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March 8-14, 2006

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Silicon Valley News Notes

No Good Deed Goes Unpunished

City employees, teachers, clergy and social workers are up in arms over a piece of legislation that may be clearing another hurdle in Congress very soon. What's the big deal? Well, for one thing, they say it could make them felons—just for doing their job. You may already know that over 11 million undocumented immigrants living in this country would become felons with the stroke of a pen if the Senate approves the proposed law, H.R. 4437, which the House of Representatives passed in December. But there's more to it than that—the bill's most extreme provision would criminalize anyone who knowingly helps an undocumented immigrant. The law's language is so far-reaching, it could make priests felons for giving communion, opponents believe. The same goes for social workers, public outreach workers, volunteers, ESL teachers, legal advocates and others that build community support systems. With over 100,000 undocumented immigrants living in Santa Clara County, according to a 2002 study, H.R. 4437 has stirred up shock from all sides. "It's just so outrageous," says Erik Larsen, president of the AFSME city workers' union. "If it passed it would be devastating." Larsen's union represents front-line city employees whose outreach duties provide "the glue for strong neighborhoods." They already have a difficult time establishing trust in areas with high numbers of undocumented immigrants, Larsen says, and the contentious bill would only make their jobs harder. Catholic Charities, the second largest nonprofit network in the nation, has taken a strong stance against H.R. 4437. Greg Kepferle, head of the local branch, says their specialty is helping thousands of undocumented immigrants obtain citizenship and reuniting families across borders. If passed, Kepferle believes the bill would push the vulnerable population he serves further into the shadows—exactly what Catholic Charities is trying to prevent. Lynette Parker, supervising attorney at the community law center run by Santa Clara University, says the proposed law would create "a huge amount of fear." Her immigrant program, which handles about 100 cases a year, provides legal aid to victims of domestic abuse, trafficking and other crimes. As it is, undocumented immigrants often shy away from help, Parker says, because their abusers threaten to report them to immigration authorities—a situation that could be magnified by H.R. 4437. While most of the concerned groups hope the law doesn't make it through the Senate, they're not sitting back to see what happens. SIREN, a South Bay immigrant advocacy group, is organizing community opposition to the bill with educational programs. They're also lobbying state senators. Parker spoke on a Stanford University panel to address the issue last week, and Larsen is distributing dissent cards for city employees to sign and submit to state legislators. Local vigils, protests and rallies are all in the works, and groups like Larsen's are sending out the message: "We will not be turned into INS agents. Regardless of who you are or where you come from, if you are a San Jose resident you deserve public services and we are going to help you." At presstime, the Santa Clara County Human Relations Commission was voting on a resolution to oppose H.R. 4437.

City Jobs In the Toilet

Workers may have fancy digs at the new City Hall in San Jose, but one group of employees are watching their jobs go down the toilet thanks to the building's $300 million building costs. The City of San Jose has already been thinning its custodial staff for years, but now there are only five full-time custodians employed at the new City Hall. The problem is that you need more than 30 custodians to keep the new City Hall in shape. The city's solution? Some cheap labor. To save a few bucks, city officials have contracted with Acme Building Maintenance Co. to bring in 23 contract custodians. Acme charges the city $18.71 and pays its custodians about 10 bucks an hour. City custodians, meanwhile, earn about $20 an hour. Because of their better benefits package, city custodians cost San Jose, at the top level pay scale, about $63,000 a year, while Acme custodian run about $39,000, plus extra fees that Acme charges to perform deep-cleaning work that city custodians do as part of their job. "Either there wasn't enough planning that went into operation costs for the larger [downtown] facility, or there was an intentional plan to have Acme custodians at City Hall," muses a Municipal Employees Federation rep to Fly. Matt Morley, the facilities manager at City Hall, admits the city likes the current janitorial plan, though he won't confirm that city custodians are being phased out. "We're going forward with the status quo," says Morley, "by providing the nighttime service through contract, and [most of] day-time as in-house." Morley says it would cost the city an extra million dollars to hire a custodial staff comprised of only city custodians. Meanwhile, city janitors are glum about their futures. "That's the sad thing about this," says the MEF rep. "The four or five city custodians are all senior custodians that have been doing this type of work for years. The way they basically see this is, 'Look, we're training our replacements.' And they are pretty demoralized about that; they would be rather be training city employees to move up in the ranks. No one wants to be in a position where they are training their replacements."

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