Nervous days ahead for the Big Apple's unofficial workforce

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 01 January, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 01 January, 2008, 12:00am

New York

For many of the 38 million immigrants living in the US, 2007 was a tough year. Congress unexpectedly failed to pass comprehensive immigration reform, immigration application fees soared more than 60 per cent, and waiting times for getting a green card or becoming a citizen grew longer than ever.

The outlook for 2008 isn't much better. Already, one Republican presidential candidate - Mike Huckabee - has cited the murder of Pakistan's Benazir Bhutto in a call for tighter border controls.

The issue is particularly acute for the 11 million illegal immigrants who risk being detained and then thrown out of the country, with the number of arrests resulting from workplace raids doubling in the past year.

But much of this activity had, until recently, skirted New York City. As a result, when undocumented workers fled other areas, they converged on the Big Apple.

That may all be about to change, if recent events at the online grocery firm Fresh Direct are any indication.

Dozens of employees who worked in the store's New York storage depot fled when they were told by the company that US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) planned to audit their immigration documents.

The five-year-old company, which dispatches fresh food to the doorsteps of the time-challenged and merely lazy, owes at least part of its success to the low-paid immigrants who pack fruit and vegetables in its Queens warehouse.

So who tipped off the federal authorities? The situation may be linked to a struggle between the company's management and two competing unions who wanted to organise workers in the company. The company's announcement about a document check came just before the workers were due to vote on unionisation. The unions and management pointed fingers at each other for turning to the ICE to win the labour battle.

In the end, neither side seems to have won. On the weekend before Christmas, the workers voted against unionising altogether - and the company lost some of its best workers. But the real victims are the immigrant workers who have lost safe jobs. 'It is simply astounding that ICE would seemingly create an atmosphere of intimidation. All of these workers deserve to be treated fairly, and the audit only serves to spark fear,' said Nydia Velazquez, a New York congresswoman who, together with Bill Thompson, the comptroller of the city, wrote to the ICE to express their concerns.

The fear spread quickly. 'I am scared,' said Mr Lin, an undocumented immigrant from Fujian province , who would only give his last name. He had never heard of Fresh Direct before he read about the raids in the Chinese press. The news is particularly worrisome for him because he quit his job as a deliveryman in a restaurant outside the city two months ago after some of his co-workers were caught and deported. He then moved to New York. 'I thought in New York, as long as you don't commit crime, nobody would bother to check your ID.'

If people like Mr Lin start to flee the city, the impact would be enormous - this is a city that depends on illegal immigrants to perform jobs that no-one else wants.

'It just couldn't happen without radical repercussions for the city's economy and society,' said David Dyssegaard Kallick, author of the recently released report Working for a Better Life: A Profile of Immigrants in the New York State Economy.

Mr Lin said he may hide at home for a couple of more days before searching for a new job - but he is not planning to leave New York.

'If New York is not safe, then there is no place you can hide in the US,' he said. 'And I can't go back to China. I don't even have a passport.'