Nearly every day, immigrants newly arrived from Mexico pick up job applications at Car Wash on Sunset.
Owner George Garcia insists that they provide proof, such as Social Security or green cards, that they are authorized to work. What he does not do is pick up the phone to see if the documents are phony.
“I run a business,” he said. “Why is it my job to kick people out? It is not my responsibility to figure out who is legal and who is not legal. It’s their job to stop them at the border.”
Garcia doesn’t worry about being fined or arrested by immigration authorities. Even if federal agents did raid his Los Angeles carwash and arrest his undocumented workers, it wouldn’t take long to replace them.
“If I lost 20 guys,” he said, “within a couple of days I’d have new guys.”
The escalating debate over illegal immigration focuses primarily on those who sneak across the border, not on the jobs that lure them here or the people who hire them. When authorities do crack down on employers, it often is to stem terrorism, human smuggling or large-scale criminal operations.
In fact, the owners of hotels, farms, restaurants and retail stores who hire illegal workers -- never widely sanctioned to begin with -- now face a negligible risk of being penalized.
From 1993 to 2003, the number of arrests at work sites nationwide went from 7,630 to 445. The number of fines dropped from 944 in 1993 to 124 in 2003.
About 7 million illegal immigrants worked in the U.S. last year, said the Pew Hispanic Center, a research organization.
“I don’t think any average restaurant owner or farmer is shaking in their boots,” said Carl Shusterman, a Los Angeles immigration attorney who used to work for the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
“We’ve seen an effective end to work-site enforcement,” said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington. “To whatever degree there is enforcement, the only people on the receiving end of it are the illegals, because there are no fines of employers, practically none.”
Even when a fine is levied, it often is settled for “cents on the dollar,” said Kevin Jeffery, a deputy special agent in charge with Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Los Angeles.
The agency still has a work-site enforcement division, said Washington spokesman Manny Van Pelt, but the primary focus has shifted to protecting national security at potential terrorist targets such as airports, power plants and naval shipyards.
In the last year, agents have arrested unauthorized workers -- not employers -- at a Florida nuclear plant, a Louisiana oil refinery, a Boeing military helicopter plant in Arizona and, this month, a Texas company that provides contract workers to power plants and petrochemical refineries.
The immigration agency also targets businesses suspected of involvement in smuggling or exploiting workers, Van Pelt said. For example, five Chinese restaurant owners in New Mexico pleaded guilty in March after being accused of money laundering and hiring and harboring illegal immigrants to work for substandard wages.
“Do we go down to the rib shack on the corner and arrest the people working [there]?” Van Pelt asked. “Or do we go after the criminal enterprise and system vulnerabilities that essentially bring these people here?”
In the Los Angeles area, there are about 400 ICE agents to investigate cases involving narcotics, gangs, port security, criminal immigrants, computer crimes, smuggling and customs violations. They cover seven Southern California counties and part of Nevada.
The last time an employer targeted by the work-site division faced criminal charges here was in 2002, authorities said, when a Pasadena dress shop owner received probation after luring, then imprisoning, an illegal immigrant worker.
“How thin can you stretch roughly 400 employees with all our responsibilities?” Jeffery asked. “Everything is done on a priority basis. That’s why the focus may not be the dry cleaners, but rather the power plants.”
Any tips that do not involve critical infrastructure, he added, are “put in a file cabinet and filed.”
Meanwhile, employers are hiring illegal immigrants with impunity, said T.J. Bonner, president of the National Border Patrol Council, a union that represents rank-and-file agents. He argues that a get-tough policy against employers would not only help with the crackdown on terrorism and smuggling, but also reduce the overall flow of illegal immigrants across the border.
“If no one will hire you when you get here,” Bonner said, “you are not going to waste your time making the journey.”
Work is what spurred Jose Lopez to pay a “coyote” $1,500 to bring him across the border three years ago. Later, he bought fake documents for $50 and took them to Garcia at the carwash. Each week, he sends money home to his wife and two children in Mexico City.
