[Marxism] After Workers Are Fired, an Immigration Debate Roils California Campus
lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Feb 1 10:53:15 MST 2012
NY Times February 1, 2012
After Workers Are Fired, an Immigration Debate Roils California Campus
By JENNIFER MEDINA
CLAREMONT, Calif. — The dining hall workers had been at Pomona
College for years, some even decades. For a few, it was the only
job they held since moving to United States.
Then late last year, administrators at the college delivered
letters to dozens of the longtime employees asking them to show
proof of legal residency, saying that an internal review had
turned up problems in their files.
Seventeen workers could not produce documents showing that they
were legally able to work in the United States. So on Dec. 2, they
lost their jobs.
Now, the campus is deep into a consuming debate over what it means
to be a liberal college, with some students, faculty and alumni
accusing the administration and the board of directors of
betraying the college’s ideals. The renewed discussion over
immigration and low-wage workers has animated class discussions,
late-night dorm conversations and furious back and forth on alumni
Listservs. Some alumni are now boycotting donating to the college,
while some students are considering discouraging prospective
freshmen from enrolling.
For the last two years, many of the dining hall workers had been
organizing to form a union, but the efforts stalled amid
negotiations with the administration. Many on campus believe that
the administration began looking into the employees’ work
authorization as a way to thwart the union effort, an accusation
the college president, David Oxtoby, has repeatedly denied. But
that has done little to quell questions and anger among the fired
workers and many who support their efforts to unionize.
“We were here for a very long time and there was never a
complaint,” said Christian Torres, a 25-year-old cook who had
worked at the college for six years. “But now all of the sudden we
were suspect, and they didn’t want us to work here anymore.”
Mr. Torres, who still greets dozens of people on campus by first
name, had been one of the primary leaders of the effort to create
a union until he lost his job in December.
Mr. Oxtoby said that his office received a “specific, credible
complaint” from an employee in early 2011, about the college’s
hiring policies. Because the complaint included accusations
against his own administration’s policies, he asked the board of
trustees to investigate.
For months, officials said, lawyers from the law firm Sidley
Austin combed through the university’s records and met with
administrators. By the time the investigation was complete, the
law firm had identified deficiencies in the files of 84 employees,
including dining hall and maintenance workers as well as
professors and students working for the college. Each employee
received the same letter asking for documents to re-verify their
work status. Of the 17 employees who ultimately lost their job, 16
were dining hall workers.
Mr. Oxtoby said that when he heard the results he “knew
immediately this would be an explosive issue.”
“This is a very sensitive issue especially in Southern California
and many of our students and faculty are immigrants themselves or
are descendants of immigrants,” he said. Still, he said, he had no
doubt that the workers would need to leave the college. “The law
is very unforgiving, and unfortunately we have to obey the law
even though it really hurt the community.”
The idea that the college had mounted the effort to stop the union
drive was the opposite of the truth, he said. “We’ve been trying
to improve the relationship with workers for some time, and this
has been a big setback,” Mr. Oxtoby said. “Rationally, it would
have not made strategic sense.”
Mr. Oxtoby and the college’s trustees repeatedly said that there
was no choice but to fire the workers. In a letter from the law
firm, lawyers for the college said that the college would have
left itself open to investigation and punishment from federal
immigration authorities had it not fully examined the employment
Pomona is part of a consortium of seven colleges whose campuses
intertwine here. In December, just a day before the Pomona workers
would be fired, a human resources officer at Scripps College, one
of the other members of the consortium, called seven employees
there asking them to complete a new work authorization form.
The next day, the Scripps president, Lori Bettison-Varga, sent an
e-mail to students and staff explaining that “as soon as the calls
came to the attention of the President’s Office, they were
halted.” Further, she said that employment forms were stored off
campus, and added, “There is no reason for any further questions
or actions to be pursued.” A spokeswoman for the college said that
the human resources official was not acting on any complaint.
That e-mail only prompted more anger and suspicion among those
involved at Pomona, who argued that Scripps showed that the
college could have taken less-aggressive measures.
While the investigation of the workers’ immigration records has
generated the most controversy, it was hardly the first time that
students vocally criticized the administration’s treatment of the
people who served their food each day. Months before, students had
complained that renewed enforcement of a rule barring dining hall
employees from talking to students in the cafeteria during their
breaks was a way to stop any union effort.
“We’re told that we are a community, that everyone on campus
matters, but that’s really not what we see now,” said Isabel
Juarez, a junior who participated in a hunger fast to demand that
Mr. Oxtoby meet with workers last in November.
Ms. Juarez emigrated to Chicago with her parents from Guatemala
when she was a teenager and draws parallels between her parents’
struggles in the United States and the workers’ troubles. “You
contrast this with the way students are treated here, where we
really get everything. These are the people who serve us every day
and they are just asserting their rights — we would be outraged if
we were treated that way.”
Mr. Oxtoby said that the college made tremendous efforts to
support the workers who lost their jobs. Each was given a
severance of two weeks’ pay for every year of employment, as well
as health insurance through June.
Still, it does little to reassure Carmen, 30, who asked that her
last name not be used for fear of alerting immigration officials.
Carmen had worked at the college for 11 years, using the money she
earned to put herself through a public college. But she never
looked for another job, fearing that she would not be able to
produce the proper documents. For years she made about $8 an hour,
but in recent years raises had increased her wages to nearly $17
an hour. She and her husband bought a modest home in nearby Pomona
this fall and moved in just two weeks before she was fired.
“I really don’t know what I am going to do,” she said, adding that
her options were to look for work that paid in cash or move back
to Mexico with her 2-year-old son while her husband, an American
citizen, stayed here. “I’m still in shock. This is the only thing
I’ve really ever known.”
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