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Garment Laborers Say Bush Guest-Worker Plan an Ill Fit

Times Staff Writer

Here, in the basement of the U.S. economy, two women sit face to face five days a week, sometimes talking, more often surrendering conversation to the hum of their sewing machines and the Mexican ballads playing on their Walkmans.

Both clear about $200 a week at the factory on Los Angeles’ Eastside.

Both churn out the same products: dresses, shirts and pants that are shipped off into a retail world so vast that they have never seen their work in a store. Both pay taxes.

Both have the same education: sixth grade.

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Juana Torres is a legal U.S. resident. Her sister-in-law, Abiud Martinez, is an illegal immigrant.

Their similarities point to a potentially serious weakness in the plan that President Bush announced last month to establish a new guest-worker program: It might not be much of a draw for many of the illegal immigrants it is designed to attract.

In making his announcement, the president said his plan would bring illegal workers, people like Martinez, “out of the shadows.”

But in interviews at the factory where Martinez works -- and other Southern California businesses staffed by undocumented people -- employees gave little sense of being in the shadows.

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Many illegal immigrants lead lives similar to those of poor friends, neighbors and relatives who are here legally, and few said Bush’s plan offered much for them.

Before she arrived, “I thought that everybody would have to hide from the immigration police,” said Martinez, 23. After a few months here, “I realized that I didn’t have to be afraid.”

Last year the U.S. Border Patrol apprehended 905,065 people trying to enter the country from Mexico. But once the people are beyond the border, the chances of being caught and sent home are tiny.

From 8 million to 11 million illegal immigrants live in the United States, according to immigration officials. Last year 48,120 -- far fewer than 1% -- were deported. The majority of them had been caught, not in workplace investigations, but after being picked up on suspicion of crimes.

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“There is no immigration enforcement,” said the owner of the garment factory where Martinez and Torres work. He nonetheless spoke on condition that neither he nor his business be identified.

Immigration raids were more common when he arrived in the United States -- illegally -- in 1972, he said. Indeed, in the last five years, the number of businesses fined by immigration authorities for employing illegal immigrants has fallen nationwide -- from 535 in 1998 to 15 last year.

Under Bush’s plan, illegal immigrants and foreign workers could apply to work in the United States for three years with the possibility of at least one extension.

Guest workers would gain several protections: coverage by U.S. minimum wage and workplace safety rules, retirement benefits, the ability to open bank accounts and freedom to travel between the U.S. and their home countries. But when they joined the program, they would be registered with the government and subject to deportation after their enrollments expired. They could apply for green cards, but would not get priority or special advantage over other applicants.

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As part of the plan, Bush has said his administration would step up enforcement of laws barring companies from hiring illegal workers. That would be a major reversal.

Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, immigration authorities away from the border have focused their efforts on airports, power plants and other infrastructure related to national security -- not restaurants, retail stores and sweatshops.

One measure of how thoroughly illegal immigrants are integrated into the U.S. workforce is that the Internal Revenue Service collected an estimated $7 billion in Social Security taxes last year -- about 1% of Social Security’s overall revenue -- from 7.5 million people and their contributing employers whose Social Security numbers did not match valid accounts. Clerical errors account for some of the mismatches, but many are believed to represent illegal immigrants using counterfeit cards.

The ranks of illegal immigrants have grown steadily over the last decade, data indicate. In 1993, the government collected $1.9 billion from such workers in Social Security taxes

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Federal officials could use the unmatched numbers to try tracking down illegal immigrants, but they don’t. The IRS does not routinely share the names of offending employers with the Department of Homeland Security, which is in charge of enforcing immigration laws, because of laws protecting taxpayer privacy.

The legal consequences of using an invalid number are minimal. Workers receive a “no-match letter,” informing them that their numbers were not valid. One worker at the Eastside factory said he and his friends simply throw the letters in the trash.

