Sanctions Fail to Cut Alien Jobs : Threat of Penalties Ignored in Hiring of Illegal Workers

Times Staff Writer

It’s cheap, plentiful and easily smuggled across the border. Southern California businessmen have long been addicted to the inexpensive labor provided by illegal immigrants, and kicking the habit is proving more difficult than expected.

“We have all been hooked on cheap labor, like a drug. It’s going to be a tough job getting us off that drug because we have to compete in a world market that pays workers less,” said an Orange County businessman who employs about 300 to 400 workers, most of whom are Latino.

Despite a new immigration reform law that for the first time holds employers liable for knowingly hiring illegal alien workers, evidence abounds that it’s business as usual throughout Southern California.


Not Having Effect

At restaurants, car washes and hotels; at janitorial, gardening and construction firms, the story appears the same: Although many employers appear to be complying with the letter of the law, it is not having its intended effect of removing illegal immigrants from the work force.

Interviews with 22 employers and more than a dozen workers, union leaders and government officials, as well as recent public and private sector surveys and reports, show that the employer sanctions contained in the new immigration law simply aren’t working.

Although the law requires employers to check worker documentation, most employers claim they cannot tell if the records they receive are authentic. Many acknowledge that they knowingly accept questionable documents, while others are ignoring the law’s requirements altogether.

As a result, the new immigration law has caused little more than a ripple in the hiring practices of Southern California businesses 18 months after becoming law.

Addresses Reality

The Immigration Reform and Control Act, enacted in November, 1986, addresses the reality that the United States cannot stem the flow of illegal immigrants as long as employers are providing them with jobs.

Under the new law, the Immigration and Naturalization Service can bring civil and criminal charges against employers found to have knowingly hired illegal immigrants. Those charges can result in fines of as much as $10,000 and jail sentences of up to six months.

The law also provides amnesty to illegal aliens who can prove they have been continuously living in the United States since Jan. 1, 1982. The one-year period to apply for amnesty ends Wednesday.

Since Sept. 1, 1987, employers have been required to obtain either proof of U.S. citizenship or proper working papers from all workers hired after the law was passed.

But employers concede that the law contains a key loophole: The INS cannot bring charges unless it can prove that an employer has knowingly hired illegals.

Because of the proliferation of false identification documents, employers said it is difficult to determine whether their employees are eligible to work in this country. And many said they believe they are hiring illegals, but they make a point of not finding out for sure.

Most employers interviewed said they don’t scrutinize documents closely.

“I don’t want to give the impression that I’m sitting here knowingly taking false documents. But I’m not going to assume it’s fake unless its printed on an envelope,” said Patrick Shea, a vice president of Beacon Bay Enterprises, which owns and operates 11 car washes in Orange County.

While most employers claimed they felt incapable of determining whether documents are authentic, some said that forgeries often are easy to spot.

“We’ve learned to be more cautious about accepting documents,” said Ralf Jacobsson, president of B.P. John, a furniture manufacturer in Santa Ana that employs 400 workers, most of whom are Latino.

“It’s like the difference between the fine line drawn by a draftsman and a crayon,” said Jacobsson, whose firm has been raided by the INS three times in the last three years.

A personnel manager at a posh Orange County hotel said she couldn’t compete with other luxury hotels if it weren’t for the more than 100 mostly Latino workers who make beds and wash dishes for low wages. Although she has obtained proof of U.S. citizenship or work permits from each worker, she said she suspects that many of the hotel’s employees are, in fact, illegal immigrants who have obtained false documents.

Employers Not ‘Inspectors’

“The hotel industry is terribly saturated, so we must keep our labor costs down,” she said. “Certainly, we are seeing documents that under closer scrutiny would not hold up. The law doesn’t require employers to be inspectors, as long as it’s a reasonable looking document.”

Many workers agree that the use of phony documents is rampant.

A 24-year-old accountant who came from Mexico in 1973 and who has applied for amnesty said that all of the 50 factory workers at the Huntington Beach electronics firm where he works are illegal immigrants who have submitted forged documents.

“They give me fake IDs,” said the accountant, who requested that his name not be used. “I can tell right away, because the phonies are green like the old green card, instead of the new ones that are white, with cream and green stripes and numbers on the back.”

But there also are very sophisticated forgeries that closely resemble the new temporary work permit cards, according to William Carroll, INS deputy director for the Los Angeles district.

Fake IDs for Sale

Five workers said that they could obtain false documents if they needed to, but they don’t bother because their employers don’t ask for documentation.

Ray, a 22-year-old-garment worker in Los Angeles, has been living in the country for about a year. He said he sees no need to purchase forged documents. “I know there are a lot of fake IDs going around,” he said. “I went with a friend who got a Social Security card for $30. The guys that sell them are gang members . . . they sell them at a photography shop, or something like that, in Santa Ana, but there are lots of places. I haven’t gotten one because the boss hasn’t asked.”

A UC San Diego survey of 72 employers in Los Angeles, Orange and San Diego counties suggests that a vast stream of inexpensive immigrant labor continues to run through the Southern California economy.

Of the employers contacted, 59% said they hire illegal immigrants. The survey, conducted by UCSD’s Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies and released in March, also found that 45% believed the law will be “totally ineffective” in keeping illegal immigrant workers out of the work force. Respondents cited the prevalent use of forged documents and the limited liability for accepting such documents.

Executives at large public companies, whose visibility makes them careful to abide by the law, said they would not be surprised to find out they have hired workers who submitted phony documents.

‘Nothing More We Can Do’

“It’s a distinct possibility,” said Dennis Hooper, general manager of Western operations for American Building Maintenance Industries, an office services company based in San Francisco. The firm employs about 3,000 people in Southern California.

