As federal officials continue to bolster high-profile enforcement efforts along the U.S.-Mexico border, authorities seeking to reduce illegal immigration are now turning up the pressure in another significant, if less photogenic, arena: the workplace.
Long immune from extensive enforcement, the owners of hotels, restaurants, sewing lofts, farms and factories where unauthorized foreign workers toil will face greater scrutiny under a get-tough strategy being touted by the Clinton Administration.
An Administration-crafted bill unveiled last week would, among other things, increase penalties for employers who knowingly hire illegal immigrants, doubling fines when such violations are coupled with labor standard violations.
To get at the most flagrant violators, the White House plans to bolster the long-understaffed officer corps that investigates both immigration and wage-and-hour violations in areas such as Los Angeles that act as magnets for illegal workers. The joint-enforcement theory: Those who employ illegal immigrants are likely to skirt minimum wage and other workplace laws as well.
Simultaneously, the Immigration and Naturalization Service is seeking to combat an onslaught of phony paperwork by making official documents more counterfeit-resistant and enhancing employers' ability to verify workers' papers. Among the efforts slated to be greatly expanded is a job-site verification program that has shown promising results in its trial run at a Los Angeles-area fast-food chain.
An Administration that has institutionalized the law enforcement photo opportunity at the border is now contemplating the unprecedented confiscation of assets--"the fruits of . . . unfair competition," in the President's words--from employers who hire illegal immigrants.
Despite Proposition 187's central premise--that government benefits draw unlawful newcomers--the government's strategy underscores an official recognition that the prospect of work fuels illegal immigration.
"Job opportunities are the primary lure," said Robert L. Bach, the INS executive associate commissioner for policy and planning. "People do not come just to get on public assistance."
Yet many experts are skeptical that employers who consistently violate hiring laws will change their ways merely because of the threat of increased enforcement. Many such firms survive on narrow profit margins provided by cheap labor.
Certainly, on Los Angeles corners where day laborers gather, there is little fear that opportunities will evaporate because of renewed pressure from la migra , either on the border or at the job site.
"We're here because the employers want us, they give us work," said Jose Garcia, a 35-year-old laborer from the Mexican state of Puebla, who waited patiently the other day with other job-seekers outside a hardware store along Sunset Boulevard. "There's no one else willing to work as hard as we do for so little pay. This country needs our labor. That's not going to change."
Meantime, an increase in use of labor contractors and growth in small-sized employers have reinforced many industries' tendency to employ undocumented workers. These practices effectively insulate large corporations that reap the benefit of illegal immigrant labor and could tend to undermine the Administration's ambitious crackdown plans.
"The workplace is changing in ways that make enforcement of all labor laws, including immigration and minimum wage laws, more difficult," said Philip Martin, a labor economist at UC Davis who has long studied international migration.
And unlike plans to slash benefits to immigrants or bolster U.S. Border Patrol staffing, taking aim at employers clashes with powerful economic and political interests.
Even before the crackdown announcement, California agribusiness, a longtime beneficiary of low-wage immigrant labor, was sufficiently alarmed about the prospect of a diminished work force that representatives were floating the notion of a new "guest worker" law to bring in foreign laborers. "We're going to need some kind of insurance," said Roy Gabriel, director of labor affairs for the California Farm Bureau.
Amid all the rhetoric surrounding the heated immigration debate, the farm lobbyist's concern underscores an essential fact: More than a decade of large-scale illegal immigration has profoundly altered certain segments of the U.S. workplace, especially in California and other major immigrant destinations.
A huge, and ever-expanding, foundation of unauthorized labor now underpins a broad swath of domestic industries, including apparel, construction, agriculture and a range of manufacturing sectors and service providers. Many such employers vie with overseas competitors whose wages may be one-tenth or less of prevailing salaries here. The global village of the marketplace has tapped into a fluid transnational stream of underground workers, often willing to toil for substandard wages in Third World-like conditions.
In Los Angeles, one-quarter or more of some selected industries' staffs may be working illegally, according to John Brechtel, INS assistant district director of investigations.
From the employers' viewpoint, illegal immigrants are often ideal workers: willing to accept low wages, largely non-unionized and unlikely to complain, out of fear of being reported to authorities.
One apparel contractor said 80% of the 25 employees in his Downtown Los Angeles sewing loft were probably illegal immigrants. His workers produce "Made in U.S.A." clothing for major chains.
"The industry can't survive without the indocumentados, " said the contractor, himself a onetime illegal immigrant from Mexico. His business now clears only $300 a week in profits after expenses, according to the contractor, who asked that his name not be used.
In its new get-tough policy, the INS has set its sights on "targeted deterrence zones": California and other states with large immigrant populations. The agency is also focusing on trades known for consistent violations, including the garment industry, agriculture, construction, fast-food restaurants and custodial service businesses.
The need to zero in on certain sectors is clear, considering the huge volume of employers--more than 7 million nationwide--that are monitored by the current corps of about 250 immigration investigators. The officers' daunting task: visit job sites and conduct painstaking verifications of workers' documents against INS, Social Security Administration and other databases.
In Southern California, only 30 to 35 INS agents monitor almost half a million employers in a vast area stretching from San Clemente to San Luis Obispo, and east to the Nevada and Arizona borders. The region has the nation's greatest concentration of illegal immigrants, many of them gainfully employed.
Facing such odds, officials preach the gospel of "voluntary compliance": the conviction that most employers, if given the ability to verify workers' eligibility, would follow the law and refrain from hiring illegal immigrants.
"When you can factor out the good-intentioned employers, then you've got the ability to concentrate on the egregious violators," said Brechtel, INS investigations chief in Los Angeles. "Your major corporations--your Hiltons, your Sheratons--they don't want to be fined. They don't want anything to do with the publicity that comes from being sanctioned by the INS."
