By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
The firings came on the heels of widespread employer threats of immigration raids. According to one employee, anti-union consultant Mary Mendez told workers at the Stemilt Fruit Co., “There hasn’t been a union here yet, and the INS hasn‘t done any raids. But with a union, the INS is going to be around.”
In the San Francisco Bay Area, two major janitorial contractors were targeted for similar checks, and more than 500 members of SEIU Local 1877 lost their jobs. SEIU plans to negotiate its first national master janitorial contract in the year 2000, and the I-9 checks removed many leaders the union needed for that campaign.
The INS workplace enforcement program depends heavily on a new set of relationships with other government agencies. An agreement with the Department of Labor, for instance, requires federal inspectors looking for violations of minimum-wage and overtime laws to also thumb through the I-9 forms, looking for discrepancies that could lead to deportations.
In Los Angeles, the INS initiated a series of raids in garment sweatshops two years ago, called Operation Buttonhole, in response to information from DoL inspectors. Similar raids followed a campaign by the Korean Immigrant Workers Association to enforce wage and hour laws in L.A.’s Korean restaurants. Retaliation against workers who file complaints are now barred by new rules, but DoL inspectors still turn immigration information over to the INS.
An even hotter controversy erupted over similar efforts by the Social Security Administration. Over the last year, employers have been flooded with “no match” letters from the SSA, in which the agency lists workers whose numbers don‘t match its database. Many employers view the list as evidence that workers have no legal immigration status.
That has provided another pretext for firings. In Sacramento, Local 1877 alleges that local contractors attempted to use “no match” letters to terminate high-seniority workers, in order to avoid paying them costly new medical benefits. In New York and New Jersey, thousands of immigrant asbestos-removal workers organized their industry, and revitalized the Laborers Union, three years ago. Last year, contractors sent the union a “no match” list of workers, including the leaders of the union drive, that they would no longer accept from the union hiring hall.
The Los Angeles INS district now shares information with agents from the DoL, the IRS, the state Department of Insurance, and even the federal Bureau of Land Management, in a Worker Exploitation Taskforce. INS L.A. district director Thomas Schiltgen credits the task force with filing criminal charges against employers over illegal working conditions and immigration-law violations. Workers with no immigration papers, however, are protected from exploitation by losing their jobs.
The most ambitious INS enforcement program so far, Operation Vanguard, has concentrated on the meatpacking industry in Nebraska. There the INS took charge of the personnel records of every meatpacking plant in the state, and in three Iowa counties. Concentrating on 40 plants with a work force of 24,310 people, they sifted out 4,762 names. Then the INS sent lists of names to each company, and a letter to every worker, requiring them to come in for interviews.
About a thousand of those who received the letters actually showed up. Only 34 actually lacked legal immigration papers and were deported. The remainder were released. Nevertheless, the INS has declared the operation an initial success, estimating that those who failed to report either quit because of normal turnover, or were undocumented and left.
Repeated checks every 60 days will keep undocumented workers from returning to their old jobs or finding new ones in other plants.
According to Mark Nemitz, president of Local 440 of the United Food and Commercial Workers at the Farmland pork plant in Denison, Iowa, dozens of local families left their homes during the week of the interviews. They camped out in the county park, 12 miles outside this small town, fearing the INS would pick them up for deportation.
The INS intends to make Operation Vanguard a national program in every industry where undocumented immigrants are concentrated. “We will clean up one industry and turn the [jobs] magnet down a bit,” says INS Regional Director Mark Reed, “and then go on to another industry, and another, and another.”
In Los Angeles, Schiltgen says there are no immediate plans to implement Operation Vanguard, and points out that the situations in L.A. and the Midwest are different. But he thinks Operation Vanguard’s industrywide and statewide approach is very effective, and says it is definitely not just a pilot program. “We‘re not there yet,” he says, but adds that “Mark [Reed] is correct. The fact that we haven’t done it doesn‘t mean we won’t.”
The potential impact of Operation Vanguard on the hundreds of thousands of undocumented workers employed in L.A.‘s economy would be enormous. Such an operation would also make union drives among those workers almost impossible. In Omaha, one campaign to organize workers in nonunion packinghouses lost 20 of its 22 in-plant leaders in Operation Vanguard’s wake.
Even more threatening to unions and immigrant-rights groups, however, is the intention of the INS to use Operation Vanguard to push for an expanded guestworker program. Reed says Operation Vanguard will cut off the supply of undocumented workers to those industries dependent on their labor, provoking a political outcry for a new program to bring contract workers into the U.S. The last U.S. experiment with contract immigrant labor, the bracero program of the 1940s and ‘50s, was described as “legalized slavery” by its own former administrator Lee G. Williams. By their nature, contract-labor programs give employers not only the power to fire workers, but in effect the power to deport them as well.
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