- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 26, 2000

The Immigration and Naturalization Service announced yesterday that it would allow seven undocumented Mexican hotel workers to stay in the United States for another two years.

The unusual temporary relief for illegal aliens slated for deportation who were at the center of a recent Minneapolis employer discrimination lawsuit marks the latest move in a Clinton administration initiative to protect such workers from widespread employer abuse.

"We feel that the agreement is a good compromise, one that allows a generous period for the defendants to arrange their affairs before returning to their home countries while still ensuring that the laws governing immigration in the United States will be upheld," said Curtis J. Aljets, INS director for the St. Paul District.

The announcement means that the workers can stay in the United States for two years, pending a criminal background review. They must leave after two years, unless changes are made to immigration law during that time.

But critics argued that the administration took the action to protect its political base among minorities and the AFL-CIO labor federation, which has taken up the cause of undocumented workers' rights as part of its efforts to boost membership.

Others warned that granting special privileges to the hotel workers will only encourage more illegal immigration.

"It is discrimination to give these illegal aliens a settlement plus what amounts to amnesty when anyone else would receive only a settlement," said Rep. Lamar Smith, Texas Republican and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee's subcommittee on immigration and claims.

The INS acknowledged that there was no legal precedent for allowing the seven housekeepers to remain in the country. But the agency decided to allow them to stay temporarily for their cooperation with the federal government in its discrimination case against their employer, the Holiday Inn Express in Minneapolis.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in January reached a $72,000 settlement on behalf of nine employees of the hotel, who claimed that their employer exploited them because they were in the country illegally.

It was the first case in which the EEOC has sided with illegal immigrants who claimed discrimination by an employer. One of the original nine workers has since returned to Mexico, and another was removed from the United States by the INS but returned to the country illegally. Neither was a part of yesterday's agreement.

Jorge Saavedra, chief legal officer of Centro Legal, a nonprofit community law office representing the seven workers, said he was pleased with the INS' decision.

"Today's unprecedented agreement … sends a clear and direct message to all employers across the country that the workplace must be free of discrimination and discriminatory practices regardless of national origin or immigration status of workers," he said.

The hotel workers claimed that their boss knew that they were using false identification and forced them to work long hours for lower pay under the threat of deportation. The workers' tenure at the hotel ranged from six months to more than four years.

Fed up with their poor treatment, the workers participated in a successful drive among Holiday Inn Express workers to join the Hotel and Restaurant Employees and Bartenders International Union. Shortly after the vote in favor of the union, hotel managers notified the INS that several of its employees were undocumented.

Despite winning the award, the workers faced almost certain deportation. But their case drew attention to what the Clinton administration and labor leaders say is rampant employer exploitation of undocumented workers in the United States.

Attorney General Janet Reno in February met with INS Commissioner Doris M. Meissner and top Justice Department officials to consider the Holiday Inn workers' plea for amnesty.

The temporary relief for the workers, called a "deferred action," was the latest in a push by the Clinton administration and its allies in the labor movement to strengthen the rights of undocumented workers.

The EEOC in October issued a statement reminding employers that illegal immigrants are protected against discrimination under federal law.

Meanwhile, the AFL-CIO in February announced a major policy shift calling for amnesty for an estimated 6 million illegal immigrants in the United States.

Labor leaders agree with the administration that employer exploitation of undocumented workers is a rampant problem that receives little attention.

"Too often immigrant workers' rights are being routinely violated," said Linda Chavez-Thompson, AFL-CIO executive president. "Courageous undocumented workers who come forward to assert their rights should not be faced with deportation as a result of their actions."

Many illegal aliens have come to the United States seeking jobs as agricultural workers, day laborers or lower-rung restaurant and hotel employees. Given the continued strong economy and tight labor market, employers are having a tough time finding legal residents willing to work in jobs that pay low wages and provide few benefits.

But advocates for strict immigration laws said the Clinton administration was simply using its power to solidify the Democrats' core base of support among labor and minorities.

"You cannot use deferred action as a reward for desirable conduct," said Dan Stein, executive director of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a Washington-based lobbying group.

"The political wing of the INS and the AFL-CIO seem to want to give all illegal aliens a green card and a union card," Mr. Stein said. "This sort of practice reinforces the idea that the enforcement apparatus of the government can be used to reinforce a sidebar political agenda."

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