Immigration debate bakes up

Tom Cat, the high-end baker in Long Island City, has recently  become a  battleground of America's fraught immigration policies.
Tom Cat, the high-end baker in Long Island City, has recently become a battleground of America’s fraught immigration policies. Photo Credit: Uli Seit

Work has been constant in Alejandro Teutle Olivares’s life since he came to New York 10 years ago. Back in Puebla, Mexico, he worked in agriculture, harvesting cantaloupe and cucumbers. He says he crossed the border to support his parents and two younger siblings, and immediately began searching for a job.

A week after arriving in the city, he found one and in the decade since, hasn’t left: at Tom Cat, the high-end baker in Long Island City that has recently found itself in the position of being yet another battleground of America’s fraught immigration policies.

A “desktop audit” of the bakery’s employee records started at the tail end of the Obama administration: Tom Cat was found to be employing 31 individuals without work authorization and Teutle Olivares was one of them. In late March, the Department of Homeland Security gave Tom Cat a deadline to get rid of workers who couldn’t prove that they had authorization.

William Wachtel, a lawyer representing the company, says the company hopes to keep employees “within the Tom Cat family” but says the company has limited options within the law. Audits via Immigration and Customs Enforcement can result in fines ranging from $548 to $21,916 per employee (depending on whether it’s a repeat offense) if the company had knowledge of an immigration violation, according to the agency. Continued defiance of immigration rules can result in criminal prosecution.

For now, that means the 31 workers are staring down an April 21 deadline to prove they are working legally or else lose their jobs. The inability to produce documentation could put them on ICE’s radar, and given the attention they’ve gotten so far along with President Donald Trump’s expanded priorities for who gets sent back first, deportation could become a danger, too.

Are these the priorities we want?

Looming federal immigration audits and actions like this one are an undiscerning brush, and sweep up people like Teutle Olivares, 28, who says he has always paid taxes though he didn’t describe his exact documentation situation. (Wachtel, the lawyer speaking for the company, says Tom Cat doesn’t know the exact status of each employee.)

Teutle Olivares started at the bakery in the sweets department at a time when the company had a contract with Starbucks. When that contract ended, he stuck it out and adjusted to work on the packaging side of the business. For the past six years, he has been baking the company’s famous bread, rising to the third out of four levels of expertise, learning how to judge the right moment to take bread out of one of a dozen ovens, with up to 60 trays of bread in each.

In an interview translated from Spanish, Teutle Olivares described workdays that last from 4 p.m. until 1 a.m., but which can stretch as late as 4 a.m. if there is still baking to be done.

Teutle Olivares relies on his job to raise a 2 1/2-year-old. His wife returned to Mexico because of an illness, so he’s acting as a single parent.

When he’s at the bakery, his brother and his sister-in-law watch his son. All four live in the same house, yet Teutle Olivares says he doesn’t see his brother often — they work too much.

What’s next?

The threat of Tom Cat following through on its audit-required firings led Teutle Olivares and the others to organize through the advocacy group Brandworkers. One hope is to at least get compensation after years and sometimes decades of service to the company. Wachtel says the company has committed to severance for fired workers.

There were 1,297 similar audits nationwide in fiscal year 2016, down from a recent high of 3,127 in 2013.

For the Tom Cat workers, their bad luck will be life-changing, and though the audits are nothing new they’ve been able to draw the attention of Trump-opposing local politicians. This weekend the workers rallied with elected officials in front of Trump Tower for their jobs and for a different way of considering immigrants who are just trying to get along: tying their local struggle to the nationwide question of how to treat the many recent arrivals without the documentation ICE requires. Millions of them are here, and no political answer has been found in recent decades for how they should be accommodated, beyond the current mood that appears set on turning them out or making their lives difficult.

As Teutle Olivares says, it would be very hard to start again from zero, after all this time.