The Bay Area's biggest Latino grocery chain is trying to avert a threatened boycott after it began checking the immigration status of all its new hires through a federal work-verification program.

"This is a decision that doesn't come easily," said spokeswoman Perla Rodriguez of the 21-store Mi Pueblo Foods chain. "The immigrant community, that's the core of who we are."

The company joined the E-Verify network a few weeks ago at the recommendation of the Department of Homeland Security, which uses the database to inform companies if their prospective employees are living and working in the country legally, Rodriguez said.

It was a tough decision for the popular San Jose-based supermarket chain to join the voluntary program but "as employers we don't make the laws, we have to abide by them," Rodriguez said. She added that the immigration checks only affect new hires, not existing employees.

A union that has been trying to organize the chain's 3,300 workers is planning to protest Thursday morning outside the company's original San Jose store and also threatening a customer boycott.

"I don't see what the benefit is to them, as an employer or a PR-type thing," to check the immigration status of the mostly Latino workforce, said spokesman Mike Henneberry of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 5. "It's voluntary. They don't have to do it."


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Founded in 1991 by Juvenal Chavez, a former Stanford University janitor, the company now has stores from Vallejo to Salinas and the Central Valley.