May 13th, 2011
The Huffington Post
By: Dave Jamieson
Miguel Bravo’s year-and-a-half-long stint working at a Chipotle in Washington, D.C., came to an abrupt end on March 9. That day, he says, he and his co-workers learned that their manager had just been let go in the midst of an audit of the burrito chain by U.S. immigration officials. As Bravo tells it, when the workers went to the back of the restaurant to talk with a Chipotle representative, they were replaced with a new crew out front.
Suddenly without a job, Bravo started stretching his dollars, looking for work, and speaking out about what he considered an unfair parting with Chipotle. What the 28-year-old immigrant didn’t do was pack his bags and return to El Salvador. After all, it would have made little economic sense to do so. A worker in El Salvador is lucky to earn a few dollars a day, if he can find work at all. Papers or no, Bravo was staying in America.
Not surprisingly, the American fast-food industry still had a place for him. Within two months, Bravo found another job in Washington with a major restaurant chain that he declined to name. “It’s easier, and there’s less pressure,” he says of the new gig. Though he earns just $8 an hour now — one dollar less than he’d been pulling in at Chipotle, he says — Bravo hopes to continue sending $500 a month back home to the wife and two children who he hasn’t seen since coming to America eight years ago.
Bravo’s decision says a lot about the challenges facing U.S. officials as Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) goes after companies with undocumented workers on its payrolls. The Obama administration has generally adopted an “enforcement-only” policy on immigration, stepping up the auditing of companies while so far declining to push a specific plan for comprehensive immigration reform. (The President’s highly anticipated speech this week on the matter was quickly panned as vague and lacking substance.) As Reuters has been reporting, Chipotle is perhaps the most visible company now in ICE’s crosshairs, with a close look at its books forcing the company to shed hundreds of workers in Minnesota, Virginia, and Washington. According to the Wall Street Journal, the Chipotle probe has widened to Atlanta and Los Angeles as well.
But advocates of comprehensive reform like to point out that few, if any, of the fired Chipotle workers seem to be giving up on the idea of U.S. employment. The workers simply move to other jobs, perhaps elsewhere in the fast food industry, like Bravo, or elsewhere, moving off the books entirely to work for smaller and less conspicuous employers than Chipotle. No number of audits, these advocates point out, can change global economics.
“They’re not going anywhere,” Sarahi Uribe, an organizer with the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, says of the D.C. workers. Uribe was walking outside the Chipotle on March 9 when she saw Bravo’s crew standing outside. Since then, she’s advocated on their behalf.
Rather than leave, several of the workers have grown quite vocal. They are demanding back pay for unused vacation, severance pay, and a public apology from Chipotle. Yet in a statement to The Huffington Post, Chipotle spokesperson Chris Arnold disputed the workers’ version, saying that many of the former Washington employees had provided fraudulent work papers and that “most of them simply walked away from their jobs, others were let go,” when the company addressed the situation. He also said Chipotle had paid “everyone everything they were owed.”
“Some of these workers have worked at Chipotle for six years, and they’ve lived in the District of Columbia for even longer,” says Uribe. “They have U.S. citizen children. Some of them are pregnant. They’re part of this community.”
Politicians often talk about the need to bring undocumented workers “out of the shadows,” but in many ways the Chipotle workers were already halfway out, working “on the front lines, facing the public,” says Audrey Singer, a demographer with the Brookings Institution. Even immigration hardliners would have to agree that’s a better arrangement than having them working under the table, for sub-minimum wages and under dangerous conditions, in the tobacco fields of North Carolina or the tomato fields of Florida. Considering the unlikelihood that the fired Chipotle workers will simply leave, “the question is whether they will be driven further underground,” says Singer.