The words "Mexico" and "Mexican" can hardly be found on the website of the country's largest chain of Mexican fast food restaurants, Chipotle. Yet almost everyone working in almost every location is Mexican, or at least Latino.
Mexican workers are often an invisible but indispensable workforce. They clean office buildings at night, pick fruit and vegetables miles from most urban Americans, and cut up cows and pigs in giant anonymous factories hidden away in Midwest small towns. But Chipotle's effort to make its workers invisible is deliberate, not an accident of time or geography.
Three months ago the chain that made its fortune selling Mexican food made by Mexican workers fired hundreds of them throughout Minnesota. Their crime was that they worked, but had no immigration papers.
One was Alejandro Juarez, who spent five years at the Calhoun Lake Chipotle in Minneapolis. Juarez came here nine years ago, leaving two daughters and a wife at home in Mexico. Once he arrived, he could never risk going back, not even once, to see them grow up. Crossing back over the border to return to work would have cost more than $2500, a prohibitive expense for a fast food worker. Over the years Juarez learned how to fix stoves, grills, refrigerators and hot tables, for which he was paid $9.42/hour. He worked hard, sent money home, put his girls through school, and knew their voices only from the telephone.
In the restaurant, he says, you couldn't think about that because the company had a rule that you had to smile all the time. "People would come to work leaving sick kids at home, not able to get enough hours to pay the rent, and then had to smile for fear of losing their job," he recalls. "It was humiliating."
Last December he and coworkers all over the state were called in by managers. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, part of the Department of Homeland Security, had audited the company records, they said, and told Chipotle to fire them. So managers told them not to come back the following day.
Since 1986, federal law has required employers to verify the immigration status of workers. Job applicants fill out an I-9 form and provide identification showing they are citizens or are immigrants authorized to work in the U.S. In effect, this provision of the law, called employer sanctions, makes it a federal crime for an undocumented immigrant to hold a job. The governments's existing strategy for enforcing immigration law in the workplace results in firings of hundreds, even thousands of workers.
For over 20 years the federal government has used various methods to enforce the law. Under President George W. Bush, black-clad immigration agents holding submachine guns charged into meatpacking plants and rounded up workers for deportation. Bush proposed a regulation that would have required all employers to fire all workers whose Social Security numbers didn't match the SSA database, presumably because they were undocumented. That regulation was challenged by unions and enjoined in Federal court.
President Barack Obama and DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano have said they favor a "softer" strategy.
Instead of Bush's "all employers at once" approach, ICE now audits the records of employers one by one. Social Security numbers, once intended to benefit workers by tracking contributions for retirement and disability benefits, have become the tool for identifying and firing the undocumented.
President 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 workers who endure them doesn't help the workers or change the conditions, however.
Over the last two years, thousands of workers have been fired. In Minneapolis, Seattle and San Francisco over 1800 janitors, members of SEIU union locals, have lost their jobs. In 2009 over 2000 young women at the sewing machines of American Apparel were fired in Los Angeles. No one, except perhaps ICE, knows exactly how many how many more workers have been terminated, but ICE director John Morton last year said ICE had audited over 2900 companies.
One might think that the current and previous administrations, bent on using this brutal tactic to force undocumented immigrants to leave the country, would also address the reasons why people cross the border to begin with. The North American Free Trade Agreement, for instance, allowed huge U.S. corporations from Archer Daniels Midland to Smithfield to flood Mexico with subsidized corn and meat, making it impossible for farmers to compete and survive. Six million Mexicans have come to the U.S. as a result, since the treaty took effect.
"NAFTA and the effects of globalization create great migration pressures on Mexicans," says Bill Ong Hing, a law professor who investigated meatpacking raids for the United Food and Commercial Workers. "Utilizing employer sanctions to address Mexican migration causes misery for workers, but does not reduce displacement and the flow of people."
Yet despite campaign promises, the administration has no intention of renegotiating that agreement, and plans to ask Congress this year to ratify new ones with South Korea and Colombia. Last fall William Daley, who shepherded NAFTA through Congress for President Bill Clinton, was appointed Obama's chief of staff. Jeffrey Immelt, CEO of General Electric, became his top economic advisor on jobs. Immelt's predecessor at GE, Jack Welch, famously declared that the corporation's future lay in Mexico. He meant that GE saw Mexico, not as a market, but as a reserve of labor at wages a fraction of those in its US factories.
The proliferation of starvation-wage jobs didn't keep people in Mexico. Instead it forced them to come north looking for work. Chipotle was only one of thousands of U.S. employers who saw that gold mine.
Those displaced workers coming north couldn't get visas, however, and therefore no Social Security cards or "work authorization." Hungry migrants invented or borrowed numbers, gave them to Chipotle and thousands of other employers, and went to work for the lowest wages in the U.S. economy. Despite the administration's claim that it's penalizing those low-wage employers, the companies audited by ICE get immunity from penalties if they cooperate in firing their workers. The only ones punished are workers themselves.
The administration has no intention of stopping migration. With its emphasis on free trade, couldn't even if it wanted to. And if somehow it could force millions of undocumented workers to leave, the economic consequences would be disastrous, as the basic workforce would disappear in many industries.
Bush's Secretary of Homeland Security, Michael Chertoff, explained this apparent contradiction in policy by saying the purpose of enforcement was to "close the back door and open the front door." The intent of that policy became clear when ICE agents did an I-9 audit last year at Gebbers Farms, an apple grower in remote eastern Washington. At ICE's insistence, Gebbers fired 500 workers, some of whom had worked at the ranch for years. In the tiny town of Brewster (population 2100) 90% of the school students were Mexican.
After the firings, Gebbers applied for 1200 H2-A visas, allowing it to bring workers from other countries (including 300 from Jamaica) to pick its crops. The visa is tied to work, and these "guest workers" have to leave once the work is done.
Enforcement didn't do away with immigrant labor, but allowed an employer to bring workers under conditions called "Close to Slavery" in a report by the Southern Poverty Law Center. The use of these programs is expanding. All the comprehensive immigration reform bills in Congress over the last five years have tied enforcement to these labor supply schemes.
"We have to look at the whole picture," urges Renee Saucedo, former director of San Francisco's day labor program. "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 while firing and even jailing those who don't have papers, we need to help people get legal status and repeal the laws that make work a crime."
Saucedo and a group of unions and immigrant rights organizations around the country have proposed an alternative immigration policy based on human and labor rights, called the Dignity Campaign, that would also change U.S. trade policy.
In Minneapolis, SEIU Local 26 has helped workers caught in the audits to organize marches and demonstrations. When the Chipotle workers were fired, the union cooperated with the Center for Workers United in Struggle, a local workers' center, and the Minnesota Immigrant Rights Action Committee to fight for back wages and vacation pay. Supporters were even arrested in civil disobedience at a Chipotle restaurant.
The terminated Chipotle workers have also demanded that the company support immigration reform. Chipotle might actually like proposals that would give it access to guest worker programs, enforced with the threat of employer sanctions and firings. But after getting fired themselves, that's undoubtedly not what its workers have in mind.
Photo: Workers and activists protesting at Minneapolis chipotle. SEIU