Christmas at Woodfin Suites 

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

Page 5 of 6

Since then, however, the raids have caused many onetime supporters to question that decision. Just last week, for instance, the SEIU reversed its position and now opposes worker sanctions and most forms of guest-worker programs. EBASE organizer Sarah Norr notes that sanctions don't stop employers from hiring undocumented workers: "They just create sort of a revolving door, where they can be hired and then gotten rid of if they stand up for their rights," she said.

Congress' new Democratic majority is divided. Last year, Democrats Silvestre Reyes, a former Border Patrol agent, and fellow Texan Charles Gonzalez introduced a bill paralleling Bush's regulation. They argued that supporting hard enforcement is the secret to winning the 2008 presidential election. Incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi named Zoe Lofgren of San Jose, a strong defender of Silicon Valley's high-tech guest-worker programs, to head the House Immigration Subcommittee.

Progressives such as Oakland's Barbara Lee believe the November election makes other alternatives possible. The Oakland-based National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights has proposed one such alternative. It convinced the AFL-CIO and dozens of local immigrant-rights coalitions to sign a petition calling for legalization of the undocumented, more opportunities for legal immigration, no new guest-worker programs, and an end to employer sanctions and militarization of the border.

It is unlikely that even the new Democratic majority would pass such a bill. But if such a proposal were to become law, workplace raids like those at Swift and mass dismissals like the one at Woodfin Suites would become a thing of the past. Workers without papers would be able to begin a process leading to permanent visas and citizenship.

If, on the other hand, Kennedy-McCain is reintroduced and passed, Woodfin Suites will be forced to fire Luz Dominguez, Marcela Melquiades, and the other workers named by Social Security. People without papers may be able to sign up as guest workers to keep cleaning rooms, but they'll lose their immigration status if they lose their jobs.

Within a week of the firings at Woodfin, EBASE and the Emeryville city attorney went to court seeking an injunction returning the housekeepers to their jobs. The city argued that it needed their presence until it could investigate whether the firings were retaliatory.

"It is very important for the city to keep the workers employed until it can determine whether their allegations of retaliation are bona fide," Fricke said. The councilman added that he asked the hotel's manager if federal authorities were demanding that it terminate the workers. "He said no. Our problem is that if the city council allows an employer to threaten workers — although the hotel says it's acting for some other reason — this has a strong, chilling effect on the willingness of others to come forward and report violations."

Hotel manager MacIntosh denies that the hotel is retaliating for the workers' efforts to enforce Measure C. "We'd like to see them come back," he said.

Shortly after New Year's Day, once Alameda County Superior Court Judge Ronald Sabraw ordered the hotel to reinstate them, Dominguez, Melquiades, and nineteen other housekeepers returned to the hotel. But the women feel caught between their need for employment and their growing unease about the immigration climate.

After work one December night, with her family fed, Dominguez and her friend sat at the Formica table in Dominguez' kitchen. On the table, cups of cinnamon tea rested on a little white doily alongside a plate of tiny white guava-jam sandwiches with their crusts cut off. It was like an English tea party with a Mexican flavor. Drinking tea, the two mothers remembered home.

"My father taught us to work," Dominguez recalled. "'We are working people,' he told us, 'and nothing is given to us.' He always had his sayings. One of them was, 'We help people without expecting to receive something in return. What matters is what you're like inside — that is what God will see. So maybe we won't be rich, but we will have peace inside us.'"

But now she feels less peace than before. "I don't feel as comfortable now," she said of the world beyond the workplace. "We live in a Latino community, and we bring our customs here, but we're looked down on, judged, and criticized. People have the right to say we have to adapt to life here. It's their country. We're the foreigners. But I want us to be taken into account."

Dominguez also made another type of sacrifice common to immigrant families —that of separation. Her oldest daughter is 24 and attending college in Mexico City, for which her mother sends back money every month, and she is unlikely to settle in the United States with the rest of her family. "You have to make a lot of sacrifices, and one of them is that some children will live here, and some will live there," she said mournfully. "We won't be together. You can't have everything."


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