Some Hispanic groups are calling for a month-long boycott of Wal-Mart stores in order to put added pressure on the retailer to support immigration reform, and to investigate “abuses” against Hispanic workers at its stores. But Wal-Mart has had its hands full this past week trying to dismiss rumors of impending immigration raids at their outlets. In October of 2003, federal agents raided Wal-Mart headquarters and 60 of its stores across America. In a sting that the feds called “Operation Rollback” (a takeoff on Wal-Mart’s pricing slogan) more than 300 illegal workers were arrested. The operation began in 1998 when federal officials were investigating Wal-Mart’s use of illegal immigrants to clean its stores. Federal agents told the media that their undercover surveillance revealed that Wal-Mart executives and store managers were fully aware of the fact that illegal immigrants were being used. Wal-Mart initially responded by saying, “We have seen no evidence of this from the INS, and, if that turns out to be true, we will cooperate fully with law enforcement officials. We require each of these contractors to use only legal workers.” The immigration raid included the offices of what Wal-Mart called a “mid-level manager” at their Bentonville, Arkansas headquarters. Wal-Mart stores in Alabama, Arkansas, Arizona, Connecticut, Delaware, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Maryland, Michigan, North Carolina, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia and West Virginia were involved in the raid. On November 7, 2005, Sprawl-Busters reported that an affidavit unsealed in Fayetteville, Arkansas by a U.S. District Court Judge confirmed that Wal-Mart knew that it had illegal workers cleaning its stores. The affidavit was opened only because more than 200 of the illegal workers had sued Wal-Mart, and their lawyer asked for the Immigration and Naturalization files to be opened. The affidavit proved that top managers at Wal-Mart knew these illegals were being hired, some of whom had to sleep in back of the Wal-Mart stores. The giant retailer eventually spent $11 million to settle the worker’s lawsuit. The lawyer who asked for the files to be unsealed, James Linsey, told the Associated Press, “The sworn testimony (in the affidavit) establishes that top Wal-Mart executives conspired with contractors to exploit undocumented immigrants.” This past week, the specter of more immigration raids on Wal-Mart turned into a major PR problem for Wal-Mart. On March 9th. Wal-Mart stated, “The rumors that are circulating through text messages, and other media, indicating that Wal-Mart is supporting or coordinating raids against immigrants in our stores are false. These rumors are false and baseless. We think it is unfortunate that these rumors are spreading.” But spread they did, from Arkansas to California. According to the San Diego Immigrant Rights Association several Spanish radio stations in Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Florida reported phone calls from Hispanics worried that federal officials were going to be raiding Wal-Mart stores again on March 20, 2010. Text messages of unknown origin warned that in some stores immigrants had been beaten and arrested. A user of Univision.com wrote in the community forums that he had received a cell phone text stating that “ICE agents were checking papers of Wal-Mart customers. But what surprised me was that it was true. I was there two days ago, at Wal-Mart. I went to buy something and leave the place where the person who checks the ticket, there were ICE agents around the store asking about papers.” The writer claimed that when an immigrant was pulled aside to show his papers, that “Wal-Mart employees laughed, laughed and even applauded the action.” According to the newspaper The Independent Voice of the mountain area of South Carolina, the Hispanic community living in the area has had moments of fear and uncertainty “about the possible presence of immigration agents in Wal-Mart stores. “People are terrified,” said the director of The Community Center, in Henderson County. A reporter for Mundo Hispanico in Atlanta, Georgia indicated that he had received messages on his cell phone about the upcoming immigration raids at Wal-Mart. An organization called the Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights (GLAHR) had reportedly organized a campaign to “stop shopping” at Wal-Mart stores for a month from March 21st, the date of the march for immigration reform to be held in Washington DC, and that it was at a meeting of this group that someone suggested sending messages. GLAHR sought to pressure Wal-Mart to publicly support generous immigration reform and to investigate a series of “reports” of abuses allegedly committed against Hispanic immigrants, both area workers and customers. According to Mundo Hispanico, federal immigration officials told the newspaper, “Our agency has no research involving Wal-Mart, nor have we conducted raids on these businesses.” The newspaper quoted Wal-Mart as saying, “Our position on immigration reform is clear. We believe that reform is necessary. We are committed to working with stakeholders, legislators, employers and consumers, so that immigration reform becomes a reality.” Despite such statements from Wal-Mart, GLAHR said it planned to continue with the campaign of “not buying” beginning March 21st. “We are committed to supporting this for a month, not to shop at Wal-Mart. That part is fully understood.”
The Hispanic PR Blog reported on March 15th that the ‘raid’ rumors had forced Wal-Mart to “conduct an aggressive media relations and public affairs crisis campaign” in order to notify Latino media and leaders nationally that the rumors are completely false. In Fontana, California, a group called the Inland Empire Rapid Response Network Friday denounced “false rumors” that Wal-Mart was allowing a large-scale operation of ICE raids in stores around the nation. The network’s hotlines have received a large volume of calls from people worried about the rumors, forwarded by text messages or via the Internet. The group said the text messages had “spread like wildfire, striking terror in immigrant communities all over the Inland Empire.” “We are asking people not to forward these text messages,” said a spokeswoman for the Rapid Response Network. “Our immigrant communities have already faced enough fear and heartbreak with the intense wave of raids here in the Inland Empire over the past year without this false alarm.” Yet the network went on to urge vigilance among Hispanics, as Border Patrol and ICE actions continue to impact Inland Empire communities. “If you witness a raid in progress or see immigration and local law enforcement working together, it is important if possible to document it without putting yourself in danger, by taking photos or videos or by talking to other witnesses,” said a member of the Rapid Response Network. The group circulated its ‘information hotline’ phone numbers for Hispanics to call in with eye-witness accounts. According to radio station KNWA in Fayetteville, Arkansas, one woman who received a text message about the pending Wal-Mart raids told the station, “When I got the first message, I really believed it. I was panicking. Saying, Oh my god. How can this be going on at Wal-Mart? And I knew it would spread a lot of fear within my community and my friends. I think it’s believable in the community particularly because we don’t know how ICE is supposed to act.” On March 16th, the United States Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, which calls itself “the national representative for nearly 3 million Hispanic owned businesses,” came to Wal-Mart’s defense. The Chamber said it was responding “to the well-intentioned but misguided efforts by one organization to promote comprehensive immigration reform.” “While these efforts are regional in nature and are primarily meant to pressure the retail giant to support immigration reform, these
rumors are misguided and irresponsible… The USHCC is as anxious and impatient as any organization representing the Hispanic community for the White House and Congress to finally pass comprehensive immigration reform… On immigration reform, Wal-Mart’s position is clear — they support us!” The Chamber then went on to claim immigration reform failed 3 years ago because “labor unions, faith leaders, businesses and Hispanic organizations didn’t work together.” In some areas of the country, Hispanics will be staying out of Wal-Mart stores. In other communities, families will be fearful that immigration officials will be prowling the aisles of Wal-Mart checking their papers. What has been demonstrated by this past week’s rumors, is that because of Wal-Mart’s well-publicized past experiences with immigration raids, that many Hispanics believe that such raids have happened in the past, and could easily happen in the future again. This, for Wal-Mart, has turned a feeling into a fact — and forced the company to turn to its business friends, like the USHCC, for support. But the fact remains, Wal-Mart’s record of exploiting undocumented workers is spread out over the years in public record, and cost the retailer millions of dollars to put behind them. Now they are in the headlines once again. The fact that these rumors are believable is perhaps most worrisome to Wal-Mart.