Forum Addresses Immigrant Discrimination Issues
"Employment discrimination is often a matter of not knowing the law," said Patricia Gatling, commissioner of the New York City Commission on Human Rights, as she opened "Avoiding Immigration-Related Employment Discrimination: 2008 Program for Employers," a forum held in late spring in the auditorium of the Flushing branch of the Queens Borough Public Library. Among the attendees were persons on both sides of the issue, namely employers and employees, but the meeting was not burdened with contentiousness, though examples of maltreatment were cited; rather, there was a mood of dedication to knowing the laws regarding hiring and retaining qualified immigrant workers. The meeting could justifiably have been held anywhere in the city, but it was fitting it was held at the Flushing branch of the Queens Library on Main Street. Inside the building and outside in the streets, immigrants thronged.
Gatling introduced Chung-Wha Hong, executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition, and Robin Stutman, special litigation counsel from the U.S. Department of Justice. Hong declared that the United States has a "pretty dysfunctional" immigration system and added that the situation calls for a "real partnership between community groups and employers" in the interest of immigrants and fair employment. Stutman, whose complete title is special litigation counsel, office of special counsel for immigration-related unfair employment practices, civil rights division, U.S. Department of Justice (which she called "the bureau with the longest name and the shortest budget in the Justice Department"), came up from Washington to handle the bulk of the meeting, speaking from her experience as an enforcer of the anti-discrimination provisions of the Immigration and Nationality Act.
Slides and short videos aided her presentation. She began by citing blatantly unfair examples of discrimination, such as the watch manufacturing company in New York that demanded a Puerto Rican worker produce a green card and fired her when she said that as a native-born American citizen she didn't need one; or advertisements that specify certain ethnic groups ("Chinese only"), their inclusions being mirror-image of the exclusions ("No Irish need apply") of long ago. But the meeting was less a rally against discrimination than it was a guide for employers and employees confused by the welter of statutes and requirements. She mentioned the Telephone Intervention System at DOJ, where employers and employees can consult a staff "instantaneously conversant in over 100 languages". There are separate numbers for each: 1-800-255-7688 is for employees; 1- 800-255-8155 for employers.
The video playlets were not great moments in drama but supplied active examples of the problems being dealt with. The first showed a woman of evidently South Asian descent at a company's reception counter, bearing a newspaper ad she is answering. The receptionist is friendly but dismissive, immediately telling the applicant she lacks the requirements for the job. What's wrong with this picture? Stutman asked, and audience members responded that the applicant wasn't even examined for orderly documents, never mind qualifications. The second video was almost comic and, Stutman observed, "could only be from New York". In it, a harried, multitasking coffee shop owner is trying to maintain order and his sanity while facing an applicant, perhaps Hispanic, for a dishwashing job. The owner seems to believe it less risky to turn the applicant down than take on a possibly illegal alien, so he decides that his halting English is the crux of the matter and that he lacks the language requirement for the job. The audience could immediately see that no language requirement had been stated in the ad the applicant answered- and really, is English required for a dishwashing job? The third and last video showed an altogether more sophisticated situation: a woman in a human resources department interviewing several applicants. She asks one of them for a green card and is given a temporary card with a distinct expiration date on it. Though that date is some time off, the h.r. woman doesn't want to deal with it and says that only a green card will do. "Come back when you've got one," she tells the applicant, "I'll hold your file." But such dubious generosity is unnecessary, the audience noted, since under the circumstances the applicant's temporary card was adequate and assessment of her application should have proceeded.
Stutman had everyone interested in what she was saying and might have conducted a discussion of Form I-9, the Department of Homeland Security document, but Gatling had to interrupt her with the notice that time had run out.