A Refuge for Refugees

When Florida Rural Legal Services worker Laura Germino heard from immigrant Salvadoran workers in Houston worried about troubles with their employer, she thought of one place to direct them: Houston's Central American Refugee Center. CARECEN was founded in Houston in 1985 by a coalition of Salvadoran immigrants and American volunteers attempting to respond to the local immigration crisis created by the increasingly bloody Salvadoran civil war. It joined a loose national network of five independent offices devoted to addressing the multiple legal problems of Central American immigrants to the United States.

As the intensity of war diminished in El Salvador but the numbers of long-term refugees living in Houston continued to grow (estimates are that Salvadorans in Houston now number in excess of 50,000), CARECEN found itself more and more concerned with the problems of Central American immigrants who had become, by default and the passage of time, U.S. residents. While still handling many immigration matters, CARECEN now finds itself devoting more time to the problems of permanent residents, including various sorts of labor problems. The litany of troubles recited by the Allied Fibers workers certainly included ones familiar to the staff at CARECEN. However, this factory situation seemed to require larger resources than CARECEN could offer. They contacted various organizations that might intervene on behalf of the workers, and soon were convinced that a labor union might be the answer.

But getting a union involved in the cause of non-English-speaking immigrants, often considered to be competing with American workers for jobs, can be difficult. Unions are also reluctant to initiate a campaign in a small factory where the chances of success are uncertain. Since no Houston-based union was willing or able to take on the Allied Fibers campaign, CARECEN went to the New York-based International Ladies Garment Workers Union, and the ILGWU, after some initial trepidation, agreed to go to bat for the Salvadoran employees.

Although those who have looked into the situation at the Allied/Poly Sac factory say the conditions there are extreme, they confirm that the circumstances are all too familiar to immigrant workers in Houston. CARECEN's Eric Udell describes the factory as "not an uncommon situation for immigrant workers in Houston. Immigrants are assigned the dirtiest, most dangerous jobs."

-- Michael King


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