Legal status check at Mi Pueblo

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Mi Pueblo on First Street.

Mi Pueblo Foods, the San Jose-based Hispanic grocery store chain with a location on First Street in Gilroy, recently began cross-checking the legal immigration status of new hires at the request of the federal government, invoking attacks from a local labor union.
Mi Pueblo began using E-Verify, an Internet-based government program that checks the authenticity of immigration documents, on Aug. 16 in response to pressure from the federal government, according to Perla Rodriguez, spokeswoman for the company.
“I’ll be very frank, this is not something we woke up one morning and said we want to do this,” Rodriguez said. “That said, it is a common practice among large retailers, and we want to follow the law.”
The new E-Verify system would only apply to new hires, not current employees, she said.
E-Verify is mainly a voluntary government program – so the fact that they were asked to adhere to it by the federal government begs questions on whether Mi Pueblo has run into problems with their workforce.
But Rodriguez would not comment about why, specifically, the Department of Homeland Security asked Mi Pueblo to join E-Verify, noting that other Hispanic businesses have been asked to do the same thing.
The Dept. of Homeland Security also would not comment as to why they may have prompted Mi Pueblo to use E-Verify.
“We don’t discuss whether or not a business is under scrutiny. The reason being that people would infer that the business is breaking the law, when in a lot of cases what we find is the business was meeting their legal responsibility, but were duped by employees who were using counterfeit or fraudulent documents,” said Virginia Kice, spokeswoman for the Department of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Whatever the reason, the recent switch to E-Verify caused the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 5, a 33,000-member union based in San Jose, to lash out against Mi Pueblo. UFCW Local 5 claim that Mi Pueblo voluntarily began using E-Verify as a means of intimidation for new hires. UFCW Local 5 has threatened to launch a boycott of the company if they do not rescind their enrollment in E-Verify by Oct. 8.
The potential boycott is just another attack from a union who has a history of exploiting the company’s every move, according to Rodriguez. The company’s employees are not a part of a union.
“It is unfortunate that the union that has been attacking Mi Pueblo for many years, has been very opportunistic about this. They’re doing it to create a lot of fear in people,” she said.
Rodriguez said the attack is “all about money,” as Mi Pueblo represents a multi-million dollar contract for the union.
Rodriguez said that the company “absolutely does not” discourage their employees from joining a union.
“When you treat employees right, there is no reason for a third party,” she said. UFCW Local 5 disagrees, and during a press conference outside the San Jose Mi Pueblo last week, they accused the company of voluntarily joining E-Verify as a means of threatening and intimidating employees.
Mike Henneberry, spokesperson for UFCW Local 5, said the company is “stridently anti-union” and routinely intimidates their employees to stay out of union activity, and their move to use E-Verify is “just another tactic” to mistreat employees.
“It’s hypocritical, that the CEO who came here and reaped the benefits of immigration and is now extremely successful, is now using immigration status as a pretext to not allow others to do the same thing,” Henneberry said.
The founder and CEO of Mi Pueblo, Juvenal Chavez, immigrated to the U.S. illegally in 1984. Now a U.S. citizen, Chavez’ 21-location grocery chain is worth over $300 million, according to business reports.
Launched in 2007, E-Verify is a program checks the validity of U.S. identifications and documents free of charge to employers to test if the applicant or employee has a legal right to work in the U.S.
If an employee is found to not have proper legal documentation, DHS asks the company to have the employee prove their legal status, and gives the hire eight business days to gather the documentation before they are terminated.
On a recent weekday morning, the day after the union led a press conference in front of the San Jose Mi Pueblo, customers shopped for fresh mangoes, Mexican pastries and cojita cheese by the pound as Mariachi music played over the speakers. Neither employees nor shoppers in Gilroy seemed to know about the controversy that E-Verify spawned in the Bay Area.
A married couple sat in the dining area of the store, finishing up an early lunch before doing their grocery shopping. When told about Mi Pueblo’s recent move to the E-Verify system, they shook their heads.
“Why would they do that? They are a company that promises to help immigrants, they should do as they say,” said Mario Torres, referring to the founder and CEO’s personal plight to citizenship and his public efforts to help the Mexican-American community.
Torres and his wife agreed that if Mi Pueblo continues to use E-Verify, they might be hesitant to shop there in the future.
“I don’t think it’s right, but the company has to be super careful. They could be shut down,” said Teresa Estrada Mack, as she met with a friend for a taco salad at an outdoor table in front of the store. “The government likes to target Hispanic companies, and it’s not fair, but God forbid they have a raid and get shut down.”
According to DHS data from June 2012, 24 companies in Gilroy use E-Verify, including El Pollo Loco, Gilroy Honda, Costco and Baskin Robbins, and several locally owned companies such as Olam Spices and Vegetables and South Valley Imaging Center.
Mayor Al Pinheiro believes that Mi Pueblo, which employs 100 people at its Gilroy location, is an asset to the Gilroy community in its service to the local Hispanic community as well as the community at large.
“I applaud the fact that they are following the laws that are in place and adhere to its requirements,” he said. “We may not agree at times with currents laws, however until they are changed we must follow them.”

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