The journey into the U.S. was dangerous, but Lopez saw it as his only option. “For me, it was a necessity,” he said, adding that he makes more here than he did as a chauffeur back home.
His boss, Garcia, said that he wouldn’t object to more enforcement but that it should be across the board, targeting even upscale businesses.
“Let’s attack the best restaurants in Los Angeles and see who is in the back washing dishes,” he said.
Immigrant rights groups say most work-site crackdowns hurt immigrants more than their bosses.
“Invariably, the employers are the ones who get off scot-free and the workers the ones who end up getting deported,” said Marielena Hincapie, director of programs for the Los Angeles office of the National Immigration Law Center.
Some advocates of a tighter border policy say employers, as well as immigrants, ought to be forced to abide by the law.
The Minutemen, who conducted citizen patrols of the Mexican border in Arizona last month, have announced a project called “White Collar” that would target offending employers. Leader Jim Gilchrist said he planned to recruit attorneys, law enforcement officers and former Internal Revenue Service employees to investigate businesses and present the evidence to the government.
“If you really want to stop them, you go in with federal officers and you handcuff the management,” he said. “Just one case will send a message nationwide.”
For nearly two decades, laws have prohibited employers from hiring immigrants not authorized to work in the U.S. To enforce the laws, federal investigators have conducted work-site raids and audits of company records.
One of the most recent large cases was against Wal-Mart Stores Inc., which agreed this year to pay the government $11 million to settle charges that it used hundreds of illegal immigrants as janitors.
The case “put big business on notice that they will be held accountable,” Van Pelt said.
Despite such occasional high-profile cases, authorities and activists have deemed the laws largely ineffective and said they have not deterred either employees or employers. Cases usually result in fines -- most of them less than $24,000 last year -- rather than prison sentences.
The cases are also difficult to prosecute, because they require proof that employers know that they are hiring undocumented labor. In one of the biggest blows to the immigration agency, a federal jury in 2003 acquitted Tyson Foods of smuggling illegal immigrants in to work at its processing plants. The jurors determined that there was no proof of wrongdoing by the employers.
Meanwhile, extensive networks of counterfeiters have developed to provide fraudulent papers for illegal workers.
“We did all this work-site enforcement, and what was the legacy?” asked ICE spokeswoman Virginia Kice. “Unfortunately, we saw this huge upsurge of document counterfeiting and people getting jobs with counterfeit documents.”
In Los Angeles, it is easy -- and cheap -- to get fake documents. Alongside MacArthur Park west of downtown, men stand alone or in pairs, whispering to passersby, “IDs? IDs?” Some keep stashes hidden beneath awnings. Others produce them in photo shops. For about $60, investigators say, an illegal immigrant can buy a fake green card, a Social Security card and an identification card.
Nearby, at the Super Electronic shop on Alvarado Street, owner Fred Adibi said he carefully checked the papers of anyone he hired.
But he knows he cannot guarantee their authenticity. “It is hard, because they are selling fake ones on the street,” Adibi said. “I just look to see if it looks real.”
Jesus Alcantra, owner of Prestige Auto Body in Los Angeles, said the illegal immigrants just want employment, so he occasionally hires them without any documents.
“They want to work to take care of themselves,” Alcantra said. “If you deny them work, you are hurting them more.”
Among employers, calls for enforcing sanctions and establishing more stringent fines are unpopular, said Tamar Jacoby, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a public policy think tank. Politicians are realizing that they won’t garner support for employer sanctions without providing an alternative source of labor, Jacoby said.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) proposed a bill this month that would establish strict new penalties for businesses that hired illegal employees. It also would establish a temporary worker program.
President Bush has said his proposed guest worker program would also include tough penalties for errant employers.
“There are entire industries in this country who depend on immigrant labor,” Jacoby said. “Workplace enforcement would shut down agriculture in this country. It would shut down food processing. It would shut down a lot of hotels and restaurants. That’s not practical for anyone.”