Hold the Sizzle: Chipotle, Immigrant Employees Get ICE’d

Chipotle boasts that it offers “food with integrity,” but the popular restaurant chain may want to consider an addendum in light of its recent actions: “so long as the federal government doesn’t get involved.”

The chain was forced to fire over 600 employees from its 50 Minnesota restaurants last month — about half of its employees in the state — in light of an audit conducted by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Says one Minnesota paper,

The investigation of Chipotle began several months ago, [Chipotle communications director Chris Arnold] said, when ICE asked to see work eligibility documents. The company was not told why it was singled out for review. ICE then provided Chipotle with a list of employees whose documents might be invalid, he said.

Chipotle tries to screen new employees, but some provide false documents showing they are eligible workers, Arnold said. In cases where employees insist they have the proper documents, Chipotle has sought to give them extra time to produce the identification, he said.

“We have asked ICE whether they would allow a 90-day period to resolve discrepancies, and they have told us that they absolutely would not,” Arnold said.

Not only is ICE denying Chipotle the 90-day period to clear up documentation issues with its employees — an allowance that is “standard practice,” according to the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) — but it is actively increasing the size and scope of its investigation of the restaurant chain. Earlier this month, ICE announced that it would also be auditing the 60 Chipotle locations in Virginia and Washington, D.C.

Robert McGoey, a co-coordinator of the rights-based organization Denver Fair Food, suspects that Chipotle will eventually be audited in every state due to its 80 percent Latino employment. Similarly, a February 11 article in The Nation reveals that John Morton, the head of ICE, says it “plans many more mass firings.” This tactic fails to meet the organization’s goals, made explicit in the same article:

The ICE website says it targets employers “who are using illegal workers to drive down wages … [those] likely to pay illegal workers substandard wages or force them to endure intolerable working conditions.”

At Chipotle, however, as in every other sanctions target, ICE never improved conditions. Wages remain the same. In fact, although Morton boasts ICE collected $7 million in employer fines during 2,740 audits, those who cooperated in firing workers were given immunity. The only people penalized were workers.

It seems that Chipotle is being targeted on the basis of its largely Latino demographics, rather than any abuse of undocumented workers in the workplace. While wages are unlikely to improve in a market in which “there are nearly five unemployed workers competing for each available job,” ICE’s failure to leave improvements in its wake was virtually guaranteed when it targeted a fast-food chain with above-minimum wages across the board. According to a report from the Immigration Policy Center published on February 9,

[Concerning] Chipotle, labor leaders who criticized the firm for the way it handled layoffs in the wake of the ICE audit say the company is “definitely above the bottom tier” in its overall treatment of workers. Even though the chain is non-union, the SEIU’s Nammacher said Chipotle pays above the minimum wage and offers some basic benefits. “They’re an above-board corporate player,” he stated.

Not only is Chipotle a poor target for an organization seeking to root out “intolerable working conditions” (Chipotle is even known for its practice of paying higher food costs in order to better the compensation of supply-chain employees), but ICE’s impacts harm the very individuals whose interests the organization purports to be acting in. According to a 2009-2010 report from the Human Rights Immigrant Community Action Network,

ICE’s new workplace enforcement strategy of auditing employment files, allowing employers to fire undocumented workers en masse – also dubbed “silent raids” – has deepened the economic and humanitarian crisis in many communities across the country, making workers further vulnerable to labor rights violations and other forms of abuse.

The study details several cases in 2009 and 2010 in which ICE audits — intended to publish “bad apple” employers — did anything but.  “In each of these cases, rather than hold the employer accountable for existing labor law violations and abuses, ICE’s I-9 audits triggered massive layoffs leaving thousands of families in crisis and more vulnerable to abuse.”

SEIU president Javier Morillo described the effects of this practice on undocumented workers, stating that “They are pushed out of jobs where they are being paid above the table.” He added, “They pay taxes, Social Security taxes, etc. They are being moved, many of them, to precisely the bad employers that pay cash, that pay less than minimum wage.”

The deeper that one delves into ICE’s actions, the more that the government organization’s actions seem inconsistent. According to the organization’s website, “ICE’s primary mission is to promote homeland security and public safety through the criminal and civil enforcement of federal laws governing border control, customs, trade, and immigration.”

It’s unclear, however, how the organization’s recent moves against the employees of Chipotle are in any way consistent with its stated ends of promoting security and safety. It is similarly unclear that Chipotle was abusive  in its dealings with the undocumented workers that it unknowingly employed.

What is clear, however, is that ICE’s actions threaten the very employees whose working conditions it claims to defend.