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Photograph by Felipe Buitrago
DEAL WITH THE MESS: Janitors, affiliated with the Service Employees International Union, on strike against cleaning companies that serve many Silicon Valley giants, protested last week at Cisco's San Jose campus .

Under the Rug

New federal laws could sweep away janitors and other low-wage workers

By Diane Solomon

HUNDREDS of janitors walked off the job last week at Cisco Systems, Yahoo, Hewlett-Packard, Apple and other high-tech and biotech corporations. Among them were Silicon Valley's lowest-wage workers—most of them undocumented—who service the valley's biggest businesses for wages that they say don't provide the most basic needs for their families.

Zoe Lofgren, the San Jose congresswoman who chairs the House Immigration Subcommittee, says it's no surprise that so many low-wage workers are undocumented. "Do you know how many visas we allocate a year for unskilled workers under our visa system? Five thousand a year," she says. "Obviously, we aren't going to meet our agricultural needs to feed ourselves, plus kitchen help, construction, hotels, etc., on 5,000 visas a year. So really the law is to blame. We've set up this situation where the only way to meet the employment needs is illegally."

Richard Hobbs is an immigration attorney and director of Santa Clara County's Office of Human Relations, who is running for county supervisor. He says, "We've gone from calling them 'illegal aliens' to 'undocumented workers' to 'essential workers,' he says. "Their work in agriculture, food services, janitorial and construction is essential to fulfilling Silicon Valley's human needs."

Hobbs says because these workers aren't eligible for any public assistance except K–12 education and emergency medical care, they're giving more than they're getting. "The Social Security Administration is receiving about $7 billion per year from false Social Security numbers," he says. "This money balances their coffers and never goes back to these immigrants."

A PEW Hispanic Center survey issued in December says that about a quarter of all Latino adults residing here are unauthorized immigrants. Pew says Latinos are the nation's largest minority group, numbering 47 million, which is about 15.5 percent of the total U.S. population. Sixty percent have a Mexican origin.

Researcher Dr. Ann López, a San Jose City College professor emeritus, echoes Rep. Lofgren, claiming that current U.S. law is to blame for creating an immigrant underclass. She says most Mexicans come here seeking work because NAFTA triggered sub-Saharan levels of poverty when U.S. corn flooded Mexican markets.

"NAFTA's architects predicted that a million Mexicans would be forced off of their land every year," López says. "Where did they expect them to go?"

Her 10-year study of Mexican workers on both sides of the border was published last summer as "The Farmworker's Journey." Seventy-five percent of the undocumented workers López studied said they'd rather be home, but they can't earn a living there. Even when they work a low-paying job, they say they can make more in one hour here then they'd make in a day there.

Paper Trail

Getting a crappy job is as easy as going to the parking lot at the Tropicana shopping center and buying a fake ID. If any visitor looks the part, the sellers will find them.

"We call it 'the Mexican Consulate,' says Adrian Ibanez, an immigrant from Mexico. "You can get an ID for any type of job at the Tropicana." He says that $85 will buy a package complete with an alien resident card and a Social Security card, within an hour. "If the alien resident card doesn't scan," he says, "buyers get their money back."

Maybe this paper isn't good enough to convince the DMV to issue a driver's license, but it enables workers to get hired and cash their paychecks. Although federal law requires employers to verify job applicants' legal status, lax enforcement and fake IDs enable employers to look the other way when they need help.

Josué García works for the Santa Clara & San Benito Counties Building & Construction Trades Council. He visits the Mexican Consulate on First Street to give immigrants information about what to do if they're being abused by employers. He tells them about labor laws, including the minimum wage, and gives them phone numbers of agencies that can help them. "Immigrants want to pay taxes," he says. "They want to be legal but they're forced into this system."

As the funny and frightening 2004 movie A Day Without a Mexican demonstrated, losing undocumented immigrants would close car washes, company cafeterias, hotels, fast food restaurants, grocery stores, restaurants and construction sites. Lawns wouldn't get mowed. And corporate offices wouldn't be cleaned.

Kevin Cartwright of SEIU's Justice for Janitors campaign says that for many of these people, working full-time or even multiple jobs affords only substandard housing, and means a struggle to make ends meet. "Many live in garages, sheds and storages areas turned into living spaces," he says, "and it's very common for several families to share one apartment or house."

Local union organizers say it has to be pretty bad before an undocumented worker will talk to them because if they're caught they'll get fired.

Gerado Dominguez of the United Food & Commercial Workers Union says employers work undocumented immigrants harder then native-born workers, and basic benefits like holidays and sick days are basically nonexistent.

"We have an instance where a worker wasn't paid for five months—they only got food," Dominguez says. "We know that some employers have a saying, 'You're exploitable or deportable,' and we want to change that."

