Latino grocery chain faces immigration audit
Mi Pueblo, a Latino supermarket chain with humble roots, faces the prospect of a mass layoff, a boycott and a federal investigation — all because of questions about its employeesâ€™ legal status and right to work in the U.S.
Turns out it wasnâ€™t so voluntary. The company revealed this month that U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, has launched an employee immigration audit. ICE will comb the companyâ€™s records to uncover fraudulent information like fake Social Security numbers. It may press criminal charges as well. Joining E-Verify was just a matter of course.
News of the audit hit hard among Mi Puebloâ€™s rank-and-file. Rosa Gomez, an immigration attorney based in East Palo Alto, says Mi Pueblo employees are quitting their jobs before they get fired.
â€śPeople who have worked there for five years are leaving in fear and not getting any sort of compensation or anything like that,â€ť says Gomez.
ICE has done 9,000 audits since President Obama took office. Although immigrants whose work papers donâ€™t add up wonâ€™t be deported, they will be fired so Mi Pueblo can protect itself from liability.
How many employees? As much as 90 percent of Mi Puebloâ€™s workforce could go, according to Julie Pace, a workplace attorney Mi Pueblo hired earlier this month.
â€śThe company has no knowledge of anyone being undocumented, but you really donâ€™t know until you get the list,â€ť says Pace.
All of Mi Puebloâ€™s employees are bilingual, and the vast majority are Latino. But Pace cautions against making judgments based on that.
â€śThe government tells us over and over again, donâ€™t think you know whoâ€™s undocumented, because youâ€™re usually wrong,â€ť she says.
ICE wouldnâ€™t confirm that it is indeed auditing Mi Pueblo, based on its policy not to discuss a case until it announces fines or some other legal action. But a spokeswoman says ICE does not target stores or companies, but only investigates when it receives a tip or complaint from the public — or another agency.
Itâ€™s ironic for Mi Pueblo to defend itself from charges of betraying employees and siding with the federal government. The company was founded by Juvenal Chavez, a former janitor who came to the U.S. from Mexico without legal documents.
Now the grocery chain faces a boycott from the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 5. The union has tried to organize workers at Mi Pueblo for more than a decade.
â€śOur interest as a labor union is to represent workers — we donâ€™t really care whether theyâ€™re documented or not,â€ť says Mike Henneberry, communications director with United Food and Commercial Workers Local 5.
The union has won at least two court decisions against Mi Pueblo for violations of the National Labor Relations Act.
Henneberry says Mi Pueblo hasnâ€™t done enough to try to stop the audit, citing an MOU between the Departments of Homeland Security and Labor that restricts enforcement of labor and immigration laws under certain circumstances, including labor disputes. ICE says the MOU doesnâ€™t apply.
â€śThe company needs to know that people are not happy with whatâ€™s going on out there, and employees are not happy either,â€ť says Henneberry. â€śWeâ€™re asking people to make a statement with their wallets and stop shopping at the stores until the company gets its act together.â€ť
The boycott had no evident effect on Mi Puebloâ€™s East Palo Alto store after the audit was announced. Customer Laura Tovar says sheâ€™s troubled by what she heard about the company, but wonâ€™t stop shopping there.
â€śThe store is pretty close by, and itâ€™s convenient, and it has everything that I need,â€ť she says.
Ultimately, this is more than a PR challenge for the grocery chain — itâ€™s a challenge to their business model. The 8 million undocumented workers in this country arenâ€™t just the ones staffing local stores like Mi Pueblo — theyâ€™re also reliable customers, driving the bottom line.
© 2017 Julia Scott.