500,000 Firms Held Biased Under Immigration Law

Times Staff Writer

A new government report said Tuesday that more than half a million employers have practiced job discrimination, such as asking only “foreign-looking” people for work authorization documents, in violation of the 1986 immigration law.

The report by the General Accounting Office also estimated that more than one-fifth of the nation’s 7 million employers “were not aware the law was passed.” For those who did know about the law, as many as 20% did not understand its major provisions, the GAO said.

The GAO added, however, that its findings do not constitute “a pattern of discrimination” because the survey responses “did not adequately address the number of authorized workers who were fired, not hired or otherwise affected by the reported practices.”

U.S. immigration officials hailed that conclusion, asserting that it shows that they have done a good job of informing employers and the public about the law, the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act. Immigration and Naturalization Service Commissioner Alan C. Nelson “feels very upbeat about the report,” INS spokesman Duke Austin said.


But advocates for immigrants, citing the number of firms that admitted discrimination or were unaware of the law, said the report points to a huge problem with discrimination.

Mario Moreno, associate counsel for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said the study shows that for immigrants, who often are “at the very bottom of the economic ladder,” discrimination is “one more obstacle in their journey to improve their lives.”

He said the INS must improve its public education program to combat “the rampant discrimination” indicated in the report.

Lawrence Siskind, the Justice Department’s special counsel for immigration-related unfair employment practices, said many employers have learned about the law since the GAO sent questionnaires in late 1987 and early 1988. At the same time, he agreed that “we’re not getting the word out as well as we should,” but he blamed a tight budget for that inadequacy.


Thus, Siskind approved of the GAO recommendation that calls for him and the attorney general to develop a plan and budget “to better educate the public” about the law’s anti-discrimination provisions.

Under the immigration law, civil and criminal penalties can be imposed on employers who knowingly hire illegal immigrants after Nov. 6, 1986, the day President Reagan signed the law into effect. Employers are required to complete an eligibility verification form for all new employees, certifying that they are either U.S. citizens or aliens authorized to work.

Because of the concern that some employers, fearing the sanctions, would refuse to hire “foreign-looking” or “foreign-sounding” people, Congress added a provision prohibiting employers from discriminating on the basis of national origin or citizenship status. Violators can be fined and required to provide back pay to victims.

In its 101-page report released Tuesday, the GAO outlined employer responses from California, Florida, Texas, New York and Illinois, including jobs in construction, farming, restaurants and the garment industry.

The report said 53,000 California employers and 29,000 in Florida acknowledged that since the law’s passage in 1986 they began asking or increased the practice of asking only foreign-looking or foreign-sounding job applicants to prove that they were authorized to work.

About 78,000 California employers and 25,000 in New York said they began similar selective screening of current workers. About 73,000 California employers and 38,000 in Texas reported hiring only U.S. citizens.

Although 528,000 such violations were acknowledged nationwide, the GAO said they “should not be construed to mean that the law has caused a pattern of discrimination.”