Crackdown on Employers of Migrants Begins in Encinitas

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A team of U.S. Border Patrol agents Monday began a monthlong surveillance of migrant-related hiring on the streets of Encinitas to ensure that would-be employers follow federal law by checking a laborer's immigration status before putting him to work.

The operation is part of a larger crackdown of the living and working conditions of local migrant laborers from Mexico and Central America that will also involve the county Sheriff's Department, officials said.

Later this week, sheriff's deputies will begin a sweep of migrant campsites and popular hiring spots, looking for such infractions as trespassing, littering, urinating in public and illegal camping, Sheriff's Capt. Bob Apostoles said.

City officials applauded the stepped-up patrols, and said the crackdown is not intended to circumvent a federal judge's ruling last month against a curbside hiring ban the city approved in May.

Furthermore, officials said Monday, Encinitas is prepared to drop its defense of the hiring ban in court and eventually repeal the law.

Last month, U.S. District Judge John S. Rhoades issued a temporary restraining order against the ban, which would have outlawed all curbside hiring on city streets, saying it is probably unconstitutional.

Rhoades has set a review hearing for Friday in federal court for the city and lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union and a migrants group, which have filed suit over the ordinance.

"This is by no means an attempt to pull the rug out from a judge's order," Mayor Pam Slater said of the new crackdown. "The curbside ban would have made it illegal for all hiring on city streets. This enforcement is saying to employers, 'You can hire workers here, but you better be playing by the rules.' "

The patrols, she said, are merely a response by the federal government and local law enforcement officials to the city's appeals for help with its migrant problem.

"We've been saying all along that our city is in a state of emergency with all these indigent migrant workers, and that the federal government wasn't doing its part to help us with our problem," she said. "These patrols are a response to that, and we welcome them with open arms."

But, although they've been successful in soliciting federal help for the migrant crisis, city officials will have to go back to the drawing board to devise an ordinance to stem the spread of what they call the "bothersome" curbside hiring.

City Atty. Roger Krauel said Monday that he will meet privately with City Council members before Wednesday's meeting and advise them to scrap the ban.

"My recommendation will be that they repeal the law based on the thoroughness of the judge's evaluation of the ordinance," he said. "I'm not happy with the way he analyzed it. But it was certainly instructive."

Despite the apparent defeat of the ban, which would have imposed fines on employers who solicited day labor in public, the ordinance seemed like a good idea when approved by the council in May, Slater said.

"We knew the law wasn't bulletproof, but we figured we were following federal laws by targeting the employer," she said.

On Monday, however, the focus of the Encinitas migrant debate was out of the courtroom and council chambers and back on the streets.

Beginning shortly after 6 a.m., three uniformed Border Patrol agents driving marked patrol cars talked with 35 would-be employers, handing out pamphlets detailing what immigration laws require of them when soliciting migrant workers.

Of those, 10 were given warnings for not properly inspecting worker documentation, resulting in the arrest of 20 undocumented laborers who were in the country illegally, said Dutch Steenbakker, special agent in charge of the Border Patrol's North County patrols.

Officials stressed Monday that neither the crackdown nor the teaming up of the two agencies is anything new, but rather the continuation of an occasional practice last put into effect last summer.

The operation came in response to a letter sent to the Border Patrol by Encinitas officials last week.

"We'd met with them in the past and asked for more patrols," said City Manager Warren Shafer. "The letter was just a way to put our request in writing."

Steenbakker said he also became concerned last month while personally watching hiring activities in Encinitas over a two-week period in which he found less than half of employers checking for worker documentation.

"I talked with some employers who were pretty candid once they realized I wasn't going to ticket them," he said. "When I told them about the hiring hall, they said they didn't go there because they didn't want to pay minimum wage, or had jobs where they didn't want to follow OSHA requirements, so they went curbside to avoid all that.

"I heard some real horror stories, including one worker who worked an eight-hour day for just $8. There's a lot of abuse going on out there."

The target of the sweep, Steenbakker said, is not the "casual hirers," homeowners who solicit migrant laborers for a one-day job, but companies and others who use the workers for more than eight hours without first checking documentation and filing the required paper work.

However, Border Patrol agents in the past have lectured day-job employers of their responsibilities when soliciting migrant workers, said Claudia Smith, an attorney for California Rural Legal Assistance.

Last week, Smith sent Border Patrol officials in San Diego a letter reminding them that federal employer sanctions regarding migrant workers do not apply to casual employment on an occasional basis in a domestic situation such as baby-sitting or gardening.

Teddy Hampton, assistant special agent in charge of the Border Patrol's North County operation, said Monday's enforcement approach was simple.

"We sit in patrol cars in plain sight and just watch what happens," he said.

"If an employer asks for documentation, he's got no problem with us. If he doesn't, we have a talk with him. Repeat offenders could risk a fine and seizure of their vehicle."

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