All of its workers, of whom more than 70% are Latino, have proper documentation, Hooper said. “Being a large public company, we are going to the ‘nth’ degree. We are not going to let anything slide by,” he said.

“We try to diligently review the documents and compare them to others, but if they are invalid and we do our best to review them, there is nothing more we can do. And as far as I understand, there is nothing more required of us.”

Furthermore, Hooper and others noted that denial of work on the basis of suspect documents alone could open employers to discrimination lawsuits filed by workers or the U.S. Labor Department. “We have to have some compelling reason other than suspicion of false documents not to give them work,” Hooper said.

INS officials concede that they face an uphill battle. “You cannot just reverse the big old battleship of industries that have depended on the illegal work force. You can’t change things in 30 seconds,” said Harold Ezell, commissioner for the INS Western region.

The INS has only 20 to 26 investigators assigned at any one time to enforce employer sanctions at the hundreds of thousands of workplaces in its Los Angeles district, which encompasses the seven-county area of Los Angeles, Orange, San Bernardino, Santa Barbara, Riverside, Ventura and San Luis Obispo counties.

The number of agents should double after June 1, when the INS moves from its educational phase into its enforcement phase, according to Robert Moschorak, the Western region associate commissioner who is charged with enforcing the employer sanctions.

The INS Western region has responded to the prevalence of phony documents by assigning 12 full-time investigators to a false-documents task force, which has cracked several large forgery operations, according to Moschorak.

The task force has set up a toll-free number to provide assistance for employers who have doubts about documents. The INS also is looking into a computerized clearing system, similar to electronic credit checks, that could instantly determine the authenticity of Social Security and work permit numbers.

Estimates Vary Widely

Estimates of the number of illegal immigrants in the United States vary widely, from 1 million to more than 5 million. Two-thirds of the nation’s illegal aliens are believed to reside in California.

The California Department of Finance calculated in October that 2.1 million illegal immigrants live in the state. In California 904,000 have applied for amnesty, with 642,515 of those applications coming from the Los Angeles district, according to Robert Warren, chief statistician for the INS. Nationwide 1.7 million people have applied for amnesty.

Although there has been a surge of applicants in the two weeks before Wednesday’s deadline, only about half of all illegal workers in the state are expected to apply for amnesty, according to John Weeks, director of the International Population Center at San Diego State University.

Under the law, the remaining 1 million workers should not be able to find work. But employers are reporting no change in the availability of workers.

“We haven’t seen a big move to raise wages, and still the jobs are getting filled,” said Roger Miller, who heads labor standards enforcement for the California Department of Industrial Relations for Southern California. “A lot of people are still hiring illegal aliens.”

Swelling the ranks of alien workers is an influx of new immigrants, apparently unaware of or unconcerned about the new law. Although border crossings in Arizona and California were down as much as 30% after the passage of the law in late 1986, the Border Patrol has reported steadily increasing crossings in recent months. In March, for instance, the patrol reported 68,904 apprehensions, compared with 60,372 in March, 1987.

According to an INS Border Patrol survey of 124 illegal immigrants crossing into the United States in early March, there appears to be a widespread belief in Mexico that jobs are still plentiful in the United States, with or without documents. Of those surveyed, many of whom were headed for the Los Angeles area, 70% said they had heard there was still work available. About 25% said they were going to work for a previous employer or an employer who, they had heard, was seeking workers.

The Border Patrol survey noted that the number of workers who crossed the border with the intent of obtaining false documents increased dramatically since the last such survey was conducted in October. “I can get all the documents I need at the flea market in Los Angeles,” said one worker quoted in the survey.

One likely place of destination for newly arrived immigrants is the Los Angeles garment industry, where many small contractors appear not to care about the new immigration law.

$2 to $4.25 an Hour

One such employer is Aurora, a 51-year-old woman from Mexico. Aurora, who requested anonymity, has lived in the United States since 1962 and runs a small garment manufacturing shop in downtown Los Angeles. She employs nine full-time employees who are working in this country illegally.

Aurora’s shop is one of several similar one-room operations occupying the top floors of an old office building in downtown Los Angeles. At four such shops visited by a Times reporter, all of the workers at the sewing machines are illegal, according to their supervisors. Wages range from less than $2 an hour to $4.25. Aurora said she depends on recent arrivals from El Salvador and Mexico to work at such low wages.

Aurora is far from alone. About 25% of the state’s 125,000 garment workers are employed in small one-room shops that pay workers at or below the minimum wage, according to Roger Miller of the California Department of Industrial Relations.

Miller said his department has found much anecdotal evidence to suggest that many, if not most, of that 25% are illegal aliens.

For example, in a sweep of the garment district in March, Miller’s department handed out 75 fines for failure to keep proper time records. “If an employer isn’t keeping time records on a worker, you assume there is something about the worker that he doesn’t want known. We think it definitely ties in,” Miller said.

Crackdown Promised

The INS maintains that beginning June 1, employers will no longer be able to hire immigrant workers to fill the growing demand for labor. “We’ll be cracking down, no doubt about it,” Moschorak said.

But in a growing economy with virtually no unemployment, and with ever-increasing numbers of illegal immigrants entering the country, many observers give the new immigration law little chance of success.

“The indications we are getting is that most employers are doing the minimum necessary to comply. And we’ve also seen that many employers encourage their employees to submit fraudulent documentation,” said Steven Nutter, director of the Western region for the International Ladies Garment Workers Union.

“The employer sanction provisions of the law are not being enforced, and many people are betting against them ever being enforced,” he said.

Times staff writer Santiago O'Donnell contributed to this story.