- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 3, 2000

Attorney General Janet Reno today is expected to consider a plea for amnesty from nine illegal Mexican hotel workers who face deportation after a bitter dispute with their employer over union activity.

Miss Reno was scheduled to hear details on the matter during a weekly meeting with top Justice Department officials, including Doris Maessner, commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

An agency spokesman said yesterday that Miss Reno had agreed to consider the workers' request to remain in the United States, but that no decision would be made during the meeting.

The nine workers, all housekeepers at a Minneapolis Holiday Inn Express hotel, won a $72,000 settlement from the hotel last month in the first case in which the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) intervened on behalf of illegal immigrants.

The employer took advantage of their status as illegal immigrants to force lower wages and longer working hours under the unspoken threat of deportation.

The workers had helped their fellow housekeepers form a union to fight for better pay and treatment. Soon after their successful vote to join the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union, their employer reported them to the INS as illegal aliens.

Now they face almost certain deportation back to Mexico. All of the workers have said they would gladly give up their $8,000 settlement checks for the chance to stay.

An attorney representing the workers was pessimistic about their chances, but hoped that the attorney general would take into account their participation in the EEOC case that led to the settlement.

"It was a landmark settlement that addresses the ongoing problem of discrimination on the basis of race, national origin and immigration status in workplaces around the nation," said Jorge Saavedra, chief legal officer of Centro Legal, a nonprofit community law office in Minneapolis.

"By granting relief to these workers it will send a clear signal to all employers that the U.S. government will protect the most vulnerable workers in our nation," Mr. Saavedra said.

Both the Clinton administration and labor leaders are stepping up efforts to protect the rights of the approximately 6 million people who are in the United States illegally.

Most have come to the United States seeking jobs as agricultural workers, day laborers or lower-rung restaurant and hotel employees. Given the continued strong U.S. economy, employers in these fields are having a tough time finding legal residents willing to work for the low wages and minimal benefits they provide.

Administration and labor leaders agree that employer exploitation of undocumented workers is a rampant problem in the United States, one that receives little attention. Mr. Saavedra said most illegal aliens are unwilling to report their abuse for fear of getting deported.

Signaling the new administration effort on behalf of illegal residents, the EEOC in October issued a "clarification" intended to remind both employers and employees that all workers, included the undocumented, are protected against discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The AFL-CIO, meanwhile, is expected to vote this month on a controversial proposal calling for a general amnesty for most of the illegal aliens currently in the country.

The proposal, introduced at the AFL-CIO biennial convention in California last fall, calls for allowing undocumented workers the chance to seek legal citizenship. Such a move would not only protect current illegal aliens from employer abuse, it could also make them less fearful of joining a union.

While changing immigration law would require an act of Congress, the AFL-CIO is now deciding whether to launch a nationwide campaign to pressure lawmakers into action.

Some in the labor movement see illegal immigrants not just as workers vulnerable to abuse but also as a potential new pool of union membership. But others in the movement fear that allowing undocumented workers to stay would mean job cuts for legal residents.

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