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Poor marks for deterrence

Jacques Billeaud
AP photoAn unidentified day laborer raises his hand as a truck drives into a gas station in Las Vegas last month. Illegal immigrants may number as high as 20 million, according to Bear Stearns in New York. They are spreading beyond traditional immigrant states like California and Texas. They are going West and South, where there is tremendous growth, affordable housing and family networks, to states like Utah, Washington, Colorado, Tennessee, Georgia.
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PHOENIX – Politicians setting out to repair America’s immigration system in the coming year will face a problem that’s viewed as being a low priority for the government yet is blamed for encouraging border crossings: employers who break the law by hiring illegal immigrants.Many lawmakers and immigration analysts give the government poor marks in cracking down on employers hiring illegal immigrants, who account for an estimated 4 percent to 8 percent of all people working in the United States.The government conducts a relatively small number of employer investigations, they say, provides inadequate resources for such inquiries, and has written deeply flawed rules for employers to follow.That will have to change, say advocates for an immigration overhaul, if Congress approves a guest-worker program as part of the proposed immigration updates it will consider sometime in the next few months.Otherwise, employers who follow the rules would face higher labor costs for legal foreign workers, while unscrupulous businesses would benefit from the lower wages accepted by illegal immigrants, said Angela Kelley, deputy director of the pro-immigrant National Immigration Forum.The business community has said it wants a clear and legitimate process to follow in hiring, but that the government’s rules now place unreasonable burdens on employers, such as making them scrutinize records presented by new employees to show employment eligibility at a time when forgeries abound.Their expertise is in running construction companies or farms or restaurants or hotels, not in figuring out whether a Social Security card is authentic, employers say.”You can tell an obvious fake, but most of them – if they come in fake – you can’t tell,” said John Plescia, president of a roofing company in Phoenix. “You absolutely can’t tell.”‘A relatively low priority’

Outside a day labor center in north Phoenix, David Vargas, a neatly dressed former technical support worker from the Mexican border city of Ciudad Juarez, said he has never been turned down for not having the right papers in his two years working construction jobs in this country.It’s unclear whether Vargas, who said he doesn’t lie when employers ask about his status as an illegal immigrant, presents employers with documents.”When I get a job, they only ask if I have them. They don’t ask to see them,” said Vargas, who lost his job at a plastics factory in Ciudad Juarez where he repaired production equipment until Mexico experienced an economic downturn. “They don’t want to know if you have papers.”The father of three earns $350 to $700 a week in the United States, compared to $120 in Mexico.Over the last several years, the government’s efforts to confront illegal hirings have been “a relatively low priority,” according to a report released in August by the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress.Immigration and Customs Enforcement, whose responsibilities include combating illegal hirings, disputes that conclusion, saying it does plenty of employer investigations.But it does acknowledge that its priorities shifted after the 2001 terror attacks. Work sites with implications for national security – nuclear plants, military bases, airports, chemical plants – take first priority. Next, agents target flagrant violators, in hopes the example will deter others.Over the last 23 months, authorities have clamped down on immigration violations at military bases, airports and other sensitive work places in San Diego and Imperial counties in California, examining employment records at 780 companies and arresting more than 300 illegal immigrants.In one case, federal agents found that 85 of the 167 employees of a contractor that paints naval ships were illegal immigrants.None of the companies examined in the crackdown has been charged with a crime because they claimed they didn’t know they were hiring illegal workers, completed necessary employment documents, inspected records presented by workers and cooperated with investigators, authorities said.

$11 million from Wal-MartIn Texas, an employment agency was barred from Defense Department contracts for three years, fined $20,000 and ordered to pay $414,000 in civil penalties in October after it admitted using fake documents to get illegal immigrants jobs with the nation’s top producer of military rations.The investigation began in 2003 after an al-Qaida operative was arrested with information pointing to McAllen, Texas, and a company that makes the “meals ready-to-eat” as terrorist targets. No direct link to terrorism was found.The government opened 511 work site investigations last year, a modest increase from the previous year but well below the 3,844 cases in 1999. Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokesman Dean Boyd said last year’s figure represents only full-fledged investigations, while the 1999 total also includes spot checks of employers.No breakdown was available for the number of cases with national security implications, though the congressional report said three-fourths of all cases in a seven-month sample were related to such “critical infrastructure protection.”The number of notices of intent to fine companies dropped from 417 in fiscal 1999 to three in 2004, the report said. The average amount of fines was unavailable.The biggest administrative fine for work site enforcement violations was $1 million against Colin Cares, a building cleaning and maintenance company, in September 1996.Fines aren’t much of a deterrent because lawyers negotiate them down to amounts that employers regard as the price of doing business, Boyd said.Today, the government prefers to seek monetary penalties by taking companies to court in civil cases, which provide better assurances of payment than administrative fines negotiated outside of court, authorities said.Since taking this approach, the largest financial penalty in a civil immigration settlement came earlier this year when Wal-Mart agreed to pay $11 million to settle allegations that its cleaning contractors hired illegal immigrants.



Criminal investigations also are an effective deterrent to illegal hirings, Boyd said.”I think they made a fair effort of enforcing what at the end of the day is an unenforceable law,” said Daniel Griswold, director of the Center for Trade Policy Studies at the Cato Institute, a libertarian research foundation in Washington.___Associated Press writer Joy Hepp in Phoenix contributed to this report.___On the Net:

National Immigration Forum: http://www.immigrationforum.orgReport by Government Accountability Office: http://www.gao.gov/new.items/d05813.pdfImmigration and Customs Enforcement: http://www.ice.govCenter for Trade Policy Studies: http://www.freetrade.orgFederation for American Immigration Reform: http://www.fairus.org


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