Agents from the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) raided a Columbia direct-mail company early yesterday morning and arrested 12 alleged illegal aliens from Central America working the night shift.
The agents now are turning their attention to the facility, a mail processing plant for ADVO, Inc. on Gerwig Lane in the Guilford Industrial Center. The agents seized personnel and payroll records during the 4: 30 a.m. raid.
"Our focus is on the employer," said Benedict J. Ferro, district director of the Baltimore INS office.
But officials at ADVO -- of one of the largest direct mail companies in the nation -- said the company did not knowingly hire illegal immigrant workers -- who the company said had provided appropriate paperwork. "The documentation appeared legitimate," Thomas Van Berkem, ADVO's senior vice president of human resources, said in a prepared statement from the company's headquarters in Windsor, Conn.
To which, Mr. Ferro of the INS said: "We don't require employers to be experts in immigration documents. But we do expect the documents to pass the laugh test."
In an apparently unrelated incident Monday, INS agents arrested 12 immigrants who were removing asbestos from the Fallon Federal Building in downtown Baltimore.
As for the Columbia incident yesterday, Mr. Ferro confirmed that INS officials had previously arrested an illegal immigrant who worked at ADVO.
The worker was one of eight illegal immigrants found riding in a van and arrested last month, according to a source close to the investigation and two ADVO employees. All three spoke on the condition that they not be identified.
In yesterday morning's raid, 16 bilingual agents walked through an open door into the company warehouse, a facility about the size of two football fields, Mr. Ferro said.
They met no resistance and no workers tried to run away. Most of the machinery didn't get turned off," Mr. Ferro said.
The agents questioned about 40 night-shift workers as well as administrators who were called in as a result of the raid, Mr. Ferro added.
Under questioning, 12 immigrant workers said they had entered the U.S. illegally, Mr. Ferro said. They also said they were were told there was work in Maryland and were aided in traveling to the state, he said.
Of the 12, five are from El Salvador, four are from Honduras, two are from Guatemala and one is from Nicaragua, the INS said.
The INS said that ADVO paid the immigrants approximately $7 an hour.
In high-income Howard County, ADVO has long struggled to maintain a work force, suffering from a location with no bus service, said a company worker, speaking on condition of anonymity.
He estimated that the percentage of immigrants -- legal or illegal -- working at the plant has increased about 30 percent in the last five years. They now make up more than half the ADVO work force, he said.
"Nobody knows whether they are illegal or not. They certainly aren't going to tell you," he said. "I don't know how diligently [management] checks them."
Company officials said they do their best to check each applicant. "However, no company can detect all incidents of falsified documentation, if indeed such misrepresentation is the case here," Mr. Van Berkem stated.
Mr. Ferro said he did not know where the workers were living or how long they had worked at ADVO. He said he will seek $5,000 bonds for each immigrant.
ADVO is not the only Howard firm that has had difficulty filling low- and moderate-wage jobs. Business leaders gathered last week to discuss ways to improve transportation for commuters and, particularly, bring more Baltimore area laborers into Howard.
Pub Date: 3/28/96