Companies with significant numbers of “no-match” workers also receive letters -- 126,000 went out last year -- as well as a $50 fine for each unmatched employee. The fine, however, is waived for employers duped by fake documents.

“I don’t investigate the Social Security numbers they give me,” the factory owner said.

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His roughly 20 workers, all of whom are Mexican, make their livings stitch by stitch, neckline by neckline. Pay depends on production. A worker earns 32 cents for each complete T-shirt. The more consistently their machines run, the fatter their paychecks, which usually amount to minimum wage.

Overhead, a strip of fluorescent lights hangs from the rafters. Men sit on one side of the room, women on the other, with a shrine to the Virgin of Guadalupe, Mexico’s patron saint, on the back wall.

Most illegal immigrants remain stuck in jobs like this.

Still, they have an easier time than they once did.

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Most arriving immigrants, roughly 70% of whom are from Mexico, have an instant support network of relatives and friends already here. A few states grant them driver’s licenses. California repealed a driver’s license law last year, but Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has said he would consider a new one if the Legislature agreed to include protections against fraud.

Some states also make children who grew up in the United States without papers eligible for the discounts on college tuition that legal state residents receive. Small numbers of illegal immigrants can join unions.

The employees at the Eastside plant say the chief drawback of being here illegally is not the fear of deportation, but the reality of being stuck at the bottom of the economic pile.

They would be attracted to an immigration plan that would allow them to improve their economic status, they said, but not to the Bush proposal.

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The plan would lock them into the type of low-paying jobs they already have, many of the sweatshop workers said.

Moreover, they said, the necessity of registering with the government and potentially being required to leave the country when their three-year terms expired would be a major drawback.

“I don’t want to be kicked out after three years,” Martinez said. “I want to be here forever.”

“The plan is a joke,” said another worker, Maria de Los Angeles Ramirez, looking up from her machine. She has lived in the United States illegally for 15 years.

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In contrast with the Bush plan, the last time the government legalized illegal immigrants, in 1986 under President Reagan, they got a full amnesty. About 2.7 million people signed up. A government study later showed that, on the whole, those who received the amnesty were able to earn more money. Many pursued education or job training.

Among the lives that law changed was that of the owner of the factory where Martinez works.

Like most of his workers, he arrived illegally from Mexico and started on a sewing machine. A few years later he met his wife, another illegal immigrant with the same job. They sewed on for the next several years, getting by on fake documents.

The amnesty allowed him to apply for a business license. By the mid-1990s he had enough money to rent the space for his own company, selling clothing to an apparel firm.

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“It’s not a business that makes you rich,” he said, “but you can live on it.”

His company would struggle to survive without the cheap labor of illegal immigrants, he said, especially because lower production costs in Latin America and Asia have hurt the U.S. textile industry.

“Americans don’t want work like this,” he said. “They go to school and have much more opportunity.”

There is at least one aspect of the Bush plan that appeals to the factory workers: the ability to visit their families without having to hire a smuggler to reenter the United States.

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In 1977, when Juana Torres crossed from Tijuana to San Diego with her mother, brother and sister, the smuggler charged $275 a head. Just 14 at the time, she went straight to work in a sweatshop and later married another illegal immigrant.

She did not set foot in Mexico again until after the amnesty, because the price of crossing the border illegally was skyrocketing, as Abiud Martinez discovered in 2001.

She and her husband paid $2,500 each to ride into the United States squeezed like circus contortionists into a secret compartment under a car’s back seat. A friend with papers brought their infant daughter across, telling border agents the child was hers. She charged $300, significantly less than the going rate.

Family members had lent Martinez and her husband, a construction worker, the money to get here. It took them a year to repay the loan, even with rent of just $250 a month for a room in Torres’ house.

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But once they were in, they were in.

Martinez wants to visit Mexico, but even that benefit, she and her co-workers said, would not persuade them to sign up for the Bush proposal, should it ever take effect.

Edina Reyes, 52, who has been here eight years, said she had an another plan:

“I’m looking for a gringo to marry.”

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