Immigration Crackdown, Amid Labor Unrest, at Latino Supermarket Chain

Monday, October 08, 2012

Mi Pueblo Food Center, a 21-store Latino supermarket chain undergoing labor turmoil, is facing a surly customer base and an unnerved workforce after revealing that it joined a controversial federal computer system that screens for the immigration status of employees, and is now being audited by the government.

Union organizers, who have clashed with founder Juvenal Chavez for years, have estimated that as many as 80% of Mi Pueblo’s 3,200 workers may be undocumented. Chavez, now a legal U.S. resident, was himself undocumented when he entered the country in the 1980s. The stores―located in the Bay Area, the Central Valley and Monterey Bay region―built their reputation on providing a familiar Mexican experience, in color, architecture and music. The employees all wear bilingual name tags.

Mi Pueblo joined E-Verify, the Department of Homeland Security’s expanding work-verification network, in August after what the company said was intense pressure from Washington. E-Verify is a voluntary program administered by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, but 19 states have mandated some form of cooperation by employers. It is meant to be used as a screen for new hires, not a scan of present employees. The internet-accessible database contains detailed personal information including names, dates of birth, Social Security numbers and citizenship status.

The audit, revealed by Mi Pueblo on Friday, is being conducted by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). It was announced just days before a threatened boycott was to begin, organized by a union demanding the stores stop using E-Verify and sign a labor agreement. ICE has audited more than 6,500 worksites since 2009.   

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney likes the program and wants it to be mandatory in all states. It is central to his policy of “self-deportation” for reducing the number of undocumented immigrants in the country.   

Critics of E-Verify cite studies of error rates as high as 10%, and argue that it burdens the employee with proving he isn’t breaking the law, encourages discrimination and is ineffective in controlling immigration.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services spokeswoman Sharon Rummery says that 30,400 California employers and 109,205 work sites use E-Verify.

Mi Pueblo has been locked in combat with unions, who have been trying to organize Asian and Latino workers across the state, and employees who have filed lawsuits over wages and breaks. The United Food and Commercial Workers Local 5 and the Teamsters Union have complained to the National Labor Relations Board, according to the Los Angeles Times.

–Ken Broder


To Learn More:

Supermarket Chain that Joined E-Verify Part of Immigration Probe (by Lee Romney, Los Angeles Times)

Mi Pueblo Markets Came under U.S. Immigration Audit, Company Says (by Matt O’Brien, San Jose Mercury News)

Latino Food Chain's Participation in E-Verify Leaves a Bad Taste (by Lee Romney and Cindy Change, Los Angeles Times)

Mi Pueblo Supermarket Chain Chief Criticized for Using E-Verify (by Matt O’Brien, San Jose Mercury News)

Congress Extends E-Verify Program Through 2015 (by Luke Witman, The Examiner)

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