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Uncommon Weapon in Immigration Fight

Times Staff Writer

Like many communities, this fast-growing agricultural pocket of southwestern Idaho is paying a high tab for illegal immigration.

When an illegal worker gave birth to a premature baby, Canyon County wound up with a $174,000 hospital bill. County officials say the jail spent thousands to house another illegal immigrant at a motel, after his tuberculosis threatened to infect fellow inmates.

But where others have merely chafed at paying costs like these, officials in Canyon County are trying a novel approach: The all-Republican county commission has filed a racketeering lawsuit against four big businesses in the area, charging that they deliberately hire illegal workers.

The spectacle of the county’s political leaders taking its businesses to court has touched off a bitter local debate. But it has also put Canyon County, a largely Republican community of about 160,000, at the forefront of an emerging national effort to use racketeering laws to crack down on illegal immigration by seeking damages from employers.

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So far, a handful of workers and businesses around the country have filed civil lawsuits under the RICO statute, known formally as the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act. The targets are companies that, the lawsuits say, have unfairly used illegal labor to cut wage levels or prices.

In Washington state, workers who filed a civil suit against their employer, a fruit company, won a $1.3-million settlement in January. The Supreme Court has agreed to hear another of the immigration-related RICO cases this year.

But Canyon County is the first municipality to bring a suit of this kind against employers. The lawsuit was dismissed by a federal district court but has been appealed to the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. If it succeeds, it could touch off similar actions, says the county’s lawyer, Howard Foster.

“There are other county officials who are looking at this, who have called me,” said Foster, an advocate of tougher immigration controls, who is behind most of the other RICO lawsuits.

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In Canyon County, where working farms sit cheek-by-jowl against new residential developments, locals have traditionally welcomed the Latino immigrants who moved in seasonally to take agricultural jobs. But since the early 1990s, many immigrants have been finding year-round work in other industries, leaving some long-time residents struggling to adjust to permanent neighbors with different customs.

Even though the Senate aims to pass immigration legislation by early next month and the House has already produced an enforcement-only bill, people here are angry that the federal government has not done more to stop the influx.

Yet even some who want an immigration crackdown say the county commissioners stepped over the line when they went to court against two local seed companies, a meatpacker and large cheese-making operation.

“I think they should shut down the border and end services” to illegal immigrants, said Joel Bettancourt, a grocery store owner in Caldwell, Idaho, who described himself as Mexican American. “But to do the RICO Act -- that’s too far. Who knows who they’re going to go after next?”

But some people say they are so fed up with changes they attribute to immigration -- increasing gang violence, competition for manual labor jobs, and more services devoted to immigrants -- that they hope the lawsuit succeeds. Letters to the local paper appear to be running slightly in favor of the commissioners.

“We have young guys, white and Hispanic, in here legally who want [construction] jobs -- but companies give them to people who they can pay half the going wage,” said Joyce Yelm, who grew up pulling beets alongside migrant farm laborers but has hardened after watching her old neighborhood become, in her words, a largely Spanish-speaking “shanty town.”

Much of the controversy also centers on the man who has been the primary force behind the lawsuit -- County Commissioner Robert Vasquez. A former radio commentator and veteran who was wounded in Vietnam, Vasquez, 57, has long been a provocative force in the immigration debate.

The grandson of legal Mexican immigrants, Vasquez was elected to the county commission in 2002 and soon after sent the Mexican government a $2-million bill for services he said his county had provided to illegal immigrants. He has asked Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne to declare the county a disaster area because of illegal immigration and to grant it emergency funds. And he has proposed unsuccessful state legislation that would have denied welfare payments to illegal immigrants.

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“For every dollar for an illegal alien, it’s one less dollar in my constituents’ pocket,” said Vasquez, who is running for Congress. In 2005, Vasquez heard about Howard Foster.

The Chicago lawyer has largely spearheaded the use of RICO statutes as a tool against illegal immigration. A member of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a group that advocates immigration restrictions, Foster took note when Congress toughened immigration laws in 1996 and amended the RICO statute to make knowing employment of illegal immigrants a violation.

“For the first time ever in the country, it became possible for a person to bring a private lawsuit against an employer ... for violating immigration laws,” Foster said.

RICO targets a person or group for crimes committed systematically as part of an ongoing enterprise. It carries tough criminal penalties. Its civil component, which the immigration suits fall under, allows plaintiffs to sue for triple damages.

In four RICO suits since 1998, Foster has alleged that companies have knowingly and repeatedly conspired with labor contractors over a period of years to hire illegal immigrants.

His first case, in 2000, was on behalf of a Connecticut cleaning company that sued a competitor for hiring illegal immigrants. That case settled.

His other cases have been on behalf of employees, alleging that companies have kept wages low by hiring illegal workers. In 2001, he sued the Washington state fruit company, leading to the $1.3-million settlement. A suit he brought against Tyson Foods Inc. is scheduled to be heard next year.

