Last month six hundred workers at the Chipotle fast food chain were fired in Minnesota.
Their crime? Working.
In the last two years, thousands of others have been fired for the same offense—1800 young women at Los Angeles sewing machines, 500 apple pickers in eastern Washington, hundreds of janitors in Minnesota and California. They're all victims of the administration's "softer" immigration enforcement strategy.
Its logic is brutal: Make it impossible for 12 million undocumented people in the US to earn a living—to buy food, pay rent, or send money home to their children. Then they'll deport themselves. When their families hear they can't get jobs in the US, they won't join those already here.
This inhuman logic convinced Congress to pass the Immigration Reform and Control Act in 1986. For 25 years employers have had to verify workers' immigration status, and cannot legally employ people without papers. The real impact, though, is on workers. It's become a crime to hold a job.
But that hasn’t prompted undocumented immigrants to leave the United States. Over those 25 years NAFTA and CAFTA, and pro-corporate market reforms in Mexico and other developing countries, profoundly deepened the poverty driving people from their homes. More people came than ever before.
Among them were those six hundred mostly-Mexican workers who got minimum-wage jobs serving Mexican food at Chipotle. Many of them worked years for the company. Then the Department of Homeland Security audited Chipotle's personnel records, found incorrect Social Security numbers, and in December sent the company a list of workers it had to fire.
Alejandro Juarez, who worked at the Calhoun Lake restaurant in Minneapolis, says his manager told him not to bother coming back the next day. He'd spent five years cleaning and fixing the stoves, grills and refrigerators, for $9.42/hour. "The company used us," he says, "and when it didn't serve them anymore, they threw us away like trash."
John Morton, head of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) says it plans many more mass firings. The ICE website says it targets employers "who are using illegal workers to drive down wages ... [those] likely to pay illegal workers substandard wages or force them to endure intolerable working conditions."
At Chipotle, however, as in every other sanctions target, ICE never improved conditions. Wages remain the same. In fact, although Morton boasts ICE collected $7 million in employer fines during 2,740 audits, those who cooperated in firing workers were given immunity. The only people penalized were workers.
Fortunately, in Minneapolis, workers first sought assistance from the Center for Workers United in Struggle, a local workers' center. With its help, they made an alliance with the city's janitors' union, Service Employees Local 26. The local union had already been hit by audits that led to the firing of hundreds of its members, including stewards, officers and core activists. Janitors had marched in the streets, while the union tried to help them survive. Together, Chipotle workers and building cleaners picketed the restaurants, where several supporters were arrested in protest.
As these firings spread, many other unions will face the same situation. Some, like the janitors' locals in Minneapolis and San Francisco, have looked for ways to fight. Their first concern has been survival, and they've sought time extensions, back wages and vacation already owed, and severance.
In Minneapolis the workers also demand that Chipotle support immigration reform. That puts the human rights of immigrants squarely in the center of the table.
Congress' comprehensive immigration reform proposals of the last five years would not have stopped these firings - in fact, most bills would have increased them. But though Congress is moving rightwards, many immigrant rights groups and unions are moving left. They demand reforms that would reinforce the human and labor rights of people like the janitors and Chipotle workers. One proposal, the Dine with Dignity Campaign, calls for legal status for the undocumented, for repealing employer sanctions, and for ending trade policies that lead to forced migration.
That reflects the position unions adopted at the AFL-CIO convention in 1999. They argued then that immigrant workers had to be able to organize in order to improve Chipotle-level wages and conditions. Making work a crime made organizing harder, while pitting workers against each other during times of high unemployment. San Francisco's hotel union later won a decision invalidating firings for bad Social Security numbers. Unions even got a court injunction against Bush's regulation mandating such terminations.
After 1999, however, some unions supported the CIR bills because they promised limited legalization, even at the price of more workplace enforcement. And most recently, the AFL-CIO's Building and Construction Trades Department called for stepped-up sanctions enforcement without legalization.
Unions will have to choose whether to defend workers or not. There is no doubt that thousands more will be fired, even in an economy with nine percent unemployment. And these firings are indispensable to an enforcement regime that last year produced close to 400,000 deportations, and nearly as many people in detention. Rumors in Washington now whisper that if there's too much protest, ICE will go back to the Bush-style raids.
But the janitors and Chipotle workers have shown the country a crucial fact. Even without papers, they've been willing to stand up. "We have to make our rights count for something," Juarez says. "We're not criminals. We have to say what we think, and let the company and government see we're united."
Now it's up to unions and immigrant rights organizations to stand up with them, to demand, not just that the firings and deportations stop, but that a real immigration reform guarantee basic human and labor rights.