Why Did Pomona College Fire Longtime “Illegal” Workers?

National attitudes about immigration and race have come to a head at Pomona College. Late last year, the school found “problems” in the files of 84 employees, and requested verification of legal residence documentation. When 17 dining hall workers could not do so, they were promptly fired, though some had worked at Pomona for twenty years. Many students, staff and faculty believe the administration’s investigation of legal work status intentionally ended a two-year-long effort to unionize.
As a liberal institution, Pomona College represents the ideals of equality, justice and individual civil liberties. Dr. David Oxtoby, Pomona’s president, stands by his decision to fire the employees. Contrary to his fear, the likelihood that federal immigration authorities would punish Pomona was minimal, considering that the initial complaint which led to the firings was internal. A man in such a position only has more responsibility to defend said ideals, and if he were to speak truth to power, many would hear its voice and real change could ensue. Instead, he betrayed these ideals simply because the injustice against which they stand exists within our own legal system.
The workers fired from Pomona for lack of proper documentation are not illegal. They are simply humans, and “every human has the right to work,” as recently fired dining hall worker Christian Torres said to the New York Times.
For a country founded on immigrants, our immigration policies are appalling. While those opposed to immigration claim that undocumented workers take jobs away from citizens, in reality many U.S. citizens consider themselves above a dining hall or janitorial job; these workers fill crucial positions in the U.S. labor force.
The firings were framed exclusively as an issue of immigration, but the added racial dimension is undeniable. Immigration crackdowns in recent years are fueled by prejudice and specifically target immigrants from Latin America.
These practices are not unlike Germany during WWII, when Jews were blamed for the lack of jobs and the country’s economic distress. The discourse was such that many Germans supported the removal of Jews from society because they had been deceived into believing the issue was about jobs.
This discourse survives today in the U.S., with anti-immigrant attitudes claiming their motivation is purely economic. It is impossible to deny that any part of the Holocaust was not in fact racial, just as it is impossible to deny that discriminatory immigration policies against Hispanics are not racial.
In 2009, the Employee Free Choice Act was introduced to Congress. If it hadn’t gotten buried, the bill would have been the first step toward reasonable labor reform, allowing workers to unionize with protected rights. The tragic irony is that workers who need unionization the most are not in a position to bargain. With immigration reform will come the protected right to unionize, and hardworking individuals, “legal” or otherwise, will no longer have to bear the humiliation of unjust termination.


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