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Reversal of Fortune

Doors that were opening the workplace to Latino immigrants have slammed shut



It's been a month since Harris Teeter purged a number of Latino employees from its payroll because of discrepancies in their work papers, but the damage control continues for the Charlotte-based grocery giant. On the one hand, the company refuses to provide basic details such as just how many employees lost their jobs. On the other, the company's public relations officers protest that Harris Teeter can hardly be blamed for following the law.

Whoever is to blame, some employees who worked for years with the company are now out of work.

The layoffs began in late November, when Harris Teeter headquarters notified the company's 160 stores that the Social Security Administration had discovered that some employees were using fraudulent social security numbers.

Latino advocates say dozens of people in Carrboro, Chapel Hill and Durham subsequently lost their jobs.

The situation "has created fear and uncertainty in the community, and real concern for the future," says Maria Palmer, pastor of the Iglesia Unida Cristo, a Latino congregation in Chapel Hill that includes some of the people who had worked at Harris Teeter. "People are worried about losing everything they have built, because they have nothing to fall back on."

"These were people with families," says John Herrera, a Latino community leader who is a Carrboro alderman. "It was right before Christmas, and I think it's really cruel to do this just before the holidays."

Harris Teeter officials insist that they had no choice, that they risked federal fines if they continued to employ improperly documented workers. "The situation involving Harris Teeter associates is nothing new," wrote company president Fred J. Morganthall in a Dec. 31 fax to The Independent. "Harris Teeter receives regular communication from the Social Security Administration that identifies associates with inaccurate or inconsistent social security information."

The last such notification came in October 1999, according to company spokesperson Jessica Graham. At the time, she says, the company "took the appropriate steps," but she can't recall what the outcome was. "As to if there were firings, we don't have that information, because we don't have that report anymore."

"No long-time associates were let go," Morganthall wrote in his fax describing the most recent round of firings. "In fact, no affected associates worked with Harris Teeter for more than two years."

Palmer disputes that claim, saying she knows of one woman who had worked five years at the Carrboro store, and two men who had worked at several Harris Teeter locations for more than two years. (Marty Miller, manager of the Carrboro store, refused to comment on the status of past and current Latino workers at his store.)

The November and December firings could not have come at a worse time, given the current economic recession. Some let go by the grocery chain have found new work, others are still looking, and a few have given up and returned to their countries of origin.

It's been a painful reversal of fortune, because just a few months ago, the prospects for undocumented Latino workers in North Carolina and the entire country were looking brighter than ever.

Both major political parties were courting the Latino vote in anticipation of the fall elections, and the White House and Congress were contemplating a massive amnesty for Mexicans working in the United States without the necessary papers. On Sept. 11, the House of Representatives was scheduled to hold a hearing on extending provisions that allow some undocumented workers to stay and obtain legal status.

"Just before then, things were looking really good," Herrera says. "President Bush was considering an amnesty, but Sept. 11 has changed everything."

Needless to say, the hearing was postponed, and after the terrorist attacks, hopes for stabilizing the work life of undocumented migrants were dashed. Not only did the amnesty proposal fall by the wayside, but federal efforts to tighten up U.S. borders and increase monitoring of foreigners living here caused some people to lose jobs they have held for years. In November, unemployment among Hispanics in the United States grew to 7.6 percent, up from 7.2 percent the month before.

In one sense, the Harris Teeter layoffs aren't anything new; it's hardly the first time the Latino community has dealt with a fickle job market. In agriculture, meat processing, construction and other industries, employers have made widespread use of undocumented workers before suddenly and unceremoniously letting them go.

Herrera and others in the community are holding out hope that if the war against terrorism winds down, and the economy turns around, Washington will soon revisit the amnesty proposal, which could partially alleviate problems like the Harris Teeter firings. Especially as the 2002 congressional elections draw near, Latino political clout may help foster liberalized immigration policies.

"It took a Richard Nixon to go to China to make relations with that country OK," Herrera notes, "and I think it may take a George Bush to make an amnesty happen." EndBlock

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