Under the cover of darkness, in well-synchronized raids, scores of Department of Homeland Security (DHS) agents took the night shift cleaning crews into custody at 60 Wal-Mart stores across the United States. In what The New York Times called the largest immigration crackdown in years, Homeland Security arrested 250 mop- and broom-wielding janitors. Homeland Security spokesman Garrison Courtney could cite no link between those arrested and security issues, although he told the World the department’s first priority is national security.
In response to the raids, one labor union official charged, “They should be looking for terrorists, not hard-working immigrants.”
The Bush administration “is trying to keep people scared, worried about national security,” said Kat Rodriguez, organizer for Tucson-based human rights group Derechos Humanos. “They want to justify this department’s massive spending.”
In response to the raids, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney called for changing the nation’s immigration laws that “encourage the exploitation of workers,” making them “easy prey for Wal-Mart and other companies bent on exploitation.”
Last month, thousands of Freedom Riders, undocumented immigrants and their supporters filled the Capitol, just blocks from DHS headquarters, demanding legalization and a path to citizenship for precisely those hard-working immigrant workers like the ones caught in DHS’s net. The Freedom Riders won the support of millions of people across the country.
The arrested workers, including Mexican, Eastern European, Mongolian, and Brazilian immigrants, now await deportation hearings.
Meanwhile, in 3,474 Wal-Marts and millions of workplaces across America, immigrants and others returned to their jobs in stores, factories and fields in spite of news of the raids. “There are a lot of people worried,” about being arrested and deported, an undocumented New England Wal-Mart employee told the World. But, he explained, they all came back to work because they need their jobs.
Reports stated that all but 10 of those arrested were employees of companies contracted to do cleaning by Wal-Mart, the nation’s largest employer. But Wal-Mart spokesperson Sharon Weber told the World that cleaning crews in most Wal-Marts are direct employees, not contractors. She declined to give their wages, insisting, however, they are “competitive with the local economy.” Arrested employees report working for $6 an hour. “The ‘Wal-Martization’ of our economy is driving down wages and workers’ rights through a relentless search for the cheapest labor,” said Sweeney in a prepared statement.
The United Food and Commercial Workers Union, representing the nation’s grocery workers, have blamed the proliferation of Wal-Mart stores and its standard of meager wages and benefits for the current strike and lockout of 70,000 retail workers in Southern California.
DHS’s Courtney had no explanation why the arrestees included only workers, not managers or Wal-Mart executives.
The author can be reached at email@example.com. Jose Cruz contributed to this article.