Sunday, December 20, 2009

Mass Firings - The New Face of Immigration Raids

By David Bacon

The Progressive

December 2009/January 2010




Ana Contreras would have been a competitor for the

national tai kwon do championship team this year.

She's 14. For six years she's gone to practice instead

of birthday parties, giving up the friendships most

teenagers live for. Then two months ago disaster

struck.  Her mother Dolores lost her job.  The money

for classes was gone, and not just that.


"I only bought clothes for her once a year, when my tax

refund check came," Dolores Contreras explains.  "Now

she needs shoes, and I had to tell her we didn't have

any money.  I stopped the cable and the internet she

needs for school.  When my cell phone contract is up

next month, I'll stop that too.  I've never had enough

money for a car, and now we've gone three months

without paying the light bill."


Contreras shares her misery with eighteen hundred

other families.  All lost their jobs when their

employer, American Apparel, fired them for lacking

immigration status. {Her name was changed for this

article.]  She still has her letter from the Department

of Homeland Security (DHS), handed her two months ago

by the company lawyer.  It says the documents she

provided when she was hired are no good, and without

work authorization, her work life is over.


Of course, it's not really over.   Contreras

still has to keep working if she and her daughter are

to eat and pay rent.  So instead of a job that barely

paid her bills, she had to find another one that won't

even do that.


Contreras is a skilled sewing machine operator.  She

came to the U.S. thirteen years ago, after working many

years in the garment factories of Tehuacan, Puebla.

There companies like Levis make so many pairs of

stonewashed jeans that the town's water has turned

blue.  In Los Angeles, Contreras hoped to find the

money to send home for her sister's weekly dialysis

treatments, and to pay the living and school expenses

for four other siblings.  For five years she moved from

shop to shop.  Like most garment workers, she didn't

get paid for overtime, her paychecks were often short,

and sometimes her employer disappeared overnight, owing

weeks in back pay.


Finally Contreras got a job at American Apparel,

famous for its sexy clothing, made in Los Angeles

instead of overseas.  She still had to work like a

demon.  Her team of ten experienced seamstresses turned

out 30 dozen tee shirts an hour.  After dividing the

piece rate evenly among them, she'd come home with $400

for a 4-day week, after taxes. She paid Social Security

too, although she'll never see a dime in benefits

because her contributions were credited to an invented number.


Now Contreras's working again in a sweatshop at

half what she earned before.  Meanwhile, American

Apparel is replacing those who were fired.  Contreras

says they're mostly older women with documents, who

can't work as fast. "Maybe they sew 10 dozen a day

apiece," she claims.  "The only operators with papers

are the older ones.  Younger, faster workers either

have no papers, or if they have them, they find better-

paying jobs doing something easier.


"President Obama is responsible for putting us in

this situation," she charges angrily. "This is worse

than an immigration raid.  They want to keep us from

working at all."


Contreras may be angry, but she's not wrong.  The

White House website says "President Obama will remove

incentives to enter the country illegally by preventing

employers from hiring undocumented workers and

enforcing the law." On June 24 he told Congress members

that the government was "cracking down on employers who

are using illegal workers in order to drive down wages

-- and oftentimes mistreat those workers."


The law Obama is enforcing is the 1986 Immigration

Reform and Control Act, which requires employers to

keep records of workers' immigration status, and

prohibits them from hiring those who have no legal

documents, or "work authorization."  In effect, the law

made it a crime for undocumented immigrants to work.

This provision, employer sanctions, is the legal basis

for all the workplace immigration raids and enforcement

of the last 23 years. "Sanctions pretend to punish

employers," says Bill Ong Hing, law professor at the

University of California at Davis.  "In reality, they

punish workers."


The Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) division

of DHS said early this year that it was auditing the

records of 654 companies nationwide.  The audit at

American Apparel actually began in 2007, under

President Bush.  In Minneapolis, another Bush-era audit

examined the records of janitors employed by American

Building Maintenance.  In May, the company and ICE told

1200 workers that if they didn't provide new documents

that showed that they could legally work, they'd be

fired. Weekly firings in groups of 300 began in

October.  The janitors belong to Service Employees

Local 26, and work at union wages.  The terminations

took place as the union was negotiating a new contract.


In Los Angeles 254 workers at Overhill Farms were fired

in May.  The company, with over 800 employees, was

audited by the Internal Revenue Service earlier this

year.  According to John Grant, packinghouse division

director for Local 770 of the United Food and

Commercial Workers, which represents production

employees at the food processing plant, "they found

discrepancies in the Social Security numbers of many

workers.  Overhill then sent a letter on April 6 to 254

people-- all members of our union - giving them 30 days

to reconcile their numbers."


On May 2 the company stopped the production lines

and sent everyone home, saying, according to worker

Isela Hernandez, "there would be no work until they

called us to come back."  For 254 people that call

never came. According to Alex Auerbach, spokesperson

for Overhill Farms, "the company was required by

federal law to terminate these employees because they

had invalid Social Security numbers.  To do otherwise

would have exposed both the employees and the company

to criminal and civil prosecution."


