Christmas at Woodfin Suites 

When Woodfin Suites fired its immigrant workers, was it obeying the law or dodging a living-wage ordinance?

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The Woodfin firings highlight the vulnerability of undocumented workers under current US immigration law. That increased in 1986, when Congress passed the Immigration Reform and Control Act, making it a federal crime for an employer to hire workers without valid immigration documents. But by making it illegal for the employer to hire, the law also made it a crime for those workers to hold a job.

Twenty years later, the no-match letter has become a way for the administration to enforce that prohibition with the help of the Social Security Administration.

As workers were battling with hotel managers at Woodfin Suites, others found themselves in the same predicament. In November, nearly four hundred workers in laundry plants across the country were pulled off their jobs after they'd received letters from their employer, Cintas Corporation, advising them of a no-match check. Cintas is the largest industrial laundry in the United States, with four Bay Area locations. Elena, an immigrant working in its San Jose facility, told the San Jose Mercury News that "I feel that this is discrimination because we were helping with union organizing."

For the last two years, UNITE HERE, the union for hotel and laundry workers, has mounted a national campaign to organize Cintas, marked by firings and charges of unfair labor practices. The company claimed that the no-match terminations were done to comply with a new requirement by the Bush administration. "All employers have a legal obligation to make sure that all employees are legally authorized to work in the US," Cintas spokesman Wade Gates told the Mercury News.

Other companies firing workers for the same reason this fall include Smithfield Foods, which has battled an organizing drive by the United Food and Commercial Workers for a decade, and Aramark, which has a national union contract with UNITE HERE. All used the same justification — that they were simply abiding by a proposed rule change by President Bush that would require employers to fire anyone named in a Social Security no-match letter.

There's only one problem with that argument: That rule change was never issued. Because its implementation would undoubtedly cause a huge outcry, the president has waited for enactment of a larger immigration-reform program.

According to an estimate by the Pew Hispanic Trust, a Washington, DC, foundation, about twelve million people living in the United States lack immigration papers. The vast majority are of working age, and since no one without documents can get public assistance, it's safe to assume that most are employed. To get their jobs, almost all have provided Social Security numbers that don't belong to them.

If these millions of people were identified and terminated, as Bush's rule would require, it would have an enormous economic impact on the nation. Crops would rot in the fields. Restaurants and hotels would be forced to close. The production lines in meatpacking plants would cease from lack of workers. Housing construction would grind to a halt.

Immediate and widespread enforcement of the rule would deprive employers of a massive, undocumented workforce they've grown to depend upon. But the administration's program for immigration reform doesn't simply propose to drive people with papers out of the workplace. It also aims to replace them with a new flow of labor, recruited and brought into the country on temporary visas to fill contract jobs.

The president's proposed regulation has its roots in a political deal advanced by the Essential Worker Immigration Coalition, an association of forty of the largest manufacturing and trade groups in the United States, which represents companies such as Marriott, Tyson Foods, and Wal-Mart. Two years ago, Senators Edward Kennedy and John McCain introduced a bill that would have permitted many undocumented immigrants to seek legal status, while giving large employers the power to bring four hundred thousand additional workers a year into the United States on temporary work permits. It would have required undocumented people already here to declare their presence and spend eleven years as contract workers before they could apply for citizenship.

The bill would have increased enforcement of employer sanctions, proposing the same raid and no-match strategy the government is using today. When the Senate and House couldn't reconcile their conflicting bills, the president then proposed but did not implement his own regulation increasing workplace enforcement.

Observers expect the Kennedy-McCain bill to be reintroduced into Congress this year. Most unions opposed it last time because they do not favor guest-worker programs and also because it strengthened employer sanctions, making the raids and no-match checks possible. The AFL-CIO also wants to give undocumented immigrants legal status.

Bruce Raynor, president of UNITE HERE, said the no-match letters are an indication of what's wrong with the law. "There are twelve million undocumented people living here who are important to the economy," he said. "They have a right to seek employment, and employers have a right to hire them. The only way to deal with this is to give workers rights and a path to citizenship."

Nevertheless, both Raynor's union and the Service Employees International Union, another union with many immigrant members, supported the Kennedy-McCain bill, while the rest of labor opposed it. "We thought it was what was possible under those circumstances," Raynor said. Increased employer sanctions and guest-worker programs were a price they were willing to pay for legalization of the undocumented.

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