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Wal-Mart: Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor....

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Wal-Mart is not a friend to undocumented workers in this country, particularly those who scrub its floors.

Last week, 125 undocumented workers were arrested and deported following a raid on the construction site of a new Wal-Mart distribution center in Scranton, PA. Wal-Mart is claiming it didn't know the workers were here without proper papers and is blaming the violations on a sub-contractor that has worked on several of its sites across the country.

In 2003, Wal-Mart was issued a "target letter" informing it that a grand jury was investigating the company for violation of immigration laws. The New York Times reported:

"...two federal law enforcement officials said in interviews that Wal-Mart executives must have known about the immigration violations because federal agents rounded up 102 illegal immigrant janitors at Wal-Marts in 1998 and 2001. In the October raid, federal agents searched the office of an executive at Wal-Mart's headquarters, carting away boxes of papers. Federal officials said prosecutors had wiretaps and recordings of conversations between Wal-Mart officials and subcontractors.

The use of illegal workers appeared to benefit Wal-Mart, its shareholders and managers by minimizing the company's costs, and it benefited consumers by helping hold down Wal-Mart's prices. Cleaning contractors profited, and thousands of foreign workers were able to earn more than they could back home.

But the system also had its costs — janitors said they were forced to work seven days a week, were not paid overtime and often endured harsh conditions. Foreigners got jobs that Americans might have wanted. And taxpayers sometimes ended up paying for the illegal workers' emergency health care or their children's education in American schools."

The Times recounted the story of one worker named Pavel:

Last February, Pavel responded to an intriguing Web site that boasted of cleaning jobs in the United States paying four times what he was earning as a restaurant manager in the Czech Republic. He flew from Prague to New York on a tourist visa and took a bus to Lynchburg, Va., where a subcontractor delivered him to a giant Wal-Mart.

Pavel immediately began on the midnight shift and said he soon learned that he would never receive a night off. He said he worked every night for the next eight months. In this way, Pavel, who refused to give his last name, became one pawn among hundreds employed by subcontractors that clean Wal-Mart stores across the nation, paying many workers off the books.

Pavel's unhappy stay in the United States ended with a shock when federal agents raided 60 Wal-Marts on Oct. 23 and arrested him and 250 other janitors as being illegal immigrants.

Pavel said Wal-Mart management knew it was hiring undocumented workers. The Feds backed up his claim:

Federal law enforcement officials who spoke on condition of anonymity said Wal-Mart executives must have known about the use of illegal immigrants partly because 13 Wal-Mart cleaning subcontractors pleaded guilty to illegal hiring practices several years ago.

This wasn't the first time Wal-Mart was raided. In 2001, another series of raids took place that netted dozens of undocumented workers. But Wal-Mart got off cheap in both the 2001 and 2003 raids. It settled with the feds for $11 million and an agreement not to bring criminal charges against the company. Its sales last year were $288 billion.

Following the 2003 raid, some of the immigrant workers sued Wal-Mart.

The lawsuit said that Wal-Mart, "knowingly and with the intention to defraud the United States government and the plaintiffs and in order to save money on cleaning service contract contractors," employed certain cleaning contractors, "with full knowledge" that these contractors would pay the illegal immigrants far less than they would have paid legal workers.

Wal-Mart's response was to attack the workers' lawyers as hungry vultures preying on unfortunate immigrants (New York Times, 11/9/03):

"Clearly, hungry lawyers are converging on these illegal immigrants as if they were accident victims," Ms. Williams said. "We have seen absolutely no evidence showing that Wal-Mart did anything wrong."

Emma Lazarus must be rolling in her grave.

Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me:

I lift my lamp beside the golden door.