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Pacific Steel in Berkeley. (Staff File)

Rogelio Espino expects to be fired from Pacific Steel and Casting this month after 17 years working at the Berkeley plant.

The foundry is firing 200 workers -- a third of its workforce -- as a result of a federal immigration audit that began earlier this year and found dozens of workers suspected of being in the country illegally.

"It's painful for my family and painful for myself," Espino said. "It feels sad because I was there for so long -- I started as a laborer, and I moved up to supervisor, then to mechanic."

After appeals by the workers' union and complaints by local government leaders fell short, the company began firing workers identified as "non residents" in October. It will continue to dismiss groups of workers each week through January.

The plant's union continues to protest the audit and mass firings through the National Labor Relations Board, said Oakland City Council member Ignacio De La Fuente, a union leader who has been representing Pacific Steel workers since the late 1970s.

"It's really, really a terrible way for the (Obama) administration to force people out of their jobs," said De La Fuente, who is vice president of the Glass Molders International Union. "I have people who were there for 20 years."

Pacific Steel was notified that it was to be audited in February, said Pacific Steel spokeswoman Elisabeth Jewel.

"This was not an action that the company invited," Jewel said. "It's been a very wrenching experience for the company to lose so many highly valued, highly skilled employees, some of whom have been there for decades."


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In I-9 audits, sometimes known as a "silent raid," investigators check the legal status of workers through the Social Security numbers and other records they supplied to the business when hired. In many cases of illegal immigrants, that documentation is forged.

Although the audits do not always lead to the deportation of workers, they do force the employer to fire them.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement would not confirm that it has audited Pacific Steel. Under a worksite enforcement push by the Obama administration, the federal agency investigated the employee records of more than 2,000 companies in the past year but does not acknowledge individual audits unless they lead to criminal prosecution.

"The inspections are opportunities for companies to get their stuff in order," said spokeswoman Lori Haley.

Pacific Steel is now checking on new hires with the federal E-Verify program.

When the audit began in February, De La Fuente said he believes immigration agents "violated their own rules by initiating the audit at a time when we were in collective bargaining negotiations."

He said the union has fought to delay the firings, giving workers time to correct discrepancies on their forms and trying to help save the business in the process.

"It was a real danger that this company could shut down if you pulled so many people out at the same time," he said.

Most of the fired Pacific Steel workers had been there for several years and were making hourly wages of between $18 and $25, De La Fuente said.

Richmond Mayor Gayle McLaughlin is partnering with labor and religious groups to hold a rally at St. Marks Catholic Church on Sunday afternoon to support the families of the workers caught in the raid.

"Their firing is a violation of their human rights," she said. "When they say that these raids are targeting criminals, it's not true. People who are just trying to make a living are being targeted big time."

About half of the fired workers live in Richmond and San Pablo, McLaughlin said. The rally is timed to coincide with International Migrant Day as well as the holiday season.

Espino, who moved to Oakland from central Mexico some 24 years ago, said he is disappointed at the slow pace of immigration reform in this country.

"The politicians promise a lot of stuff but don't do anything -- it's just a game for them," he said.