On the night of Friday, November 6, in the community space of Pilsen’s Casa MichoacÃ¡n, in front of an American flag, a Mexican flag, and a Day of the Dead shrine, a crowd of about fifty has gathered for the first official public event of the newly formed immigrants rights organization Chicago Community and Workers Rights (CCWR). Behind a long table in front of the stage, five leaders from Chicago’s Mexican-American community speak and take questions from the crowd on how to protect their legal rights in the wake of changing government policies on the right to work. Formerly part of the Chicago Workers Collaborative, the directors of CCWR started the new organization in order to, as stated in a letter to supporters, “focus its efforts on organizing and defending the immigrant community.”
The crowd at tonight’s meeting is here to talk about the government’s E-Verify program, an online system that allows employers to check the legal status of recently hired employees in order to determine if they are authorized to work. Employers who have registered with E-Verify submit the basic information that their new employees enter on the government’s I-9 employment eligibility form to be checked against information in over half a billion records in the databases of the Social Service Administration (SSA) and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). On its website the DHS makes its pitch: “E-Verify is an essential tool for employers committed to maintaining a legal workforce.”
But according to the panelists at tonight’s meeting, the E-Verify program enables so much abuse by employers that it has become a means of institutionalizing discrimination. Officially, E-Verify can only be used to check the legal status of recently hired workers and cannot be used to screen applicants or long-time employees. It is also illegal to use the system selectively, to screen some new hires and not others. In practice, though, the program is used for all of these purposes, and as a tool for intimidation. Diego Bonesatti, director of the Proyecto de AcciÃ³n en los Suburbios del Oeste (PASO, or West Suburban Action Project), describes the abuse. “Employers are fine with the workers until they stick up for their rights. If they’re organizing for better conditions, employers will use E-Verify and say, ‘Oh, look at this’…and use it as a way to fire them.” There are also serious concerns about the system’s accuracy. Official DHS statistics estimate an error rate at around three percent, but Bonesatti says that some have put the number as high as twenty percent. “Even with that three percent figure,” he says, “if the program became compulsory, we’re talking about three million workers who would have mistaken information.”
The program has existed as a pilot since 2007, but there have been efforts in Congress to make it permanent and compulsory, and recent developments have made the situation urgent. Previously, notification letters gave employees some time to clarify their legal statuses, but recently U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has only been allowing workers ten days before sending their signed registrations to the Department of Homeland Security. The recent escalation of the E-Verify program is partly due to national legislation. As a temporary compromise to the postponement of immigration reform until 2010, a mandate by the federal government begun on September 8 now requires all federal contractors to use E-Verify to confirm the work authorization of their employees. Bonesatti describes the escalation of E-Verify as part of a broader shift in policy. “The door-to-door raids are quieting down. Now we’re seeing more of what we call ‘virtual raids,’ which are a mix of E-Verify and audits of employers.”
CCWR’s meeting was a success in starting to educate the community about the E-Verify system and their rights in the face of its potential abuse, but there’s still no clear consensus on how to directly resist it. Martin Unzueta, founder and president of CCWR, emphasizes that E-Verify isn’t just an issue for immigrants or for the Hispanic community. “It’s a problem for everyone when families can’t buy what they need. We’re talking about the person who owns the corner store, we’re talking about the schoolteacher, about the priest. They should all be interested in what happens in the factory, because this discrimination has direct repercussions in the community.”
When the panel closes, the atmosphere in Casa MichoacÃ¡n gets a lot more fun. A table set up at the back of the room serves up tamales, wine, and hot chocolate, and the stage is turned over to the entertainment. Musician and storyteller Chuy Negrete sings Spanglish protest songs: “We arrived at the city of Juarez…we arrived in Racine, Wisconsin.” Speaking to the crowd over the shuffle of guitar chords, he half-jokes, “Has anyone here ever had to pick cotton?” An older woman in the third row slowly raises her hand. “The seÃ±ora!” he calls out, and moves on to the next chorus.
The next morning, CCWR holds a workshop in its headquarters, a few small rooms in an old warehouse building in an industrial area of Little Village. About three dozen people pack into a single room filled with folding chairs and decorated with signs from previous rallies whose Spanish slogans range from the simple (“We are fighting for our rights,” “Justice for all”) to the more specific (“Obama, what happened to what you promised when you were senator?”) A long table against one wall is covered with information about employment laws and social service programs, and on the wall behind there is a print of a nineteenth-century painting depicting an angry group of striking workers standing at the door of the factory owner’s home.
The families that show up today are here to get their questions answered by Carmela Gonzalez, a representative of the Illinois Department of Labor. They ask questions about unpaid overtime, missing paychecks, and other promises that their employers have made, delayed, and broken. Gonzalez gives general information about the laws that apply in each case, gives advice, and refers each questioner to other resources. E-Verify comes up in one case. For nine years, Javier Martinez worked fourteen-hour night shifts operating a forklift for IFCO systems, a company that manufactures and distributes reusable plastic containers. On September 17, he says, he arrived at work and was told there were inconsistencies in the answers he had given on his I-9 form nine years ago. His employer had run his information through E-Verify. Martinez has lived in the U.S. for seventeen years and has raised four children here. He is sure the discrepancies are errors of the system, but he isn’t sure what to do about it.
Workshops like these are laying the groundwork of CCWR, which sees itself primarily as a movement towards worker education. In an interview after the workshop, Unzueta describes the situation: “There’s a lot of fear in this community in dealing with the law, and there’s a lot of misinformation about workers’ rights.” Unzueta has spent years as an organizer in the struggle for immigrant rights. Making information available through references, translation, and workshops is critical to protecting workers’ rights, especially in the Hispanic community, where the language gap and the legal issues surrounding immigration, citizenship, and the right to work make it easier for employers to take advantage of their workers. “We want to educate workers about their rights under these laws so that they can become educators themselves, pass the information on, and organize with other workers.”
The formula is straightforward, but applying it to affect change isn’t. The workers at this meeting are trying to work through a confusing pattern of legislation that defines their rights to work in decent conditions, and the even more difficult struggle of making sure those rights are respected. When one woman gets frustrated with her employer’s demands that she pick up extra hours, Unzueta puts his hand up to stop her and says simply, “There are some things that are unjust that are not illegal.” There is a lot to be frustrated about here, but CCWR is not about throwing blame. Unzueta tells the crowd, “It’s not the Department of Labor’s fault. We enact the law. Who here has spoken with their alderman? With their representatives?” No hands are raised. After a pause he says, “There are no magic answers, and this will not happen quickly.”
During the meeting, a small girl in a pink jacket crawls around the tile floor in the middle of the room and under the chairs of the attendees. She laughs and claps her hands while her mother asks the speaker about the legality of compulsory overtime, trying to understand the difference between what she knows is right and what the law says is legal. This little girl isn’t old enough to understand the complicated questions about her family’s rights that are being discussed around her. Hopefully the answers will be clearer by the time she can ask for herself.