Faculty Resolve to Support Workers; Students, Staff Protest Document Checks

At a faculty meeting Nov. 16, Pomona College President David Oxtoby pointed to fears of potential involvement from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and reiterated that the college must re-verify the work authorization documents of 84 college employees before Dec. 1. The Pomona College administration has been under fire this week as students, faculty, and staff questioned the college’s decision to ask those employees to meet with the Office of Human Resources to provide valid federal work authorization documents. Opponents of the document reviews expressed their discontent in a vigil Nov. 11, a teach-in event Nov. 14, and a protest and press conference Nov. 16 that attracted local news media.

Responding to questions about whether the approaching deadline would give those employees enough time to obtain copies of the necessary documents and to seek legal counsel, Oxtoby said the administration had decided to set a date that would consider those needs without putting the college at risk of federal intervention.

“A several-week period is enough time to get the documents together,” Oxtoby said. “On the other hand, we were worried about taking too long because the concern was that if this received attention, which it now is—it is now out in the news media and so forth—that we have potential for the ICE to come in and intervene, and that would be much more dangerous to anyone possibly working here who does not have proper documentation.”

Organizing Director for UNITE HERE International Union Noel Rodriguez challenged the administration’s citation of those fears. “This drop-dead date of December 1 is completely arbitrary… They could give them months; they could give them as long as they wanted,” he said.

“We’ve got to remember that they’re checking documents of people who have been at the college for many, many, many years,” Rodriguez added. “And has ICE shown up? No… Of course, they may not show up. But they may show up some point down the road; definitely not by December 1st, which is when the administration wants people to leave if they can’t fix the problems.”

The college’s Media Relations Director, Cynthia Peters, said that the college’s understanding was that “if an employer learns its files are not in compliance, it must respond reasonably and fix the problem as quickly as possible.”

“Given that the allegations in this complaint were specific, concerned a violation of law, and were directed against President Oxtoby’s administration, the Board leadership had an obligation to investigate,” Peters wrote in an e-mail to TSL. “Regardless of whether the government becomes interested in this matter, the law clearly requires employers to be in compliance with the I-9 rules.”

National Immigration Law Center Policy Attorney Emily Tulli said employers were incentivized in recent years to conduct internal audits by an increased number of federal I-9 audits under the Obama administration.

“I think it’s safe to say that the [Obama] administration’s preferred form of worksite enforcement is the I-9 audit process, and one of their goals is to have employers comply with I-9 verification requirements and to incentivize that through publicly auditing employers,” Tulli said. “I think that employers are increasingly worried about immigration enforcement, and whether [President Oxtoby] is being protective of the workers I don’t know, but I think it’s safe to say that employers are generally more fearful of immigration enforcement in the worksite.”

The verification process began in the spring after an employee outside the college administration brought a complaint to the Board of Trustees alleging that President David Oxtoby and the college administration maintained a policy of hiring employees without verifying their employment eligibility. According to Oxtoby, he and the administration were cleared of the allegations after the college hired the law firm Sidley Austin to complete an exhaustive review of all college employees’ work authorization documents, but the audit identified 84 employee files with “deficiencies,” prompting the college to ask each of those employees to provide documents to correct errors or omissions regarding their I-9 forms.

At the faculty meeting, Oxtoby described the series of actions as an “unavoidable chain of legal requirements that [the administration] could not simply stop.”

Pomona professor of Sociology and Chicano/a Latino/a Studies Gilda Ochoa said she was still unsatisfied by the fact that Oxtoby and others had not explicitly cited “the actual law that stipulates that what the school is doing is legal.”

Associated Students of Pomona College (ASPC) Commissioner of Communications Will Mullaney PO ’12 added that administrators “say they’re federally obligated, and we need to think about what they mean by obligated, and who is obligating them.”

As of Thursday evening, 51 of the 84 cases had been resolved, according to Peters. According to a letter delivered to the identified employees from Assistant Vice President of Human Resources Brenda Rushforth, “Employees who do not provide valid, current documentation by December 1, 2011 will be subject to termination.”

Faculty members said that beyond what legal obligations the college may have had to go forward with the verification process after the deficiencies were identified, the past two weeks have brought to light a larger issue of community and the college’s commitment to inclusiveness and diversity.

“I think we have a moral obligation that really has to propel us forward and not simply to try to say that this is a legal matter, that this is a clerical matter—because we know the kind of fractures that produces in our community and our society,” Professor of History Miguel Tinker Salas said.

The faculty moved at the meeting to adopt a resolution amended from the statement, “We are concerned about the message this review of immigration status sends, particularly its effects on the College climate and our educational mission… We call on the Board of Trustees to assert its commitment to an inclusive environment that welcomes people regardless of their race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, religion, and immigration status.”

This resolution was amended upon its proposal to include several more classifications in the last clause.

The verification process has also caused some students, faculty, and members and supporters of the pro-union organization of dining hall staff Workers for Justice (WFJ) to ask whether the document reviews constitute a form of intimidation towards workers in the midst of a unionization effort.

Faculty members speaking out in opposition of the verification measures pointed to a history of employers using document checks to discourage workers involved in union-organizing activities in a well attended teach-in event on Monday.

“First off, there’s a long history of using immigration status and using the enforcement of immigration laws to counter union organizing campaigns,” Pomona History Department Chair Victor Silverman said at the teach-in.

“The National Labor Relations Act under section 8. (a)(3) says that workers who organize a union or who are trying to organize a union cannot be legally fired or retaliated against in other ways for their union organizing activity,” Silverman said. “The National Labor Relations Board, which oversees the enforcement of this law, and the courts, have said that section 8. (a)(3) applies to checking immigration status during organizing drives.”

Tulli echoed Silverman’s concerns about the history of employers using verifications as a union-busting tactic.

“Generally in our experience, there is a tension between these issues around immigration re-verification and labor organizing,” she said. “So I’m not certain that that’s what occurred here, or that these workers were targeted because of that… But I can say that as a general rule, we have seen employers use re-verification and audit as a tool to break worker organizing or to break-up an established bargaining unit.”

Peters said the audit process was unrelated to the unionization drive.

“Clearly the audit came at a very bad time in terms of if you’ve got a unionizing drive,” she said. “No matter how separate they are, people are going to connect them.”

Speakers at the teach-in, the press conference, and the faculty meeting emphasized the painful consequences this process has had for some community members, as evidenced by emotional testimonies from several college employees at the teach-in.

“Are all complaints investigated?” Ochoa asked in an interview with TSL. “And likewise, was it thoroughly thought out [what] ramifications it would have for the campus culture and for the community at large? I think at different steps things could have been thought through differently.”

“At every single step, there were things that could’ve been much more humanizing about the process,” she added.

Peters said of the reactions expressed at the teach-in event, “I wish there was more understanding that once the complaint was received and deemed serious, then there had to be an investigation and that step led to the next, led to the next, and that the college was doing the best it could to be compassionate to employees and trying to keep personnel matters confidential. I wish that people would believe that, and I didn’t necessarily get that in the room, that there was any benefit of the doubt,” she said.

Ian Gallogly and John Thomason contributed reporting for this article.

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