Job raids cause alarm

As scrutiny increases, businesses hiring immigrants worry

May 12, 2007|By Kelly Brewington | Kelly Brewington,Sun reporter

After a recent series of federal immigration raids in Maryland and around the nation, employers are growing increasingly concerned about stepped-up workplace enforcement, a crucial element in the debate over immigration reform set to roil Congress in coming weeks.

First came Wal-Mart's record $11 million fine in 2005 to settle federal allegations that the world's largest retailer had used illegal immigrants to clean its stores.

Next, the raids last year in which federal agents arrested thousands of employees at workplaces including meatpacking plants and a popular chain of Baltimore sushi restaurants, the principal owner of which received a prison sentence.

While advocates for the nation's estimated 12 million illegal immigrants decry the raids, business leaders are quietly worrying about enforcement and complaining that even well-meaning employers can be duped into hiring illegal workers who present fraudulent documents.

Other observers say employers actively seek an illegal work force, chalking up the slim chance of getting caught as the cost of doing business.

For every headline highlighting the most recent raid, thousands of employers continue to hire illegal immigrants undetected by authorities, they say.

Penalizing employers for immigration violations is a recent phenomenon. In 1986, immigration reform legislation criminalized the hiring of illegal immigrants, but criminal charges were virtually unheard of until 2003, when the Department of Homeland Security was created with an arm dedicated to immigration enforcement.

"There was a financial benefit in just sort of eating a fine every now and then," said Pat Reilly, a spokeswoman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. "It was the cost of doing business, and on you went,"

Initially, in 2003, agents devoted 4 percent of their time to work site enforcement, according to a 2005 Government Accountability Office report.

Arrests increase

ICE officials say they have intensified efforts. In 2002, the agency made 25 criminal arrests. That increased to 718 last year, and 527 arrests have been made this year.

Federal agents have conducted at least a dozen major raids in the past year, filing criminal charges in some and investigating whether employers told workers where to obtain phony "green cards" and other documents to demonstrate legal work status.

The raids jolted Baltimore in March, when agents arrested 69 employees of Jones Industrial Network, a staffing company providing workers to sportswear maker Under Armour Inc. and other local businesses. In addition, ICE agents seized $630,000 from Jones' bank accounts.

The investigation is continuing, and no criminal charges had been filed, the ICE said. The company's owner declined to comment for this article.

Reilly said the raids demonstrate that the days of wink-and-nod hiring are over.

"Now that some of these employers have to face lengthy legal process and could face criminal time, these employers are paying a lot more attention to who is working for them," she said.

Some local business owners are concerned.

"We try to do the best we can to keep track of documentation, but we have that worry that the government will start cracking down," said a owner of a Baltimore company that supplies construction employees, factory workers and hotel cleaning staff to area businesses.

The business owner, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of being raided, estimated that about 80 percent of his 140 employees are not authorized to work in the United States. He considers his services vital for the nation's economy.

"The employers don't want to use undocumented workers, but they know they have to," he said. "The landscapers, construction companies, they tell me, `If I don't have your people, I am out of business."

Even businesses that employ skilled immigrants, who tend to be legal, said they are anxious about increased scrutiny.

Sanjeev Dahiwadkar, who owns a Baltimore software development company, said he hired a local immigration attorney to be certain he is following the rules.

"Even though I am hiring legal employees, I'm constantly asking myself, `Have I missed something?' I have no intention of breaking the law," he said. "You would think it's only limited to these low-skilled workers, but we worry, too."

Sheela Murthy, the immigration attorney Dahiwadkar hired, said employers must tread lightly when asking for documentation, being careful not to discriminate.

"An employer can't say, `Thank you for your driver's license, but give me a birth certificate because you look foreign,'" she said. "So employers have to be very careful they do not go overboard, or else they are asking for a lawsuit."

In addition to a guest worker program, a border security crackdown and a possible path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, a House proposal would expand a national voluntary employment verification system.

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