[Marxism] After Workers Are Fired, an Immigration Debate Roils California Campus

Louis Proyect 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 
files.

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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