But sweatshop operators and other profiteers are unlikely to change their ways without the credible prospect of federal sanctions. For almost 10 years, U.S. employers have been required to verify the eligibility of all people hired, both citizens and foreign nationals. The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 created civil and criminal penalties for those who knowingly hire unauthorized workers, giving the INS a major new mission in the workplace.
Yet after the initial push, INS investigative staff assigned to the workplace has declined sharply and fines assessed have plummeted, statistics show. Tens of thousands of leads languish in agency files. Sanctions, experts have concluded, have failed to stem the hiring of illegal immigrants.
"Sanctions have not been supported with resources," conceded John Shaw, the INS' assistant commissioner for investigations, now charged with devising a plan to improve desultory job-site enforcement. "If we're not visible, no one takes the law seriously."
Apart from being neglected, many say workplace enforcement has also been misdirected. A case in point: The sole criminal prosecution in Southern California targeted not a big-time clothing manufacturer, construction company or hotel--but rather the manager of a health clinic that serviced a Latino immigrant clientele.
According to its critics, the INS has shied away from difficult, investigation-intensive inquiries of questionable businesses and focused instead on technical errors by legitimate employers befuddled by the law's confusing record-keeping requirements.
"They're not going after the underground economy guy, the cases that require surveillance, subpoenas, undercover work," said Peter N. Larrabee, a San Diego lawyer and former INS official who now represents sanctioned employers.
But authorities vow that they will take a more aggressive posture.
"The underground economy is a very large magnet for illegal aliens--they almost totally survive off of it--and we're going to go in there and see if we can shake it up a little bit," T.M. Loyd, an INS supervisory agent in Los Angeles, assured an Orange County group eager to rid local communities of illegal immigrants.
Most employers who continue to hire unauthorized workers, officials say, are dupes of the massive false document trade that flourishes on the streets of immigrant neighborhoods from Los Angeles' Pico-Union district to New York's Washington Heights. With such an abundance of high-quality counterfeit and stolen documents, employers often cannot dispute workers' word that they are eligible for employment. Rejecting applicants based on suspicion--or requiring more proof than the law demands--can result in discrimination charges against employers.
"Right now, the system is too easy for prospective employees to beat," said Lawrence Fuchs, a historian who is vice chairman of the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform.
The bipartisan study commission has called on the government to move toward creating a computerized registry of eligible workers, thus allowing employers to cross-check employees' documents against government records. Civil libertarians have expressed concerns, but the Clinton Administration is pressing ahead: Officials are exploring verification systems that would give employers access to improved INS and Social Security databases.
One prototype is in place at El Gallo Giro, the Huntington Park-based Mexican takeout food chain. Resembling a credit card verification device, the automated system allows employers to tap in via telephone to INS records and confirm if non-citizen employees are authorized to work. Before the pilot system was installed three years ago, about one-third of the outlet's more than 300 employees were illegal immigrants using false documents, according to Charles Bonaparte, El Gallo Giro's general manager. He recalled disruptive INS raids with displeasure.
"This whole issue is very sensitive for us," the French-born Bonaparte said during an interview at the animated Huntington Park site, as workers rolled juicy tacos and poured colorful aguas for an overwhelmingly Latino clientele. "We're here in the middle of the Mexican community. We don't want to be INS officers. . . . There wouldn't be a restaurant industry without Hispanics."
Now hailed as a national model against an onslaught of phony documents, the process at El Gallo Giro is to be expanded to about 1,000 firms nationwide, concentrated in Los Angeles, officials say. The INS is also seeking to develop more tamper-resistant cards, while reducing the confusing array of 29 documents that workers can present as proof of employment eligibility.
But officials acknowledge that no process is foolproof, no document completely counterfeit-proof. The system in place at El Gallo Giro offers no defense against those who falsely claim to be U.S. citizens and present corresponding documents.
Nationwide, an effective employment verification system--considered essential to combatting illicit documents and shrinking the vast illegal immigrant job pool--is still years away, experts agree.
Moreover, many critics voice alarm about any system that relies on the documentary prowess of the INS, an agency long notorious for mismanagement and dubious record-keeping. "Lost in space" is how an INS official in Southern California characterized thousands of missing applications for political asylum, according to a pending federal lawsuit.
In one sanctions case, investigators wrongly concluded that 11 workers at a San Diego sock factory showed false documents when in fact all were authorized to work--and two were U.S. citizens, according to Larrabee, the ex-INS official turned private lawyer who represented the accused firm. Although a believer in work-site enforcement, Larrabee said his years as an immigration officer taught him a valuable lesson: Never trust INS records.
"I'm sure the INS says this verification program in Los Angeles is a roaring success, but we don't know how many times they were wrong and the employee just walked away scratching his head," said Larrabee, referring to the soon-to-be-expanded pilot system at El Gallo Giro. "There's no way of determining how many innocent people have been hurt by the system."
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A central thrust of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 was to reduce the lure of employment for illegal immigrants. The law requires U.S. employers to verify the eligibility of new workers, and imposes sanctions on those who knowingly hire unauthorized foreigners. But after an initial push, enforcement by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service has dropped off.
FINES AGAINST EMPLOYERS Fiscal Year: Amount 1988: $2.2 million 1989: $13.1 million 1990: $18.5 million 1991: $12.7 million 1992: $17 million 1993: $11.1 million 1994: $10.9 million* *****
INS WORK SITE INVESTIGATORS Fiscal Year: Personnel 1988: 413 1989: 448 1990: 320 1991: 316 1992: 306 1993: 263 1994: 245 *Estimate
Source: U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service