Big business benefits from this huge labor pool of undocumented workers. Aviva Chomsky, author of "They Take Our Jobs": and 20 Other Myths About Immigration, says exploitation of immigrants is nothing new.

"When slavery was abolished, new forms of bringing people into the country without rights were invented," she says. "There's always been a significant segment of people deprived of rights who have served as cheap labor."

I'm Breaking the Law

Many activists were surprised that many big business leaders supported the comprehensive immigration reforms that were shot down by Congress last June.

"The associations that represent the big employers all were for comprehensive immigration reform," says Zoe Lofgren. "As a group, the companies and their associations asked to have visas for people working here so that they would be able to come out of the shadows."

Dolores Huerta, co-founder of the United Farm Workers of America, thinks business could have had a louder voice and put more pressure on Congress. "I can understand their reluctance," she says, "because if you ask someone who's breaking the law to say, 'Yeah, I'm breaking the law,' they aren't going to do that."

Representing 3 million businesses, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce says fake documents make it hard for employers to determine who is authorized to work and who isn't. They've asked the feds to fix what they call dysfunctional immigration laws.

People willing to clean toilets for $8 an hour may be in short supply but dysfunctional immigration laws aren't. No federal remedies have led to the proposal and enactment of hundreds of state laws over the last year.

Most troubling is the Legal Arizona Workers Act, which a federal judge upheld as legal in February following lawsuits brought by immigrants' rights and business groups. LAWA requires all employers to use the Department of Homeland Security's EEVS system (E-Verify) to check the legal status of new hires. It also requires the state to investigate when a business is accused of using undocumented workers.

The U.S. Chamber and a coalition of 50 trade groups also oppose a new DHS rule threatening employers whose employees give them false Social Security numbers. Since 1986, employers have been responsible for checking the citizenship status of their employees. But most employers ignore the "no match" letters they receive from the Social Security Administration. Last August, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff announced a new get-tough rule subjecting employers to steep fines and criminal arrests if they don't resolve discrepancies between the SSA's records and their employees' Social Security numbers within 90 days of receiving a "no match" letter.

A restraining order brought by the ACLU and a coalition of immigrants' rights groups has put this on hold until DHS goes back to court.

The Republican's latest scheme could affect everyone. The Shuler-Tancredo "SAVE Act" (H.R. 4088) would require all employers to use E-Verify to check the legal status of their employees.

Presently E-Verify is a free system that employers voluntarily use to check new hires. Critics point out that it has been shown to have serious shortcomings. The most problematic is the tendency to deliver "false positive" matches, declaring citizens in good standing to be illegal.

Most errors aren't status related, they're clerical errors or caused by name changes. Foreign-born citizens are 30 times more likely to be incorrectly flagged as not legal to work.

The SAVE Act could have a huge impact here because 75 percent of Santa Clara Valley residents are either foreign-born immigrants or children of foreign-born immigrants.

The National Immigration Law Center is a litigant in the DHS and LAWA lawsuits. NILC spokeswoman Tyler Moran says if the SAVE Act passes we'll not only need the government's permission to work but also we could get trapped in a Kafkaesque "no work" list nightmare. "Right now less than 1 percent of all employers are voluntarily participating in E-Verify," she says. "If someone has a problem, they can go somewhere else to find a job because most employers aren't using E-Verify. In a mandatory system, you'll be barred from earning your livelihood if you can't resolve an error."

Verified or Terrified?

When the House of Representatives' Immigration Subcommittee hired attorney Traci Hong, she filled out an I-9 form and brought in her passport. When they punched in E-Verify, her information didn't match. An employee drawing a tentative nonconfirmation only has 10 business days to show the SSA or DHS that they're eligible to work. If you can't do that, the employer must fire you or risk being found in violation of immigration laws. "I had to go to the Social Security office and prove that I was a U.S. citizen," Hong says. "It took me three separate tries."

If employers have to E-Verify all 163 million U.S. employees, database errors will send millions of victims to inconveniently located SSA offices that are already overloaded getting people their pensions and disability payments.

"The root of the problem," says Dolores Huerta, "is that people in Mexico do not have jobs or opportunities. This is why they migrate. Our policy toward Latin America is one of economic colonization; we want to take over their economies, right? Mexico and Latin America have always been our friends yet we always want to take out their resources and take out the profits and leave nothing behind for the people.

"What we did with Japan and Germany is lend them millions of dollars after World War II to develop their own economies. We've got to change our foreign policy toward Latin America and help them develop their resources.

"If we can't do it through governments then we can do it through NGOs, and maybe we have companies doing business in Mexico start reforming."

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