In 2004, he filed suit against Mohawk Industries Inc., based in Calhoun, Ga., the country’s second largest carpet maker. That case will be heard by the Supreme Court in April, potentially shaping the use of RICO as a weapon in the immigration wars.

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Other lawyers besides Foster are also trying the RICO strategy. In 2003, the RICO statute was used to file suit on behalf of contract janitors against Wal-Mart Stores Inc. A court dismissed the RICO portion of the case, but that is now under appeal.

In Canyon County, after speaking with Foster, Vasquez and the two other commissioners filed suit in July, charging that Syngenta Seeds Inc., a Swiss company, and Harris Moran Seed Co., of Hayward, Calif., knowingly hired illegal immigrants for many years through a local farm labor contractor, Roberto Corral. The suit alleges that the seed companies knew most of Corral’s recruits were illegal immigrants, but they used the contractor as a “front company” to distance themselves from their criminal activity.

“Many of these illegal immigrants have committed crimes resulting in criminal justice expenses to the county. Others have become public charges by seeking medical services, which the county has had to pay,” the lawsuit states. It does not detail what those costs have been.

The lawsuit made similar claims against meatpacker Swift & Co., of Greeley, Colo., and Sorrento Lactalis Inc., a cheese company based in Buffalo, N.Y.

In December, a federal district court in Idaho dismissed the case on a legal principle that prohibits municipalities from suing to recoup the cost of services they provide in the normal course of business. The case is now before the 9th Circuit, where Foster successfully settled his case against the Washington fruit company.

A Syngenta representative dismissed the lawsuit as “baseless.” At Swift, spokesman Sean McHugh said: “We believe the suit is without merit.” Spokesmen for Sorrento Lactalis and Harris Moran declined to comment, citing the ongoing lawsuit.

Thomas G. Walker, a lawyer for the labor contractor Corral, said his client “didn’t do anything wrong. He fulfills all of the requirements under the immigration statutes.”

About a month after the suit was filed, Swift told its 408 Canyon County workers that the local facility, in operation since 1916, would be shut down. It said the closure was due to restrictions on Canadian beef imports. But many residents see the lawsuit as the last straw for the company.

“It’s a horrible lawsuit,” said Maurice Clements, a former state legislator and farmer. “Swift closed their plant, the other three companies -- God, I hope they don’t leave. They provide a huge market for farmers in this area.”

The companies named in the suit generate almost $700,000 a year in tax revenue for the county and pay millions to local growers, according to the Canyon County Farm Bureau.

Syngenta has been in Idaho for 90 years and produces one-third of the world’s sweet corn seed there. “Those four companies are a huge part of our agricultural base and therefore our economic base,” said Terri Ottens, the farm bureau’s executive secretary.

The commissioners counter by citing the costs of illegal immigration. Idaho law mandates that the county cover hospital fees for anyone who has lived there for more than six months and is unable to pay. That leads to bills such as the $1.25-million tab to care for an illegal immigrant who was left a quadriplegic because of a car accident.

Vasquez said also that a recently completed welfare analysis showed that from 1999 to 2005, claims by illegal immigrants totaled $1.2 million.

But Ottens, of the farm bureau, is skeptical of the commissioners’ claims. Her group says much of the cost of jailing illegal immigrants is often reimbursed by the state.

“We found the amount of money the county pays out is minimal compared to what these companies [being sued] pay in property tax,” Ottens said.

Yet many residents are deeply grateful to Vasquez for taking a stand against illegal immigration.

Construction company owner Brad Tracy, who says he refuses to hire under the table, said it was almost impossible to compete against businesses that use illegal labor.

“I’ve got to pay workman’s comp, health insurance, fuel costs, property tax,” he said. “Then I’ve got to compete against people who say they have no employees, just contract labor at $10 an hour.”

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Canyon County snapshot

The issue of how to deal with illegal immigrants is taking an unusual path in Canyon County, Idaho, a predominantly white area with a substantial Latino population:

Canyon County, Idaho

Population: 160,540

Growth, 2000-05: 22%

--

Race/Ethnicity

White: 76%

Latino: 20%

All other: 4%

--

Age

*--* 20 and younger 35% 21-49 41 50-64 14 65 and older 10

*--*

Median age: 31

--

Education

*--* Less than high school 23% High school graduate 30 Some college/ associate degree 31 College graduate 16

*--*

Median household income: $40,338

--

Occupation

Blue collar: 31%

White collar: 50

Service/farm: 19

--

Income by household*

White: $36,772

Black: 46,964

Asian: 37,273

Latino: 30,800

--

Place of birth**

United States: 91%

Foreign: 9

--

Foreign-born home**

Latin America: 83%

Europe: 8%

Asia: 6%

All other: 3%

Note: Unless otherwise stated, all data are 2005 estimates

* Median by race/ethnicity of head of household, 2000

** 2000 census data

Sources: U.S. Census Bureau, Claritas Inc.


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