By Jeremy P. Goren
When officials from Immigration and Customs
Enforcement (ICE) raided Wal-Mart stores in more than 20 states
on October 23 — including stores in Long Island and northern
New Jersey—they arrested around 300 undocumented immigrant
workers and placed them in jail to await deportation proceedings.
raids, which officials say are part of an ongoing investigation,
sent chills through immigrant communities all over the country.
are no Wal-mart stores in New York City, workers without visas,
permanent residence, or citizenship constitute a
large portion of the work force here.
“These are workers who contribute not only to our economy
by working in jobs, many of them very, very low-paid jobs, [but
also by being]
a part of our whole economic system,” said Gouri Sadhwani,
Executive Director of the New York Civic Participation Project. “They
spend money; they pay taxes; they live in our communities; they’re
our neighbors; their kids go to school with our kids. These are
people who are an [integral] part of the fabric of our city.”
despite their integration into the daily life of New York, undocumented
workers do not receive the legal protections that
other New Yorkers receive.
“They still treat people like
slaves in this country,” said José Mayorga, who immigrated
to the United States from Colombia thirteen years ago and now works
as a liaison between ARAMARK administrators and its workers. Mayorga
said employers force undocumented workers to work for below minimum
wage and under unreasonable conditions and keep them from organizing
by threatening to fire them or report them to immigration authorities,
threats which they often follow through.
Sadhwani blamed changes
in the Bush administration’s policies
since Sept. 11 for enhancing the existing fear among undocumented—and
documented—immigrants in New York City workplaces through
the Patriot Act and tougher enforcement of “bad” worker
and immigration laws.
“Workers particularly here in New York
feel that [fear],” she said. “People feel really unsafe
about simply going to work and doing their jobs… [and] that
makes it easier for bad employers to be able to continue to exploit
Immigrant rights advocates say even undocumented workers
deserve the standards, benefits, and respect promised by law to
in the United States. Omar Jadwat, a lawyer with the ACLU’s
Immigrant Rights Project, emphasized that “it undermines
those laws to attempt to make them differentially available to
people based on their immigration status. It doesn’t make
sense to say we’re going to let an employer pay someone less
than minimum wage just because they’re an immigrant.”
rationale leads various labor unions in New York to go to workplaces
around the city to organize all workers, turning a blind
eye to immigration status.
The Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees
(HERE) Local 100 does not ask its members if they have papers but
rather focuses on organizing and negotiating with employers for
better working conditions for all workers. They have led several
strikes at New York restaurants in the past few weeks and have
settled just before striking with other employers. In addition,
they advocate legalization for undocumented workers in their sector
where, they believe, many undocumented workers are employed. Local
100 was a major supporter of the Immigrant Workers’ Freedom
Ride that held its closing rally in Queens on Oct. 4—as were
other local labor unions, including the 1500 SEIU, which counts
Wal-Mart employees among its members.
this cooperation between unions and immigrants as the path to better
immigration legislation—and safer conditions
for immigrant workers. “I think we are united and we are
together. I think we can get to Congress, to the government, not
tomorrow, not in two years, but I think in a little [while], you
are going to see everyone legalized in this country.” Once
legal, immigrant workers could then receive the protections of
U.S. labor laws.
However, some advocates of more stringent enforcement
of immigration laws believe the solution to unsafe working conditions
is to bar undocumented workers from continuing to live and work
in the United States.
"Amnesties are absolutely the worst
possible solution,” said Craig Nelsen, Executive Director
of ProjectUSA, which advocates a “time-out” in immigration. “We
have to decide as a country what’s more important, cheap
crap from China and Wal-Mart’s bottom line or maintaining
our nation where we actually have a thriving middle class and people
are paid a decent wage for a decent job done.”
Bitterman, however, claimed a more humane rationale for his union’s
“You can make all the economic arguments you want,
but…undocumented workers here are still getting screwed.
When they tell their story, as the Freedom Ride gave them a chance
to do…it’s really hard to argue with those stories.”
of those stories already have added tales of unfit working conditions
and may soon include new chapters for the workers arrested
in the raids on Wal-Mart and other workplaces, chapters chronicling
jail time, court proceedings, and a forced return to the country
from which the impoverished protagonist had once fled in search
of a better life.
Sadhwani emphasized that such deportations of undocumented workers,
especially from New York City, are not only a turn against humanity
but also against history. “Our city’s always been this
way. If you look back to migration over the last hundred years,
New York City has always been the home of immigrants.”