Clinton’s Pledge on Illegal Workers Is a Tall Order


Even as the federal government fights illegal immigration, it is unknowingly hiring illegal immigrants itself--to construct office buildings, plant trees, clean offices and perform countless other chores.

Nobody knows how many illegal immigrants might be working for federal government contractors, but President Clinton--eager to seize the initiative on immigration as the election season heats up--proposed an executive order in his State of the Union address this week aimed at wiping out the apparent contradiction.

Under the new rule, federal agencies could bar government contracts to employers found to have knowingly hired illegal workers.


“We don’t know the scope of the problem,” acknowledged Doris Meissner, commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, or INS. “We do know the industries that tend to be heavy users of illegal labor and we have federal contracts in those industries.”

Even with the executive order, the government will have a tough time sanctioning employers, even if they are found to have illegal immigrants on the payroll. To be cited by the INS, companies must “knowingly” hire illegal immigrants--a tough point to prove because fraudulent work papers can be made to look authentic. And once companies are cited, they may appeal, making it difficult for the INS to close each case.

The INS fined several hundred companies last year for knowingly hiring illegal immigrants, INS officials said. But no procedure has been in place to make sure that those with government contracts lose out on future business.

This year’s $2.6-billion immigration service budget, a 24% increase over last year, includes funds to more than double the number of investigators, now 320, charged with enforcing workplace laws. The government will not focus on the estimated 26 million people working for federal contractors and subcontractors but expects to investigate those contractors who are part of targeted industries such as food service, construction and timber.

Meissner predicted that contractors will take the new measure seriously to avoid being added to the government’s monthly list of banned contractors and losing out on the $200 billion in goods and services that the government purchases each year.

Congressional foes of illegal immigration praised the president’s initiative, which is still being fine-tuned at the White House, but said that it will mean little unless it is coupled with a worker-verification system allowing employers to check the immigration status of applicants. Only then can employers be held accountable for those whom they hire, lawmakers said.


Meissner agreed on the need for better verification, citing pilot projects that the INS has launched in Santa Ana, Calif., and other areas. The INS is also working to reduce the number of documents--currently 29--that employees can use to establish work authorization.

“But that’s not something we can solve with an executive order,” she said. “The president is using every tool at his command to enforce the immigration laws on the books as effectively as possible.”

Worker verification is a central, and controversial, part of the bill Republicans are pushing through Congress this year. If a proposed toll-free telephone verification number works, its backers expect it to root out undocumented workers across the economy.

“It’s not going to surprise me if we find illegal immigrants working in the White House or elsewhere in the government, despite all the security checks,” said Rep. Elton Gallegly (R-Simi Valley), chairman of a GOP task force on immigration reform. “I have no direct knowledge of this, but I think there may be some incredible stories on tabloid TV once we begin to really verify employees’ immigration status.”

Thomas P. Fischer, director of the INS office in Atlanta, already has encountered some illegal immigrants on the federal payroll.

Right outside his window, where a federal office complex is going up, Fischer’s investigators recently arrested three dozen illegal workers from Mexico, Guatemala and Canada who were working for a subcontractor.


He has other investigations underway that he expects to net even more illegal workers performing federal government chores, he said.

“I wasn’t going to close my eyes to the problem,” Fischer said. “I can’t go into a private-sector employer and penalize him and ignore the federal government.”


Fischer has been frustrated by what he calls a lack of cooperation between the INS and the General Services Administration, the massive agency that oversees the government’s buildings. The executive order calls on such agencies to cooperate so that, when the INS cites a contractor for breaking immigration laws, other parts of the federal bureaucracy can cut the contractor off from future business.

“It would be naive of me to say none of our contractors are employing illegal immigrants,” acknowledged Ida Ustad, the associate administrator of the GSA. “We have 7,000 buildings and we issue thousands of contracts. I’m sure there are cases where some company is either knowingly or unknowingly hiring an illegal alien.”

In Louisiana, illegal Mexican workers were found building Army housing at Ft. Polk. In the Pacific Northwest, illegal immigrants have been arrested while working to plant trees on Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management property.

“I burst out laughing when I heard the president’s speech,” said Martin Desmond, executive director of the Northwest Reforestation Contractors Assn. in Eugene, Ore. “It’s probably well-intentioned, but here in the Northwest the federal government is the biggest employer of illegal immigrants there is.”


He said contractors do not have an easy time differentiating legal from illegal workers. But he said some unscrupulous employers are offering cut-rate wages and giving papers only a cursory look to win government bids.