This Mi Pueblo store in San Jose is designed to evoke memories of the Mexican… (Lee Romney, Los Angeles…)
SAN JOSE — When customers enter Mi Pueblo Food Center to do their weekly shopping, the goal is to make them feel at home.
Each of the grocery chain's 21 outlets, which are scattered throughout the Bay Area, Monterey Bay region and Central Valley, is styled to emulate a distinct Mexican region. Boisterous rancheras stream from the stores' speakers. Vivid primary colors and architectural references cover the walls: the adobe church of San Juan Nuevo, Michoacan, in San Jose's flagship store; the Maya pyramid of Chichen Itza in the Salinas market.
Mi Pueblo's employees, all bilingual, wear name tags that list their hometowns.
It's a formula that helped turn the business founded more than two decades ago by an illegal immigrant from the town of Aguililla into a $300-million enterprise.
"Those of us who don't speak English, we come here because we're comfortable," Yoselina Acevedo of San Jose, a 53-year-old immigrant from Michoacan, said while shopping one recent day.
So the company's announcement late last month that it was participating in a voluntary federal program that checks the immigration status of all new hires elicited anger and confusion from workers and customers alike.
Company officials said that, although they were critical of E-Verify, they felt "tremendous pressure" from immigration officials to sign up. Community organizers have pledged to launch a shoppers' boycott Oct. 8 if Mi Pueblo founder Juvenal Chavez, who is now a legal U.S. resident, does not change his mind.
"He says he has suffered the pain of being an immigrant. I don't believe it," said Rogelio Marquez, 37, who said he was laid off from the Gilroy store after becoming active with a workers union. "We support the economy of this country. Why is this man now checking papers?"
As for the company, spokeswoman Perla Rodriguez would say only that Mi Pueblo signed up for E-Verify at the recommendation of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
"We don't want to create fear in our community, and we recognize this is a difficult move to understand," Rodriguez said. "It was a decision that weighed very heavily on us."
The controversy has highlighted long-standing questions about how Immigration and Customs Enforcement, an arm of the Homeland Department, decides which businesses to audit — and how aggressively agents are pushing the computerized E-Verify program behind the scenes.
In 2009, the Obama administration announced it would shift its emphasis from deporting undocumented workers to punishing firms that hire them. Although less splashy than workplace raids that resulted in deportations, the reach of the investigations arguably was broader.
According to ICE, there have been 3,764 workplace probes in fiscal year 2012 so far, more than double the number in 2009. In the last year, ICE has fined employers nearly $20 million; 133 company managers were convicted of immigration-related crimes.
Sometimes, however, ICE officials said they were satisfied if a company merely fires its illegal workers. E-Verify can be a bargaining chip, with an employer signing up as part of an informal agreement to dismiss a case without further penalty.
Launched in 2007 and administered by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, E-Verify has been touted by officials as a way for businesses to make sure they are hiring legal workers. By law it cannot be used to screen existing employees.
Virginia Kice, an ICE spokeswoman, acknowledged that the federal government cannot force employers to participate. "It's a voluntary program," she said. "Do we encourage but not compel? Absolutely."
But immigrant rights activists have complained that ICE has not been transparent about how it selects its investigative targets and negotiates deals with them. Critics also contend that the probes hurt businesses that depend on low-wage immigrant labor, forcing them to scrap entire workforces.
"ICE is engaging in this broad, sweeping enforcement campaign, yet no one knows how they're doing it," said Francisco Ugarte, an attorney with the San Francisco-based Dolores Street Community Services. The immigrant rights group is part of a statewide coalition that has filed a Freedom of Information Act request seeking details on the enforcement program.
Federal officials declined to comment on whether Mi Pueblo was the focus of an audit or investigation. Yet Rodriguez noted that the company was urged to join E-Verify at a time when immigration officials have been exerting "pressure" on a number of supermarket chains in California that serve the Latino immigrant market.
"We recognize that E-Verify is a flawed program," Rodriguez, the Mi Pueblo spokeswoman, said. "We realize that as a company, we have to take a much larger role in immigration reform. That's really where the solution lies."
A 2010 audit by the Government Accountability Office detailed some problems with E-Verify.