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Some People Wake Up Like This

Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s intimidation of immigrants in this country reveals the pain and embarrassment they face every day.

“Teresa Delgado” is having a dream that she will not remember. She will wake just after 5 a.m. to a knock on her front door. When she answers it, she will find several men on her porch in wearables emblazoned with the letters ICE. No, not men with cones of shaved and flavored ice, but armed agents for the Immigration and Customs Enforcement. And though the agents will not say hello (for they are cold), “Teresa” will soon find them in her home, along with a well-mannered German shepherd.

What more can I say about someone like Teresa? About someone I have not met, about someone I could not reach, about someone I am calling Teresa merely for the sake of an article? For as I write this, who she is is still unclear. For as I write this, she is still too unsettled to speak.

I can begin by telling you what I do know. About what I have learned since receiving an urgent media advisory that announced a press conference to call for an end to ICE intimidating immigrant workers like Teresa. The advisory was released by Stan Taylor, a coordinator for Interfaith Council on Economics and Justice, an association of faith leaders who are concerned about the plight of mercado workers — employees in a growing ethnic market retail industry.

Teresa is one of more than 3,ooo workers employed at Mi Pueblo, a chain of 22 stores expanding across the Bay Area, Central Valley and Monterey Bay with an annual revenue of $300 million. Of the approximately 10,000 mercado workers in this California region, nineteen of twenty are recent immigrants from Mexico, South America and the Pacific Islands. Many are undocumented, and this precarious status makes them susceptible to abuse. In 2001, Mi Pueblo fired 300 workers on the grounds of poor sales. All the while, Mi Pueblo continued to expand.

Mi Pueblo’s practices have also been criticized for high rates of worker injury and discrimination. Employee Maria Sanchez (whose name has been changed to protect her identity) can no longer cook for her children as she did; a two to three hundred pound container fell on her hands and wrists. And Laura Robledo was sexually harassed on a continual basis. Despite having two witnesses, Laura was suspended after taking her concern to management. Soon after, she was fired for alleged misbehavior.

In 1984, a young schoolteacher came to the U.S. illegally from the Michoacan city of Aguililla. He would spend the next seven years performing odd jobs as a janitor, a bartender, and a glassware washer in laboratories on Stanford University’s campus. In the evenings, he would take classes to learn English. By 1991, he would gain legal status and open a small meat market in East San Jose. This man’s name is Juvenal Chavez. This man is the founder and CEO of Mi Pueblo Food Stores.

Juvenal Chavez designed Mi Pueblo specifically to appeal to the Latino population — employing bilingual cashiers, playing ranchero music and stocking foods from various parts of Mexico. At Mi Pueblo, employees wear badges with their hometown printed below their first or “given” name. This is the same name that is printed in Section 1 of the Employment Eligibility Verification Form, or Form I-9. Since 1986, every employer in the U.S. must complete this form to document verification of the identity and employment authorization of each new employee, both citizen and non.

Like many of her co-workers, I imagine Teresa thought she had found an ally in Mi Pueblo. I imagine she might have identified with the story of Juvenal Chavez. At least its beginning.

But in August of 2012, mercato employees of Mi Pueblo were stunned to find that the company decided to institute E-Verify, an Internet-based system that compares information from an employee’s Form I-9 to data from U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and Social Security Administration (SSA) records in order to confirm employment eligibility. Each week, approximately 1,300 new businesses sign up for program. While E-Verify is a voluntary service for most employers (outside of Arizona and Mississippi), Mi Pueblo suggests they were encouraged into it by ICE following an I-9 audit.

I-9 audits, often called silent raids, express their silence in various ways. (1) ICE’s presence is often metaphorical in that agents will not intrude the physical workplace. Instead, there is only a suggestion from a distance: get rid of the problem, i.e. fire your undocumented workers. (2) There is an unspoken bargain between ICE and employers who opt in to E-Verify. Through their participation, employees like Mi Pueblo are excused from penalties and fines that could otherwise reach $16,000 per violation. (3) Without any arrests (see 1) or fines (see 2), ICE has no obligation to reveal if a (silent) raid even took place. (4) These nuances (see 1, 2 and 3) leave mercado workers with little or no voice at all.

In October of 2009, mercado workers sought a voice when they joined officials from United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) – Local 5 to form the Justice for Mercado Workers Coalition. A key objective of the Coalition and UCFW Local 5 was to secure a Collective Bargaining Agreement for the 3,200 workers employed by Mi Pueblo. Unionism has thus far remained out of reach.

Deploying other strategies, the Coalition drafted a Code of Conduct for mercado employers to abide by. Among the protections, the Code specifies that the ”employer will not require that employees re-verify their work authorization status in a retaliatory manner or in violation of established law.” Super Mercado Mexico of San Jose signed the first Code in the spring of 2008. Stan Taylor had hopes that Mi Pueblo would do the same and serve as a model to smaller mercado markets . Instead, Taylor and supporters have been continually met with the contrary. “At no point has Mi Pueblo been willing to talk to us.”

During a Valentine’s Day demonstration this year, Laura Robledo and other angry women tried yet again as they left a copy of the Mercado Code of Conduct for Juvenal Chavez on the pavement outside Mi Pueblo Supermercado in Oakland, California. Atop of it, they placed a heap of flowers. I do not know if Chavez received the paperwork. I do not know if Chavez received the flowers.

In April, Bend the Arc — a Jewish partnership that seeks to to create a “just, fair and compassionate America” — released a twenty-page booklet detailing the mercado workers’ struggle. Susan Lubeck, Regional Director of Bend the Arc, hoped it would bring greater legitimacy and visibility to the campaign.

“Unfortunately, we tend to live in these separate worlds of experience. I don’t think people understand that these kinds of things are happening. The state of our laws is leading to not just people living in poverty, but to being subjected to incredible harassment, intimidation and terror.”

On Friday, Stan Taylor and labor activists gathered at St. Guadalupe Church in San Jose for the press conference to call for an end to ICE intimidating immigrant workers. Taylor sought to highlight the objection to the disturbing development and escalation of ICE tactics against Mi Pueblo workers — from “silent” raids to what now resembled more deportation natured ones. The very same kind that Teresa Delgado experienced.

And this is where I want to tell you the last and final thing that I know about Teresa Delgado. For there are questions on my mind because Teresa Delgado is a DREAMer.

Why is Teresa Delgado being woken up in the middle of the night? Why are ICE agents raiding the home of a U.S. resident granted supposed protection under the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act (DREAM) Act? And why has Teresa Delgado since been fired from Mi Pueblo?

But because Teresa is a DREAMer, she was not arrested. And because she was not arrested, I fear we may never know. (See 3 and 4.)

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