When the Chipotle Mexican Grill dismissed hundreds of workers in Minnesota because they failed to produce proper documents allowing them to legally work in the United States, it sparked a backlash from some former employees and labor activists.
Last week, Minneapolis police arrested eight people who chained themselves to each other in a Chipotle restaurant on Nicollet mall. Many were upset that the company had deprived the workers of their livelihoods.
Chipotle dismissed the workers after a federal immigration audit of its worker documents. The company's woes are the latest and most visible example of the federal government's stepped-up efforts to monitor whether businesses are employing immigrants who are not legally in the United States.
The action in Minnesota by the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency was the company's first statewide immigration audit, Chipotle co-CEO Monty Moran said.
Moran said he couldn't comment on how many employees the company dismissed, but said letting hundreds of employees go has been painful and disruptive.
"We are surprised at what's happened here because we are very careful about who we hire, and we try to hire the very best people," Moran said from his Denver office. "For each person, we get all the required documents. And even after those reviews, we found that lo and behold, we've got a good number of people who apparently submitted documents which were in fact not authentic, despite the fact that they looked to be."
Moran said employers are caught in a bind. Immigration law requires them to check the identity and work authorization of all employees. But under federal labor laws against discrimination, they can't scrutinize one group of employees' documents more closely than others. Moran calls that balancing act "threading the needle."
For Chipotle, the needlework unraveled. Immigration authorities are investigating whether the company knowingly hired workers without legal permission to work in Minnesota. Chipotle officials also have received a notice of inspection for two additional states.
Meanwhile, the company's decision to let the workers go has upset former employees and activists in Minnesota.
At the demonstration in Minneapolis, a worker named Juan, who wouldn't give his last name because he fears deportation, said he worked for Chipotle's Lake Calhoun restaurant for five years and was making $9.50 an hour.
"So last December 13, 2010, I went to work and at end of my shift, the manager called me into the office and told me I wasn't able to work anymore," Juan said through an interpreter.
When pressed, Juan said he is from Morelos, Mexico. He would not say whether is in the United States legally.
Juan and other Chipotle workers claim they were fired on the spot. But Moran said the company gave employees a chance to resubmit valid documents, and most said they could not.
The company's action also calls into question the methods employed by immigration authorities, said Javier Morillo, president of the Service Employees International Union local 26.
In 2009, Morillo said, a quarter of his membership turned over when 1,200 ABM janitors lost their jobs in the largest worker audit in Minnesota.
Morillo said most of the fired janitors didn't leave the country, but simply went deeper into the underground economy.
"They are pushed out of jobs where they are being paid above the table ... they are being moved to the bad employers."
"They are pushed out of jobs where they are being paid above the table," he said. "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."
One of Minnesota's members of Congress is asking questions about which employers Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials are targeting.
U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum, DFL-St. Paul, sent a letter to Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano in November, requesting the names of all the companies audited by immigration authorities during the past five years in the United States. McCollum also asked what led to audits in Minnesota. Her office has not received a response.
A spokesman for the immigration agency said ICE focuses on "egregious employers who not only knowingly hire unlawful workers, but also exploit and/or harbor them."
Beyond that, it's difficult to know who ICE is going after in Minnesota as the agency does not make public its actions.
MPR News filed a request under the Freedom of Information Act to learn which Minnesota employers have been fined or criminally prosecuted, but has yet to receive that information.
The last time immigration authorities issued a press release on its worksite enforcement for the upper Midwest, it cited a 2008 Bush-administration era raid on an Iowa meat processor.
Under the Obama administration, ICE announced a change in strategy from rounding up workers in high-profile raids to going after employers and prosecuting them criminally. Last year the agency touted worksite enforcement numbers were at a historic high.
But the agency has not released specifics on the raids. Nor have the companies been identified as having hired workers without authorization.
Sam Myers, an immigration attorney who represents employers under federal immigration scrutiny, said it makes sense for employers thought to have hired unauthorized workers to keep the federal actions against them quiet.
"It's kind of like being in a family and having your kid picked up and put in jail. It's a problem," Myers said. "The family has a problem. Now you've fixed the problem and then move ahead. You don't necessarily have a press conference about it."
Myers said companies try to comply with the law, but most managers aren't experts at being able to spot falsified documents.
"We've invited ICE agents to talk to employer groups, and they come out invariably with a bunch of cards and they pass them out and they say, 'OK, which ones are the fake ones?'" Myers said. "All the people in the audience have no idea which ones are fake, and it turns out they're all fakes."
ICE has launched a new voluntary program called IMAGE that trains employers on how to detect fake documents. Ryt-Way, the first Minnesota company to take ICE up on its offer, signed up last week. The food packaging company employs about 1,000 people in Lakeville.
"The advantage for us is we can operate comfortably, knowing that 99 percent of the employees that we bring on board have the legal documentation to work in the U.S.," said Skip Bolton, Ryt-Way's human resources director. "It really fits with our business vision of no interruptions, and making sure we're satisfying the customers."
Bolton said it will cost the company a little more than $1 per worker annually to hire an outside firm to verify its employment documents -- a small price to pay to steer clear of problems. He said word gets around that an employer doesn't accept false documents.
So far, Bolton said, he's been able to find enough legal workers for the company's $8-an-hour jobs packaging food. But he said he is not opposed to an overhaul of federal immigration laws that would make more undocumented workers legal.
Chipotle also has been able to hire replacement workers, but Moran said the effort has come at a cost.
"What you have is a lot of disruption and instability to businesses and a lot of employees, taxpayer money and resources spent, and no change whatsoever to the situation," Moran said of the millions of undocumented workers. "So this is not an environment which is conducive to creating jobs here in the United States.
"I think that that's something that our politicians and our government -- and of course, CEOs around the country -- need to understand," he said. "I think the CEOs are getting that understanding pretty quickly."
The Minnesota Business Immigration Coalition, made up of industry groups, is sponsoring a statewide series of roundtables this week. They will no doubt rehash Chipotle's cautionary tale.