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U.S. to raise fines for hiring illegal workers

Times Staff Writer

The Bush administration said Friday that it plans to significantly raise fines for employers who knowingly hire illegal immigrants, part of a broader effort that includes improved border security after Congress failed to pass immigration-related legislation in 2007.

The hikes in employer fines will be the first since 1999. The new policy is the latest aimed at the most sensitive pressure point in illegal immigration: businesses that employ the workers.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has intensified raids on rogue companies in the last three years, prosecuting executives on criminal charges and arresting workers, who often use valid Social Security numbers, for identity theft.

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff offered examples Friday of his agency’s heightened focus on company executives, including the human resources director of a Missouri poultry plant now facing a 10-year prison sentence for hiring illegal immigrants. Chertoff also pointed to the owner of an Indiana construction firm sentenced to 18 months in jail and forced to forfeit $1.4 million.

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“These are the kinds of cases that have high impact on those who would hire and employ undocumented illegal aliens,” he said. He described the increase in penalties as “part of our effort to continue to make it less appealing for people to break the law” and “a way to keep that pressure up.”

Chertoff said that the administration was acting to fill a vacuum left by Congress and that remedies were needed to deal with illegal immigration and to improve the system through which people enter the U.S. legally.

“Congress didn’t give us comprehensive immigration reform, so we’re going to do what we can with the tools that we have, and frankly we’ve made progress and done quite a bit,” he said.

In an hourlong briefing, Chertoff and Atty. Gen. Michael B. Mukasey discussed the escalating violence along the southwest border prompted by “alien smugglers, drug smugglers, gun smugglers and the like,” and called on Congress to provide more funding to combat it. Mukasey called border enforcement needs “massive.”

“Given the magnitude of the threat, it is imperative that new resources be added,” he said.

The increased fines will take effect March 27. The minimum penalty will increase by $100, to $375. The maximum fine for a first-time offender will jump $1,000, to $3,200. And the maximum fine for repeated violations will rise $5,000, to $16,000. Fines are assessed on a per-person basis, so an employer with 10 illegal immigrants on staff would pay 10 fines.

The two officials said the administration was adding border agents and prosecutors, as well as extending fencing and vehicle barriers.

Chertoff also announced administration approval of an experimental “virtual fence” that includes cameras powerful enough to spot border crossers 10 miles away. It also can determine whether they are carrying weapons or water jugs.

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Known as “Project 28" for the 28 miles in Arizona scanned by the technology, it has been fiercely criticized in Congress for its rocky progress. Homeland Security officials held back some payments to its contractor, Boeing, last year because the system did not function properly. But the agency had already paid $15 million of the $20 million contract, and work continued on it.

Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, expressed skepticism about the project, terming it “a system that has been described as providing at best ‘marginal’ functionality.”

However, spokeswoman Laura Keehner said the agency would begin expanding the virtual fence as early as this summer and was considering areas in Arizona and Texas. There are no plans yet to use the system in California.

Chertoff watched the system during a Feb. 7 trip to the Arizona border and praised it Friday. “I have spoken directly to the Border Patrol agents who are involved in operating that system over the last few months and who have seen it produce actual results in terms of identifying and allowing the apprehension of people who are illegally smuggling across the border,” he said.

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Chertoff added that his agency had built 302.4 miles of physical fencing and vehicle barriers as of Thursday, and was on schedule to finish 670 miles by the end of 2008.

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nicole.gaouette@latimes.com


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