"We asked to see the IRS letter or any other

documents related to this," Grant responds. "We've

never heard of the IRS demanding the termination of a

worker. They never showed us any letter.  The company

doesn't have to terminate these people.  No document we

know of says they do." Some of the terminated workers

actually had valid Social Security numbers, and were

fired anyway.


Workers accuse the company of hiring replacements,

classified as "part timers," who don't receive the

benefits in the union contract.  "By getting rid of the

regular workers, to whom they have to pay benefits,

they're saving a lot of money," worker Lucia Vasquez

charges.  Auerbach says the replacements are paid at

the same rate, although he acknowledges they lack



The history of workplace immigration enforcement is

filled with examples of employers who use audits and

discrepancies as pretexts to discharge union militants

or discourage worker organization.  The 16-year union

drive at the Smithfield pork plant in North Carolina,

for instance, saw two raids, and the firing of 300

workers for bad Social Security numbers.


Nevertheless, whether or not they're motivated by

economic gain or anti-union animus, the current firings

highlight larger questions of immigration enforcement

policy.  "These workers have not only done nothing

wrong, they've spent years making the company rich.  No

one ever called company profits illegal, or says they

should give them back to the workers.  So why are the

workers called illegal?" asks Nativo Lopez, director of

the Hermandad Mexicana Latinoamericana.  The Hermandad,

with roots in Los Angeles' immigrant rights movement

going back to legendary activist Bert Corona, has

organized protests against the firings at Overhill

Farms and American Apparel.  "Any immigration policy

that says these workers have no right to work and feed

their families is wrong and needs to be changed," he declares.


President Obama says sanctions enforcement targets

employers "who are using illegal workers in order to

drive down wages -- and oftentimes mistreat those

workers."  This restates a common Bush administration

rationale for workplace raids.  Former ICE Director

Julie Meyers asserted that she was targeting

"unscrupulous criminals who use illegal workers to cut

costs and gain a competitive advantage."  An ICE

Worksite Enforcement Advisory claims "unscrupulous

employers are likely to pay illegal workers substandard

wages or force them to endure intolerable working conditions."


Curing intolerable conditions by firing or deporting

the workers who endure them doesn't help the workers or

change the conditions, however.  But that's not who ICE

targets anyway. Workers at Smithfield were trying to

organize a union to improve conditions.  Overhill Farms

has a union.  American Apparel pays better than most

garment factories.  In Minneapolis, the 1200 fired

janitors at ABM get a higher wage than non-union

workers - and they had to strike to win it.


ICE's campaign of audits and firings, which

SEIU Local 26 president Javier Murillo calls "the Obama

enforcement policy," targets the same set of employers

the Bush raids went after - union companies or those

with organizing drives.  If anything, ICE seems intent

on punishing undocumented workers who earn too much, or

who become too visible by demanding higher wages and

organizing unions.


And despite Obama's notion that sanctions enforcement

will punish those employers who exploit immigrants, at

American Apparel and ABM the employers were rewarded

for cooperation by being immunized from prosecution.

ICE threatened to fine Dov Charney, American Apparel's

owner, but then withdrew the threat, according to

attorney Peter Schey.  Murillo says, "the promise made

during the audit is that if the company cooperates and

complies, they won't be fined.  So this policy really

only hurts workers."


And the justification for hurting workers is also

implicit in the policy announced on the White House

site:  "remove incentives to enter the country

illegally."  This was the original justification for

employer sanctions in 1986 - if migrants can't work,

they won't come.  Of course, people did come, because

at the same time Congress passed the Immigration Reform

and Control Act, it also began debate on the North

American Free Trade Agreement.  That virtually

guaranteed future migration.  Since NAFTA went into

effect in 1994, over six million Mexicans, like Dolores

Contreras, have been driven by poverty across the

border.  "The real questions we need to ask are what

uproots people in Mexico," Hing says, "and why U.S.

employers rely so heavily on low-wage workers."


No one in the Obama or Bush administrations, or the

Clinton administration before them, wants to stop

migration to the U.S. or imagines that this could be

done without catastrophic consequences.  The very

industries they target for enforcement are so dependent

on the labor of migrants they would collapse without

it.  Instead, immigration policy and enforcement

consigns those migrants to an "illegal" status, and

undermines the price of their labor.  Enforcement is a

means for managing the flow of migrants, and making

their labor available to employers at a price they want to pay.


In 1998, the Clinton administration mounted the

largest sanctions enforcement action to date, in which

agents sifted through the names of 24,310 workers in 40

Nebraska meatpacking plants.  They then sent letters to

4,762 people, saying their documents were bad, and over

3500 were forced from their jobs.  Mark Reed, who

directed "Operation Vanguard," claimed it was really

intended to pressure Congress and employer groups to

support guest worker legislation. "We depend on foreign

labor," he declared. "If we don't have illegal

immigration anymore, we'll have the political support

for guest workers."


