Chicago; Dec. 19, 2005 – In the eyes of the Chicago Minuteman Project, Rosa Ramirez and Jorge Ibarra are burglars, having "broken into the country and stolen American jobs."
But the jobs Ramirez and Ibarra "stole" were paying only half the state minimum wage. And one of the people directly benefiting from their labor is among Illinoisâ€™s most stridently anti-immigration public figures, Republican gubernatorial hopeful and former US Senate candidate Jim Oberweis.
Ramirez and Ibarra, both immigrants from Mexico, came to the Minuteman Projectâ€™s attention because the two filed charges against Oberweis Dairies with the National Labor Relations Board, alleging unfair labor practices.
"They broke the law and broke into our country," said Chicago Minuteman member Rosanna Pullido, referring to Ramirez and Ibarra, at a November 10 meeting of the group in a Chicago suburb. Pullido is herself the child of Mexican immigrants. "We need to hold politicians accountable for prosecuting crimes like this."
The Chicago Minuteman Project, which is modeled after a vigilante group launched along the US-Mexico border last year to reinforce prohibitions against undocumented immigration, called for the prosecution and immediate deportation of Ibarra and Ramirez. The group also called for the prosecution of Joshua Hoyt, director of the Illinois Coalition on Immigrant & Refugee Rights (ICIRR), which is helping Ramirez and Ibarra with their complaint.
Hoyt believes the calls for his prosecution arise from resentment.
The local Minuteman activists are also clamoring for the prosecution of Father Brendan Curran, a Catholic priest in the largely immigrant Pilsen neighborhood, also for helping Ramirez and Ibarra.
But Ramirez, 42, who came from Mexico City to the Chicago area nine years ago, says the real thieves are her former employers. After having worked various low-wage jobs, Ramirez took a position cleaning three stores owned by Oberweis for what she considered a relatively high wage of $350 every two weeks. Ramirez and Ibarra, who were hired by a contracting firm used by Oberweis Dairies, say they spent all night every night for 15 days cleaning the stores and driving up to an hour between them.
But on payday, they say the company only paid them one $350 check between them, for a total of 49 hours work each, not counting driving time and gas expenses. That equates to wages of just over $3 an hour.
In their complaint filed with the Illinois Department of Labor, Ramirez and Ibarra name Oberweis Dairies as well as the contractor, Patmar Janitorial Services. They charge the companies with violating their wage agreement and breaking Illinois wage law.
"It was half what we had been promised," Ramirez said of the amount she was paid. "Heâ€™s robbing us. We wonâ€™t work for free."
She continued: "We come here simply to work. Weâ€™re not here for terrorism, hustling, robbing people. This is a country of immigrants. Weâ€™re not asking for anything from anyone, we just want to work for our pay."
During his US Senate campaign in 2004, Oberweis was widely criticized for the false claim that enough immigrants enter the US every day to fill Chicagoâ€™s Soldier Field.
Hoyt believes the calls for his prosecution arise from resentment. The Chicago Minuteman group supports Oberweis for making illegal immigration a main campaign issue. "No one likes to have the hypocrisy of their heroes pointed out to them," Hoyt said. "So [the Minutemen] responded with howls of distress and called me a traitor and tried to deport the workers who were brave enough to report the minimum-wage violations."
Oberweis did not return a call for this story. In a press release, he blamed the contractor and said he would fire the outfit if the allegations turn out to be true. "Oberweis Dairy has never knowingly employed illegal aliens," his press statement said. "This smear campaign initiated by the proponents of illegal immigration is politics at its worst."
But immigrant advocates say that the subcontractor situation is common, and the involvement of a contractor is no excuse for employers to shirk responsibility.
"When you hire a subcontractor, youâ€™re still responsible for what happens," said Hoyt.
In the complaint, they assert that Ibarra and Ramirez were jointly employed by Oberweis Dairies and the cleaning company because the workers used equipment owned by Oberweis and were supervised by his employees.
During his US Senate campaign in 2004, Oberweis made undocumented immigration his primary issue. He was widely criticized for a TV commercial where he made the false claim that enough immigrants enter the US every day to fill Chicagoâ€™s Soldier Field.
Similar falsehoods were echoed by many of the approximately 100 people attending the Minuteman Project meeting where Ibarra and Ramirez were vilified. At the gathering in the American Legion hall in Elgin, Illinois â€“ a suburb with a quickly growing Latino population â€“ attendees blamed immigrants for causing hospitals to close and complained that their family members were denied jobs because they donâ€™t speak Spanish.
A high school student affiliated with the small right-wing activist group Protest Warrior was also cheered for his story of being reprimanded at school for refusing to stand for the Mexican national anthem on Mexican Independence Day.
"It makes me mad when people come here and take advantage of our freedom," said the student, who himself immigrated to the United States from Poland. "I work with a lot of immigrants, and even close friends of my family I would report to immigration" if they are working here without documents.
Starting chapters and holding meetings in non-border areas of the US is a relatively new strategic focus for the Minuteman movement, which first gained notoriety with civilian "patrols" along the US-Mexico border. Members of other anti-immigrant vigilante and even white-supremacist groups have traveled to the border for Minuteman boot camps and patrols over the past two years. Their overall numbers have not been large, often drawing more media than volunteers. In July about 15,000 people rallied in Chicago protesting the announcement that a local branch was to be formed.
Like a previous Chicago-area Minuteman meeting where police arrested several activists, more than 200 people turned out to protest the meeting in Elgin.
"[The Minuteman members] speak to the racism and small-mindedness of a minority, but that kind of hate doesnâ€™t fly in Illinois," said Hoyt. "The general population in Illinois hasnâ€™t shown any appetite for this. People here have big hearts, not small minds."