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Time to check for illegals

Sean Cole Jun 7, 2006

KAI RYSSDAL: President Bush woke up in Omaha, Nebraska this morning. He was there to wrap up a two day trip pushing immigration reform. No word on what he had for breakfast. But it’s a safe bet he didn’t start his day with a jelly roll and a cup of coffee. Too bad. ‘Cause he could have learned a thing or two at the local donut shop.

Dunkin’ Donuts has just joined a federal immigration program. It lets companies check new employee’s information against government databases. And find out whether they’re legal to work. Whether the *program works is another question entirely, as Sean Cole tells us.

SEAN COLE: The program is just called the Basic Pilot Program. Basically, an employer has three days upon hiring someone, anyone, to type that person’s worker authorization number into a website and verify that it checks out. The system’s been around for about 10 years, but it’s really popular now. About 200 companies a month are signing up. Perhaps because the House and Senate both are looking to make the program permanent and manditory. Dunkin Donuts general counsel Stephen Horn says there’s no big reason why Dunkin’s joining Basic Pilot now. Just that the company wants to follow the law.

STEPHEN HORN: There is a cottage industry out there turning out counterfeit documents. And it can been very difficult for a well-meaning employer to discern legitimate from illegitimate documents.

Of course, all of this assumes that all Dunkin Donuts franchisees have been trying to follow the law and want help doing so. Which might be a big assumption.

COLE: When you joined Dunkin Donuts, were you legally allowed to work?


I can’t tell you this woman’s real name. I’ll call her Anna. She came here from Brazil on a tourist visa about eight years ago and almost immediately started working for Dunkin Donuts. She was there two years before she got worker authorization. Anna doesn’t speak a lot of English so we conducted the interview in a mix of English and Portuguese.

COLE: Are there illegal workers who work at this Dunkin Donuts?

ANNA: Yes.

COLE: There are.

ANNA: Oh, yeah.

COLE: How many?

ANNA: Five? Six? Six, I think.

INTERPRETER [Anna breaks into Portugese]: She said her manager told them that he’s not going to go back and check their immigration status, unless there’s an order that he has to do it from Dunkin Donuts. And he’s not going to look into their backgrounds — of current employees.

Anna says her boss is an immigrant too, and that she thinks he knows those five or six employees are illegal. Until now, she says, getting a job at Dunkin Donuts was easy if you didn’t have papers. They just never checked, she says. This is just one Dunkin Donuts I’ve heard about in New England that is or recently was staffed by a lot of undocumented workers, mostly Brazilians or Portuguese nationals. Maybe they did show false papers upon getting hired. Or maybe a supervisor or two turned a blind eye. Again Stephen Horn from Dunkin Donuts.

HORN: It is our policy that any franchisee who knowingly violates the law has to leave our system and from time to time that has happened. We intend to enforce the law.

[SOUND: Mouse clicking and typing]

If you type the words “Dunkin Dirty Little Secret” into Google you come up with a pretty interesting blog. It’s maintained, anonymously, by a New England pediatrician who calls himself Flea. It’s a medical industry in-joke. He treats a lot of Brazilian kids. So many that he learned to speak Portuguese.

FLEA [INTERPRETER]: I really like the Brazilian community and I hope to be able to take care of their children forever.

Doctor Flea says of the 840 or so families in his practice, maybe 200 are illegal.

FLEA: That’s a conservative estimate.

A lot of the moms and dads were professionals back in Brazil, he says. And yet, pouring coffee at Dunkin Donuts is a step up moneywise.

FLEA: When they got here they found that they could be paid — and this is not an exaggeration — three times per month pouring coffee for Dunkin Donuts than they could as school teachers in Brazil. And Dunkin Donuts would hire many of them.

As many as half of the illegals in his practice, he says. And Dr. Flea is of two minds about this. On the one hand it’s his taxes going into the Massachusetts free-care pool, which in turn pays him to treat illegal immigrants. On the other hand, he needs coffee. And he likes Dunkin Donuts coffee. And who’s going to pour it if not these undocumented workers? We’re in a full-employment economy, Flea says, which he defines this way.

FLEA: Everybody who needs a job, who wants a job, has got one. And if it were the case that there really were a hell of a lot of American teenagers who were in need of part-time or full-time employ, they would be doing those jobs.

But a full-employment economy is also supposed to mean wages going up. And for a lot of reasons, that’s not happening. So maybe more Americans would settle for a $7-an-hour gig at Dunkin Donuts than Flea thinks. The question is, will they work as hard as a Brazilian school teacher?

ANNA: Oh my god!

This is Anna again, the formerly illegal Dunkin worker.

ANNA [INTERPRETER]: Not the adolescents. They’re not responsible. If it’s a beautiful day, they call in and they’re all sick.

Maybe Dunkin franchisees can’t use the Basic Pilot Program to screen existing workers, but at least a few of them seem to be cleaning house. Anna says she’s heard of at least one store that fired all of its illegals. There was no one left to open up in the morning, she says.

A Brazilian community group in Boston says 15 undocumented workers have come by saying they’ve been asked for their papers. The group told them not to go back. Dr. Flea says some of the patients in his practice are quitting Dunkin or being fired — It’s not clear. So maybe the basic pilot program is affecting current workers after all.

In Boston, I’m Sean Cole for Marketplace.

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