Bush's DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff said the same

thing.  "There's an obvious solution to the problem of

illegal work, which is you open the front door and you

shut the back door."   "Opening the front door" allows

employers to recruit workers to come to the U.S.,

giving them visas that tie their ability to stay to

their employment.  And to force workers to come through

this system, "closing the back door" criminalizes

migrants who work without "work authorization."  As

Arizona governor, DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano

supported this arrangement, signing the state's own

draconian employer sanctions bill, while supporting

guest worker programs.


In its final proposal to "shut the back door,"

the Bush administration announced a regulation

requiring employers to fire any worker whose Social

Security number didn't match SSA's database.  Social

Security no-match letters don't currently require

employers to fire workers with mismatched numbers,

although employers have nevertheless used them to

terminate thousands of people.  Bush would have made

such terminations mandatory.


Unions, the ACLU and the National Immigration Law

Center got an injunction to stop the rule's

implementation in the summer of 2008, arguing it would

harm citizens and legal residents who might be victims

of clerical mistakes.  In October 2009, the Obama

administration decided not to contest the injunction.

But while dropping Bush's regulation, DHS announced it

would beef up the use of the E-Verify electronic

database, arguing that it's more efficient in targeting

the undocumented.


Social Security, however, continues to send no-match

letters to employers, and the E-Verify database is

compiled, in part, by sifting through Social Security

numbers, looking for mismatches. DHS Secretary Janet

Napolitano called on employers to screen new hires

using E-Verify, and said those who do so will be

entitled to put a special logo on their products

stating "I E-Verify."


John T. Morton, DHS assistant secretary for ICE, told

the New York Times in November that the 654 companies

audited in 2008 and early 2009 were just a beginning,

and that audits would be expanded to an additional 1000

companies.  "All manner of companies face the very real

possibility that the government ... is going to come

knocking on the door," he warned.  The original 654

audits, Morton said, had already led to action at 328

employers, which presumably will include a demand to

fire workers identified as undocumented.


This growing wave of firings is provoking sharp

debate in unions, especially those with large immigrant

memberships. Many of the food processing workers at

Overhill Farms and ABM's janitors have been dues-paying

members for years.  They expect the union to defend

them when the company fires them for lack of status.

"The union should try to stop people from losing their

jobs," demanded Erlinda Silerio, an Overhill Farms

worker. "It should try to get the company to hire us

back, and pay compensation for the time we've been out."


At American Apparel, although there was no union, some

workers had actively tried to form one in past years.

Jose Covarrubias got a job as a cleaner when the

garment union was helping them organize.  "I'd worked

with the International Ladies' Garment Workers and the

Garment Workers Center before," he recalls, "in

sweatshops where we sued the owners when they

disappeared without paying us.  When I got to American

Apparel I joined right away.  I debated with the non-

union workers, trying to convince them the union would

defend us."


The twelve million undocumented people in the

U.S., spread in factories, fields and construction

sites throughout the country, encompass lots of workers

like Covarrubias.  Many are aware of their rights and

anxious to improve their lives.  National union

organizing campaigns, like Justice for Janitors and

Hotel Workers Rising, depend on the determination and

activism of these immigrants, documented and

undocumented alike.


That reality finally convinced the AFL-CIO in

1999 to reject the federation's former support for

employer sanctions, and call for repeal.  Unions

recognized that sanctions enforcement makes it much

more difficult for workers to defend their rights,

organize unions, and raise wages.


Opposing sanctions, however, puts labor in

opposition to the current administration, which it

helped elect.  Some Washington DC lobbying groups have

decided to support the administration policy of

sanctions enforcement instead.  One of them, Reform

Immigration for America, says, "any employment

verification system should determine employment

authorization accurately and efficiently."

Verification of authorization is exactly what happened

at American Apparel and ABM, and inevitably leads to

firings.  The AFL-CIO and the Change to Win labor

federation this spring also agreed on a new immigration

position that supports a "secure and effective worker

authorization mechanism that determines

employment authorization accurately while providing

maximum protection for workers."


Covarrubias is left defenseless by such protection,

however. Instead, he says, "we need the unity of

workers.  There are 15 million people in the AFL-CIO.

They have a lot of economic and political power.  Why

don't they oppose these firings and defend us?" he

asks.  "We've contributed to this movement for 20

years, and we're not leaving.  We're going to stay and

fight for a more just immigration reform."


Nativo Lopez says he'll organize the workers being

fired if unions won't, although recently he also

expressed a desire for greater cooperation with the

UFCW in the defense of fired workers.  Last year the

Hermandad began setting up workers' councils in

southern California neighborhoods, to oppose employer

sanctions and help workers resist them.  "If companies

start firing people as they have here, this place will

look like a war zone," he warns, "but if we fight to

defend people, we can organize them."


For more articles and images, see


For a Press TV interview about racism, globalization

and illegality, see


See also Illegal People -- How Globalization Creates

Migration and Criminalizes Immigrants  (Beacon Press,

2008) Recipient: C.L.R. James Award, best book of



See also the photodocumentary on indigenous migration

to the US Communities Without Borders (Cornell

University/ILR Press, 2006)


See also The Children of NAFTA, Labor Wars on the

U.S./Mexico Border (University of California, 2004)


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