Illegal aliens have been circumventing the new immigration laws by using counterfeit papers to qualify for work in the United States, a practice tolerated and sometimes encouraged by their American employers, a University of California survey has found.
Preliminary results of the survey--conducted in Orange and two other Southern California counties--show that employers wishing to hire illegal aliens are able to do so under the law after giving cursory inspection to documents they often suspect to be phony, a UC San Diego researcher said this week.
"It is to everyone's benefit to accept these fraudulent documents as real," said Anna Garcia, of UC San Diego's Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies. And "all employers," she said, "know they are not required to check the authenticity of the documents."
Under the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, passed by Congress after years of debate over the status of illegal aliens, amnesty was granted to those aliens able to document their illegal residence in the country since Jan. 1, 1982.
But while longtime illegal residents were given amnesty, Congress placed new requirements on employers intended to assure that all workers hired in the future had legal residence in the United States.
As a result, most newly hired workers are required to show their employers proof of their legal status--documentation that can include such official papers as a passport and a birth certificate.
But researchers at the UC San Diego center have found that many workers without legal papers still are finding work by using false documents--a practice the researchers say some Southern California employers tolerate, if not encourage.
"We haven't found many employers who are openly defying the law," said Garcia, a research associate at the center who is working on the immigration study. "But while employers may be abiding by the letter of the law, they're not necessarily following the spirit of the law."
Those employers who appear to be ignoring the law, researchers say, include construction contractors, landscapers and others who routinely hire undocumented day laborers from street corners and other well-known gathering places in Orange County and elsewhere in Southern California.
Such employers apparently are attempting to take advantage of a provision of the law that exempts them from the paper work requirements if they hire workers for three or fewer days. Many have been hiring workers for a few days, laying them off and then rehiring them or hiring replacement undocumented workers, researchers have found.
But, said Duke Austin, a spokesman for the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service in Washington, "If you're doing that with the intent of circumventing the law, there could be some possible jeopardy on the part of the employer."
If authorities prove that employers are deliberately trying to get around the law's documentation requirements, Austin explained, they could be subject to fines of up to $10,000 per worker and jail terms of up to a year--sanctions imposed for other violations of the law as well.
Since May, center researchers have interviewed about 60 Southern California employers, including eight in Orange County. All were in non-agricultural fields such as manufacturing and the garment industry, and in service-related jobs in restaurants and hotels. Farm employers weren't included in the study, as agricultural concerns are essentially exempt from legal sanctions under the new law until Dec. 1.
The employers surveyed--all from Orange, Los Angeles and San Diego counties--were guaranteed anonymity in return for answering detailed questions examining their operations and their compliance with the new law. Researchers expect to interview another 40 employers, including about half a dozen in Orange County, before compiling their data and publishing the results this year, Garcia said. As part of the study, the academic investigators are also interviewing undocumented workers.
Central Part of Law
The potential jail terms and fines for employers who knowingly hire illegal aliens are a central part of the immigration statute, which President Reagan signed into law on Nov. 6, 1986. The law requires that all employers fill out and maintain forms specifying what documentation has been presented by new workers to prove their legal status in the United States. Officials of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service have argued that the great majority of employers will abide by the requirements voluntarily--a belief that the study appears to bear out.
The sanctions were needed, immigration authorities and others have long argued, to ensure that the job market would dry up for undocumented immigrants.
Prospective employees present the fraudulent documents--such as forged Social Security cards and various immigration documents--as "proof" to employers, who can then demonstrate to INS inspectors that they have made a "good faith" effort to comply with the new law.
"They (employers) know that it's hard for the INS to accuse them of knowing that a document was fraudulent, unless it's blatant," Garcia said. "They're very aware of the 'good faith' defense."
As an interesting consequence of the immigration law, the quality of the fake documents has gone up while their cost has gone down, Garcia said.
"We were told that you can pay as little as $50 and up to $200 for something like a good Social Security card or a green card. In the past it cost much more," she said.
Garcia attributed the changes in the fraudulent document market to greater competition between the counterfeiters, who have seen demand for their handiwork increase since adoption of the immigration act.
Aware of Fraud
U.S. officials have said they are aware of the flourishing market in fraudulent immigration documents, but they maintain that the availability of such paper work will not undercut the new law.
"We do think there's some false document increase out there, but we don't think it's pervasive at this time," said Austin, the INS spokesman.
Many employers, Garcia said, appear to be willing to overlook phony documents.
She recalled the case of a major Los Angeles garment maker who recounted how a prospective worker showed him a blatantly false Social Security card.
"He told the guy to go get a better document and he'd hire him the next day," Garcia said.