Sonia Cano and Carlos Barrancos worked hard to support themselves and to start their young family. However, when Sonia Cano stood up for her right to be paid the SF minimum wage and overtime from her abusive employer, Si Senor Taqueria owners did everything they could to tear apart this young family. As Sonia was in her ninth month of pregnancy, some Si Senor owners called the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). ICE acted immediately on the tip and raided Sonia and Carlos' home, taking Carlos away that night for what would be a 5 week stay in a detention center in Eloy, Arizona. Sonia's story is not unique. Violations of the law are rampant in low-wage industries and employers frequently use intimidation and retaliation to keep workers in line.
Sonia first started working with Young Workers United in June 2004 after she filed a claim against Si Senor with the Office of Labor Standards and Enforcement, the agency that enforces the minimum wage of $8.82 for San Francisco. Her partner, Carlos Barrancos, had heard from his and Sonia's Yucateco, Mexican compatriots at the Cheesecake Factory that Young Workers United (YWU) could help Sonia with her case. Young Workers United is a multiracial, democratic workers center that organizes restaurant and retail workers. YWU was one of the organizations that helped to win the SF minimum wage increase to $8.50, now $8.82 because the law adjusts the wage each year for cost of living increases.
Right before Sonia filed her claim, she told her employer she was three months pregnant. Two days later she unexpectedly fired for "indiscipline." The employer often spoke against pregnant workers, calling them slow and not worth paying and had previously fired another pregnant worker. In addition, the owners often used racial slurs denigrating the workers' Mayan heritage.
In the following months, YWU, Sonia and Carlos worked to bring together other Si Senor workers to file minimum wage claims and demand respect from the owners. YWU leafleted workers and held meetings to help workers calculate and file claims and confront the owner who used racial insults. Workers stood up to this owner, demanding a stop to the racial harassment. Seeing the presence of workers organized with YWU, the racial harassment stopped and workers filed minimum wage claims.
Some of Si Senor's owners didn't like workers standing up for themselves and demanding basic rights like the minimum wage, overtime and fair treatment. In direct retaliation for fighting for her rights and organizing her co-workers, they sent an anonymous letter making false and defamatory accusations against the family to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). ICE acted immediately without any investigation into the tip. On December 16th at 7am ICE agents raided Sonia and Carlos' home and took Carlos into custody. The next day he was bussed to a detention center in Eloy, Arizona where he was held for five weeks. Immediately Carlos began organizing his fellow detainees. He told them not to sign the voluntary deportation forms and to call YWU.
In San Francisco, Sonia was nine months pregnant with their first child at the time of the raid. YWU organized a care schedule for Sonia, taking her to her doctors appointments and cooking and buying food for her. YWU raised over $3000 for Sonia so she could pay the rent, being 9 months pregnant and with no support from Carlos. Many community members responded to YWU's emails and alerts by helping with these daily tasks. When Sonia was first fired, YWU had introduced Sonia to the lawyers at WERC. Marci Seville and Neera Geergarvis began work on a pregnancy discrimination lawsuit and also lent a personal hand, helping with Sonia's care.
Many workers might have given up in the face of such brutal employer retaliation. But Sonia had the support of Young Workers United (YWU), Golden Gate University's Women's Employment Rights Clinic (WERC) and the community, who sprang into action to fight back.
Straight away Sonia called YWU and the organization set to work finding a lawyer for Carlos. According to the Florence Immigration Rights and Refugee Project in Florence, Arizona near Eloy, 95% of the detainees in Eloy do not have legal representation. Early that morning, YWU began calling ally organizations in Arizona and located a lawyer from the Florence Project to visit with and advise Carlos. Carlos got the legal representation that so many detainees are denied because he is part of a workers' organization.
On January 15th, at St. Luke's hospital, 4 YWUers, the lawyers from WERC and one of Sonia's loyal friends supported Sonia through her labor pains and finally the birth of a healthy baby boy, Miguel Angel Cano-Barrancos. One YWUer videotaped the birth to show Carlos upon his release.
One week later, Carlos was released and returned to Sonia and his newborn son. Due to the work of the WERC lawyers, Carlos was able to return to San Francisco. The lawyers were able to get him a voluntary departure instead of deportation, which carries no criminal penalties. There was other relief for the family: Sonia received her back pay and retaliation fees from Si Senor through her minimum wage claim.
As of May 2006, Sonia has settled her legal claims for workplace retaliation, discrimination and defamation with Si Senor. Sonia told the press, "Even if you are undocumented, stand up for your rights and ask for help from the community. You deserve your rights at work."
Sonia's story reframes the debate about immigration in this country. Major employers like Wal-Mart, Cheesecake Factory and others flagrantly violate worker protection laws every day yet immigrant workers are the ones targeted as criminals. As YWU member Mehera Reiter said at a press conference announcing Sonia's case: "We need real immigration reform to protect the rights of workers and punish employers who break the law." For more information, please contact Young Workers United at 415-621-4155, firstname.lastname@example.org. YWU's website is www.youngworkersunited.org.