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Fired American Apparel workers to get benefits of sale

December 19, 2009 |  8:17 pm

It was a holiday sale for a singular group of beneficiaries — illegal immigrants who had been thrown out of work.

“It makes me feel less guilty for buying all this stuff,” said Dolores Arellano, 19, one of more than 1,000 shoppers who thronged Saturday to the parking lot of American Apparel in downtown Los Angeles.

The trendy, L.A.-based clothier sponsored the “Justice for Immigrants” event to benefit some 1,600 employees let go in recent months after federal inspections uncovered discrepancies in their immigration documentation.

All the proceeds from the sale will go to the families of the dismissed workers and to organizations representing immigrants, said Peter Schey, an attorney for American Apparel in the immigration case.

American Apparel has been a strong proponent of changes in immigration law that would allow many illegal immigrants to attain lawful status. One of its bestselling items is a T-shirt bearing the Legalize LA logo, a motto that also appears on a massive banner adorning the firm’s plant in the garment district.

The pre-Christmas sale featured discounts of up to 85% on shirts, sweaters, dresses and sundry other items. The crowd was larger than expected, and workers were constantly carting in boxes of new clothing to be placed on racks and bins spread across the parking lot, flea-market style. Some shoppers waited more than an hour to get in; later, they faced a half-hour wait to pay. The policy was cash only, no returns.

Some shoppers were on board with the sale’s pro-immigrant thrust.

“You’re buying things at a good price, but it’s for a good cause,” Robyn Ybarra, 22, said as she and friends picked through the racks. “I’m for immigration reform.”

Others seemed more attracted by the prices than the charity.

“Everybody’s entitled to their opinions, but I feel people should come here legally and by the rules, like we did,” said Sahara Ayineh, 19, who said she emigrated from Iran with her family.

Her sister, Saba Ayineh, said the prices were favorable compared with those at retail stores. “American Apparel is usually over-priced,” she said after purchasing an armful of new clothes. “This is more reasonable.”

Among the crowds picking through the bins were American Apparel employees and friends of the dismissed workers.

“Many of our colleagues have lost their jobs, so it’s good to know this will be a help for them,” said Carmen Garcia, 37, a native of El Salvador. “It’s very hard for them to find jobs now.”

Although the Obama administration has mostly ended the high-profile work-site immigration raids endorsed by the Bush White House, it has stepped up federal document audits of companies and workers. Firms found to have workers whose documentation does not match official records may be subject to sanctions if they don’t act.

Supporters call the audits a humane way to enforce immigration law, without the disruption of raids. But critics call the audits inhumane “desktop raids” that still force low-income immigrants out of work.

-- Patrick McDonnell in downtown Los Angeles

Photo: Shopper Sharon Kwon of Fullerton, second from left, waits in line to pay for her items. Credit: Christina House / For The Times