Patrick Juarez, 3, stands in the shopping cart while his father, Carlos… (Kat Wade / Special to the…)
SAN JOSE — A Northern California-based supermarket chain that caters to Latino immigrant shoppers and was founded by an undocumented schoolteacher from Mexico announced Friday that the company is being audited by federal immigration officials.
Disclosure of the audit, which could result in a mass firing, comes six weeks after San Jose-based Mi Pueblo Food Center joined E-Verify, a voluntary and controversial computerized system that screens the immigration status of new employees.
The move prompted community and union groups to call for a boycott beginning Mondayof Mi Pueblo's 21 stores throughout the Bay Area, the Central Valley and the Monterey Bay region. Meanwhile, union representatives who have sought for years to organize the chain's 3,200 employees accused Mi Pueblo of joining the program in retaliation against workers sympathetic to the cause.
Company officials would say at the time only that they were under "tremendous pressure" by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to use the system. But on Friday, Mi Pueblo spokeswoman Perla Rodriguez said it was time to "share the truth" about the audit, launched in mid-August by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The company said it needed to hire an attorney and inform employees before going public.
The chain founder, Juvenal Chavez, now a legal U.S. resident, has briefed employees over the past week. The company is launching a radio show to educate families who could be affected. And Mi Pueblo has hired an Arizona workplace immigration lawyer, who in turn recruited a Latina activist from that state to reach out to community organizations and churches here.
"What we learned in Arizona is we don't want people to be afraid, and we want people to understand the process," said attorney Julie Pace, who estimated the audit could take between six months and four years.
Rodriguez said Chavez has pledged to rehire anyone who is fired because of their immigration status but later becomes legalized, and is redoubling efforts to press for comprehensive immigration reform.
"Mi Pueblo now realizes that this is our issue," she said.
All Mi Pueblo employees submitted documents known as I-9s that attest to their legal status, and Rodriguez said Friday the company has no reason to believe any are fraudulent. But Pace said I-9 audits of other clients have resulted in anywhere from zero to 90% of workers being tagged as illegal. Union organizers have estimated that as many as 80% of Mi Pueblo workers are undocumented.
The Obama administration announced in 2009 that it would shift its emphasis from deporting undocumented workers to punishing firms that hire them. According to ICE, there have been 3,764 workplace investigations in 2012, more than double the number in 2009.
ICE has been known to use E-Verify, which is mandatory in a handful of states but not in California, as a bargaining chip, with an employer signing up as part of an informal agreement to ease potential penalties.
The investigations and audits are largely complaint-driven, but it remains unclear exactly how companies are selected. A coalition of immigrant and worker rights groups, including the National Immigration Law Center, has filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the Department of Homeland Security for details of the process.
Pace said the Mi Pueblo audit was triggered by a complaint "of unknown origin" and that large Latino retailers appear to be disproportionate targets of late. "This is not a transparent process," she said.
The probe comes at a time of conflict between Mi Pueblo and unions working to organize employees. The United Food and Commercial Workers Local 5 and the Teamsters Union have both filed successful complaints with the National Labor Relations Board alleging retaliatory firings and a refusal by the company to bargain with unionized truckers.
Several lawsuits have also been filed by workers who contend that Mi Pueblo failed to pay them full wages or provide required meal and rest breaks. One lawsuit was settled in August for $400,000, records show.
An agreement signed last December between the Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Department of Labor calls for ICE to hold off on auditing companies embroiled in union organizing or wage and hour disputes.
If Mi Pueblo wants to help the community, said UFCW Local 5 spokesman Mike Henneberry, it should "send a letter to ICE saying there is an issue here with labor organizing, so you need to put this aside for now."
Three workers at the flagship San Jose store Friday declined to discuss the issue beyond stating that they were not concerned, but a fourth said "everyone is very worried."