Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

It's the third session of the City of Philadelphia's Immigrant Workers Academy, launched in May to empower and educate immigrants about their rights on the job. Immigrant workers, especially those who are undocumented, are among the most vulnerable in Philadelphia, subject to wage theft, informal work arrangements, and unsafe conditions, as well as the fear that ICE might come for them if they speak out of turn. Philadelphia is home to the most aggressive ICE office in the country.

And the work of immigrants is largely invisible, said Symbol Lai, deputy director of the city's Office of Immigrant Affairs, who started the academy. Much of the resources and attention for the foreign-born population goes toward entrepreneurs, but not all can afford to start their own business. The academy, she said, is a way of saying: "Your experience as a worker exists."

Earlier sessions of the academy, hosted in Southwest Philly and Oxford Circle, featured workshops on sexual harassment, how to advocate for yourself, and what to expect in the workplace. But Friday's training, on the recommendation of one of the members of the Philadelphia Workers Association, a construction worker cooperative owned by Latino immigrants, was the first that was focused exclusively on interacting with law enforcement, as well as the first that was conducted entirely in Spanish. (The first two had interpreters, translating the sessions into languages like Haitian Creole, Spanish, and Arabic.)

These kinds of know-your-rights trainings — which Unite Here organizer Emiliano Rodriguez said have also been hosted by immigrant advocacy organizations like Juntos and New Sanctuary Movement, and labor groups like the Philadelphia AFL-CIO — have become more prevalent since President Trump's election. Among the guidelines that trainers from Unite Here and Pennsylvania Immigration and Citizenship Coalition gave was: Ask if you're being arrested, and if you're not, ask to leave. And: In Pennsylvania, you're legally required to give your name but other than that, you're under no obligation to speak. A packet prepared by the city for attendees showed an example of what a proper court order looks like, vs. other paperwork from ICE that doesn't require you to let a law enforcement officer into the house.

Philadelphia, whose leaders have fiercely defended its "sanctuary city" status, is following the lead of other city and state governments who have taken steps to educate and protect immigrants in what are also known as anti-deportation trainings: New York hosted a series throughout the state, which Gov. Andrew Cuomo described as a response to the federal government's efforts to "roll back rights of immigrants." Los Angeles County designed a pocket-size know-your-rights card for immigrants, featuring a list of legal resources and statements to use when interacting with law enforcement.

>> READ MORE: No sanctuary: In Philadelphia, it's open season on undocumented immigrants

Lai disputed that this is a controversial idea: It's essentially a class on constitutional rights.

"This is what you're entitled to as a human living in the United States," she said.

The city partners with community organizations on each session, in part to drive turnout. But Ricardo of the Philadelphia Workers Association, who helped put on the event, said it was hard to get people to come because of their distrust of the city and ICE. The flier for the event used the word immigrant multiple times, which he thinks many people associate with ICE. Six people came to the training Friday. Lai agreed that it was especially difficult to get attendees because the subject matter was so sensitive.

Despite the low turnout, attendees were deeply engaged, asking questions about how their rights would differ if they crossed state lines and if they're legally required to carry ID (they're not).

Mary, a 42-year-old mother of two from Mexico who did not want to share her last name, said the training would help her prepare her young children.

"There is no one more important to a child than their parents," she said in Spanish, "and for those of us raising our kids here, this helps us tell them what our circumstances might look like as a family if we encounter any situation with law enforcement."

The next academy, with the Garces Foundation, will be held in South Philadelphia in the spring.