His rags-to-riches immigrant journey and good business sense crowned Juvenal Chavez the king of Latino supermarkets in the Bay Area—and brought praise for revitalizing San Rafael’s Canal neighborhood—but now the CEO is fighting a harsh attack on the reputation of his 21-store Mi Pueblo Foods grocery chain.
Mi Pueblo stunned some of its more than 3,000 employees last month when it told them it had joined E-Verify, a Department of Homeland Security program that screens the immigration status of new hires.
Now, with union activists accusing Chavez of betraying his own undocumented immigrant roots and threatening a consumer boycott if he doesn’t pull out of E-Verify by October, the entrepreneur is fighting back in a war of words against the union and political opposition.
A protest outside the chain’s San Jose headquarters on Thursday was “part of an ongoing campaign against Mi Pueblo (to) damage our good name,” said spokeswoman Perla Rodriguez, who accused labor unions of an underhanded campaign to distort the company’s record of advocacy for the Bay Area’s Latino community.
Among Mi Pueblo’s most prominent critics regarding E-Verify is Santa Clara County Supervisor Dave Cortese, who said in December that armed security guards escorted him from a San Jose store when he paid a visit after hearing complaints about work conditions. The company had said the visit by Cortese, a likely 2014 candidate for mayor of San Jose, was a union-organized “media stunt.”
Now, the E-Verify controversy is fueling the ongoing disputes. Labor organizers trying to unionize Latino and Asian ethnic markets across the state are attacking Chavez as a hypocrite, citing past media reports in which he revealed he came to the United States illegally from Mexico as a young man in the 1980s.
“He comes here undocumented and now he’s going after undocumented workers,” said Mike Henneberry of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 5. “I think that’s a little hypocritical. If it’s not hypocritical, it’s a little ironic.”
Rodriguez countered that Chavez is a longtime U.S. citizen and a community advocate who supports fixing the “broken” immigration system and has funded scholarships for undocumented students. She said she didn’t know how he arrived to the country. That question, she said, is “very personal and it is not pertinent to operation of the company.” Chavez declined repeated requests for comment.
Mi Pueblo signed up for E-Verify on Aug. 14, joining more than 30,400 California employers and 109,205 work sites across the state that belong to the expanding work-verification network, according to Sharon Rummery, spokeswoman for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
Mi Pueblo joined upon the federal government’s recommendation, said spokeswoman Perla Rodriguez, who said it was a tough decision for company executives to make.
“This is something many Hispanic grocery stores” have to deal with, she said.