Immigrant Workers

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. These raids, which officials say are part of an ongoing investigation, sent chills through immigrant communities all over the country.

Although there 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.”

But, 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 them.”

Immigrant rights advocates say even undocumented workers deserve the standards, benefits, and respect promised by law to all workers 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.”

This 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.

Mayorga sees 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 for immigrants 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 efforts.

“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.”

Some 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.”

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