In an effort to support worker rights, nine Democratic legislators from the Milwaukee had signed onto a letter that pitted them against Palermo’s Pizza. That’s par for the course, right? No, not really. The tone of the letter may have been more toxic than expected.
A section of the letter -- one that makes a direct allegation against Palermo’s Pizza for union busting -- has some of the nine Democrats wondering whether it was the same letter they had signed. The section in question reads:
“It is with that backdrop that we witness the struggles of the Palermo workers on strike against Palermo Pizza this summer. They went on strike in June after the company began terminating employees for engaging in the legally protected activity of organizing unions.” (Emphasis mine)
Although the letter contained hyper-partisan language, that sentence changed everything. “If there is no evidence they [Palermo’s workers] were fired for organizing a union, then I don’t support that statement,” said State Representative Jason Fields in a phone interview. Fields further intimated he was informed about the contents of the letter by staffers, but didn’t remember a specific allegation being made against Palermo’s.
Although Rep. Field’s office had viewed the letter, Senator Lena Taylor wasn’t sure whether her office had actually seen the letter and is now investigating how her name ended up on the document.
Taylor said, “At this juncture, there are some conflicting points and I prefer to have all the facts. It was not my understanding that they were fired because they were trying to form a union.” Taylor elaborated, “Palermo’s has been a good corporate citizen. When they first reached out to the Hispanic community, they looked to be supportive of their employees.”
Fields offered similar support saying, “I don’t see a reason to boycott a company providing jobs if their products are not actually harming the community.” Both Representative Fields and Senator Taylor oppose a boycott against Palermo’s Pizza.
At least one Democrat stood behind the rancor of the letter. “I truly believe that Palermo’s is trying to turn this around, saying they fired these people because they were undocumented,” said State Representative Christine Sinicki of the 20th Assembly District.
When asked whether she had read the letter in full, she said, “I glanced over it.” Sinicki is a true believer. “I won’t buy them,” she said when asked whether she supported the boycott of Palermo's pizzas. I pushed further, “But do you support a national boycott of their products though they don’t present a health hazard to the community?” She answered unwaveringly “I support the boycott.”
Sinicki seemed sure Palermo’s was pulling a fast one on its workers; so I asked about her sources. “My information comes from the workers on the picket line,” she answered. Without prompting, she added, “I’ve had no contact with that Voces de la Frontera group.”
"Then who wrote the letter,” I asked? Sinicki said that State Representative JoCasta Zamarripa had "generated" the letter. "She was the lead person on the issue,” Sinicki stated.
This wasn't what Zamarripa told me during an El Conquistador interview a few weeks back. I asked her specifically whether she believed Palermo’s had fired their employees for attempting to organize a union. She wouldn’t commit to the allegation, but said, “What I believe is that Palermo’s fired their workers prematurely. The investigation should have played itself out.”
The audit of Palermo’s Pizza that began in February of 2011 suddenly came to a halt with a cryptic one-sentence letter issued by ICE on June 7, 2012, informing Palermo’s, “At this time, ICE will stay further action regarding its Notice of Suspect Documents.”
Zamarripa argues that since ICE had suspended its investigation, it couldn’t be definitively determined that affected employees were undocumented. Zamarripa believes that the “stay letter” had neutralized any employee information learned during the year-long ICE audit.
But this line of thought has a big problem. It is contradicted by Section 274A(2) of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA).
Section 274A(2) of the INA makes it unlawful for an employer to continue the employment of an alien “knowing” that the alien is, or has become, unauthorized for employment.
In a standard Notice of Suspect Documents letter from ICE, it defines “knowing” as not just actual knowledge, but knowledge which may be “fairly inferred through a notice of certain facts and circumstances” that would lead a person, “through the exercise of reasonable care, to know about an individual’s unlawful employment status.”
Defining knowledge this broadly makes it impossible for Palermo’s Pizza to not know they had 89 (later determined to be 87) unauthorized workers at their plant. It’s a problem because once you’ve gained knowledge that identifies employees as unauthorized to work, no letter suspending an audit can make a company un-gain that knowledge. To do so would put the company at risk for escalating civil and criminal charges.
To confirm our understanding of section 274A(2) of the INA, El Conquistador spoke with Deputy Chief Counsel of the ICE office in Chicago about the mysterious stay letter he had written to Palermo’s. I asked whether the “stay letter” had trumped the section 274A(2) of the INA. He referred us to his public affairs officer for further information.
El Conquistador called Gail Montenegro, ICE’s Chicago public affairs officer, multiple times over a period of several days. She did not return our calls, but looked me up on the web and sent me a scripted response addressing questions I did not ask.
I returned her email asking a pointed question about whether previous ICE letters could qualify as what Section 274A(2) of INS refers to as a “notice of certain facts and circumstances upon which knowledge of unlawful employment status can be fairly inferred?”
ICE’s official response? “Aaron, ICE has no comment beyond the statement previously provided.”
Certainly, a clarification about how a specific immigration law applies to Palermo’s would tilt the balances to Palermo’s in its dispute with Voces de la Frontera. It would also derail Zamarripa’s argument that the stay letter from ICE should have averted mass terminations at Palermo’s.
As it stands, the signatures of nine Democratic State Legislators appear on a letter brandishing allegations against Palermo’s Pizza. I reached three of the nine legislators. Representative Zamarripa did not return multiple calls to her cell phone.
State Senator Spencer Coggs also did not return multiple calls made to his office. Coggs’ senatorial staff said they had delivered my message to him between his Milwaukee meetings as city treasurer. I tried reaching him at the Milwaukee treasurer’s office, but a staffer said he was “indisposed.” I asked whether his unavailability had anything to do with trying to juggle his State Senate and City Treasurer jobs at the same time. Perhaps he was too busy trying to be half a State Senator and half a City Treasurer that he didn’t have the time to read the letter.
Representative Sandy Pasch’s office staff returned my call saying she was aware of my inquiry, that they were looking into the document, and that they would get back to me the following day.
Clearly, some Democratic lawmakers were misled into believing they were signing onto a letter they didn’t support. Palermo’s issued a response to the letter saying, "It hurts all of Milwaukee when pubic officials needlessly interject a partisan element into an immigration issue."
I will continue to report as the story develops.