Illegal immigrants being fired in face of federal crackdown.
By Brian Donohue
The Star Ledger (Newark, NJ), January 21, 2008
For six years, Modesto Roque went to work at the sprawling Silver Line window factory in North Brunswick – a union job with health insurance and wages that started at $7.50 an hour and rose to $9.25.
No one, he says, ever asked about his Social Security number, a bogus ID he used to get hired in 2001.
Roque says a former co-worker at another job gave him the number to use when he first arrived in the country. I dont know if its false or illegal, he said. But I applied (at Silver Line), they accepted it and I was off and working.
But Roques cover was blown last year when the company was sold and the new owners, Andersen Corp., began auditing personnel records and discovered his Social Security number did not match any on file with the federal government. Roque was given two months to fix his paperwork – an impossibility, he says, given his status as an illegal immigrant – and was fired in November.
In all, more than 230 workers at the Middlesex County factory have been fired in the past three months as part of the audit, according to the union that represents them, Teamsters Local 97.
The Silver Line firings are part of a growing trend in which employers are purging unauthorized workers to avoid a fledgling immigration crackdown by the U.S. government, according to immigration attorneys and experts.
I think this is the future, said Cynthia Lange, a San Francisco immigration attorney whose firm, Fragomen, Del Rey, Bernsen & Lowey, has offices in New York and Iselin. Companies are looking internally and they want to be the first ones to look at it before they are like sitting ducks.
The number of workplace raids and prosecutions remains small and there have been no recent major prosecutions of employers in New Jersey, home to an estimated 430,000 illegal immigrants. Nonetheless, cases like the 2006 sweep of six Midwestern meat processing plants in which managers of the Colorado-based Swift & Co. were charged criminally, have struck fear in the hearts of employers – especially companies like Andersen, with name brand reputations at stake.
Andy Carr, director of marketing at Silver Lines Route 1 plant, would not divulge how many people have been fired by the company, which bills itself as the nations largest manufacturer of vinyl replacement windows and patio doors. However, he did say, theres a good chance that if we found someone with a mismatch, if we were required by law to let them go, we would do so.
The firings also have offered a glimpse of how unions, workers and employers might adapt to a new business climate in which authorities no longer ignore illegal immigrant labor, as they have largely done for years.
Silver Line must replace scores of skilled workers, some of whom worked at the factory as long as 17 years. On the streets of Plainfield and New Brunswick, workers recently were passing out handbills with the Silver Line logo reading Now Hiring and touting perks like restaurant discounts and free movie passes.
The Teamsters Union, meanwhile, has filed a grievance to get the workers rehired or compensated for the firings – a delicate political stance for a union whose members often accuse illegal immigrants of stealing jobs from U.S. citizens.
And life has gotten tougher for the workers.
MORE RAIDS AND AUDITS
Roque and others say most have found work through industrial temp agencies that hire workers out to warehouses and factories. But the work is unsteady, a day or two at a time, at lower wages than they were paid at Silver Line, with no health insurance.
Im just surviving a while until I find something better, said one fired worker, an illegal immigrant from Mexico who said he worked at the company for six years as a licensed forklift operator.
Studies show most illegal immigrants find work using Social Security numbers that are either stolen, purchased, borrowed, taken from dead people or simply invented.
In August, The U.S. Department of Homeland Security announced a new plan to notify employers with large numbers of workers whose numbers do not match records – 138,447 companies nationwide – that they must fire the workers within 90 days. In New Jersey, 4,767 companies were slated to receive the letters.
Previously, employers who received so-called no match letters were not required to take any action.
The American Civil Liberties Union, the AFL-CIO and other labor groups sued to stop the letters. A federal judge has prohibited the government from sending the letters until the legal battle is over.
In the meantime, the DHS has vowed to step up enforcement and increase the number of workplace raids and audits.
I advise all employers, yeah, get your house in order, said Dave Whitlock, an Atlanta-based immigration attorney.
For Silver Line, getting its house in order has sparked a new battle with the Teamsters, who have filed a grievance to win the workers jobs back, or at least a severance package. President John Gerow said more than 200 of the 1,922 Silver Line workers the union represents have lost their jobs.
These people established themselves, bought houses, kids born here, going to American schools. Its bizarre, said Gerow. There has to be, for that guy who has 17 years, or 12 or eight, an office or somewhere to go to say give me a year to rebound. Give them some latitude.
EMBRACING THE `ENEMY
The decision by the Teamsters local to challenge the firing illustrates a larger shift on the part of organized labor, which once saw illegal immigrants as the economic enemy.
Today, unions like the Teamsters increasingly see immigrants – legal or not – as the most fertile ground for boosting membership.
Gerow, however, sees it more simply. These men paid their dues and worked hard for years, he says, and deserve more than just being fired with no compensation.
Its based solely on my moral values, he said of his decision to fight for the workers jobs. They paid me with no hesitation and when the leopard changes its spots, they become victimized.
He adds: The guy who hired these guys didnt give a (expletive) who they were as long as they came to work.
Supporters of tougher immigration laws are cheering the move by Silver Line and other companies, saying the federal crackdown on employers is one of the most important steps in reducing the nations illegal immigration population, currently estimated to be about 12 million.
Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington, D.C., think tank that lobbies for lower immigration levels, says his biggest concern is the federal governments new tougher stance will peter out after the November presidential election.
If the crackdown continues, Krikorian said, hes hopeful illegal immigrants like Roque will eventually find things so tough theyll decide to go back to their home countries.
Thats ultimately the goal, he said. Its not something thats going to happen right away. It needs to gain momentum. And we are beginning to see movement.