Immigrant Workers Face Firings Even Without Arizona’s Laws

Immigrant Workers Face Firings Even Without Arizona’s Laws

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SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. -- While the potential criminalization of undocumented people in Arizona continues to draw headlines, the actual punishment of workers because of their immigration status has become an increasingly bitter fact of life across the country.

janitorsIn the latest move by the Department of Homeland Security, 475 immigrant janitors will soon be fired from their jobs in San Francisco. Weeks ago, DHS went through the employment records of their employer, ABM, one of the largest building service companies in the country. DHS’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement sifted through Social Security records and the I-9 immigration forms all workers have to fill out when they apply for jobs. They then told ABM that the company had to fire 475 workers who were accused of lacking legal immigration status.

ABM has been a union company for decades and many of the workers have been there for years. "They've been working in this industry for 15, 20, some as many as 27 years in the buildings downtown," says Olga Miranda, president of Service Employees Local 87. "They've built homes. They've provided for their families. They've sent their kids to college. They're not new workers. They didn't just get here a year ago."

Those workers are now faced with an agonizing dilemma. Should they turn themselves in to Homeland Security, who might charge them with providing a bad Social Security number to their employer, and even hold them for deportation? On the other hand, for workers with families, homes and deep roots in a community, it's not possible to just walk away and disappear. " I have a lot of members who are single mothers whose children were born here," Miranda says. "I have a member whose child has leukemia. What are they supposed to do? Leave their children here and go back to Mexico and wait? And wait for what?"

Miranda's question reflects not just the dilemma facing individual workers, but one facing the 12 million undocumented people living in the United States. Since 2005, successive congresspeople, senators and administrations have dangled the prospect of gaining legal status in front of those who lack it. In exchange, their various schemes for immigration reform have proposed huge new guest worker programs, and a big increase in exactly the kind of enforcement now directed at the 475 San Francisco janitors.

Pres. Barack Obama, condemning Arizona's law that would make being undocumented a state crime, said it would "undermine basic notions of fairness that we cherish as Americans." But then he called for legislation with guest worker programs and increased enforcement.

While the country is no closer to legalization of the undocumented than it was 10 years ago, the enforcement provisions of the comprehensive immigration reform proposals have already been implemented on the ground. The Bush administration conducted a high-profile series of raids in which it sent heavily armed agents into meatpacking plants and factories, holding workers for deportation, and sending hundreds to federal prison for using bad Social Security numbers.

After Obama was elected president, immigration authorities said they'd follow a softer policy, using an electronic system to find undocumented people in workplaces. People working with bad Social Security numbers would be fired. As a result, last September, 2,000 seamstresses in the Los Angeles garment factory of American Apparel were fired, followed a month later by 1,200 janitors working for ABM in Minneapolis. In November, over 100 janitors working for Seattle Building Maintenance lost their jobs.

"Homeland Security is going after employers that are union," Miranda says. "They're going after employers that give benefits and are paying above the average." While American Apparel had no union, Minneapolis janitors belonged to SEIU Local 26, Seattle janitors to Local 6 and San Francisco janitors to Local 87.

Obama says sanctions enforcement targets employers "who are using illegal workers in order to drive down wages -- and oftentimes mistreat those workers." 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 workers who endure them doesn't help the workers or change the conditions, however. 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. Javier Murillo, president of Local 26, says, "The promise made during the audit is that if the company cooperates and complies, they won't be fined. So this kind of enforcement really only hurts workers."

ICE director John Morton says the agency is auditing the records of 1,654 companies nationwide. "What kind of economic recovery goes with firing thousands of workers?" Miranda asks. "Why don't they target employers who are not paying taxes, who are not obeying safety or labor laws?"

Union leaders like Miranda see a conflict between the rhetoric used by the president and other Washington, D.C. politicians and lobbyists in condemning the Arizona law, and the immigration proposals they're making in Congress. "There's a huge contradiction here," she says. "You can't tell one state that what they're doing is criminalizing people and at the same time go after employers paying more than a living wage and the workers who have fought for that wage."

Renee Saucedo, attorney for La Raza Centro Legal and former director of the San Francisco Day Labor Program, is even more critical. "Those bills in Congress, which are presented as ones that will help some people get legal status, will actually make things much worse," she says. "We'll see many more firings like the janitors here and more punishments for people who are just working and trying to support their families."

Increasingly, however, the Washington proposals have even less promise of legalization and more emphasis on punishment. The newest Democratic Party scheme virtually abandons the legalization program promised by the "bipartisan" Schumer/Graham proposal, saying that heavy enforcement must come before any consideration of giving 12 million people legal status.

"We have to look at the whole picture," Saucedo says. "So long as we have trade agreements like NAFTA that create poverty in countries like Mexico, people will continue to come here, no matter how many walls we build. Instead of turning people into guest workers, as these bills in Washington would do, while firing and even jailing those who don't have papers, we need to help people get legal status and repeal the laws that are making work a crime."

Labor reporter David Bacon is the author of "Illegal People -- How Globalization Creates Migration and Criminalizes Immigrants."