Posted on August 27, 2004

Employer Fines Plummet For Hiring Illegals

William Finn Bennett, North County Times, Aug. 21

Since 1998, the federal government has fined just four companies in San Diego County and none in Riverside County for hiring illegal immigrants — and those statistics seem to paint a very different picture than the one recently described by Undersecretary of Homeland Security Asa Hutchinson.

At an Aug. 13 town-hall meeting on illegal immigration held in Temecula, Hutchinson touted the more than 500 investigations of companies the federal government has recently conducted nationwide. Of those, 179 were in Southern California, he said.

And while a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokesman said last week that the number of investigations has increased since 2001, he acknowledged the number of fines has dropped dramatically in that same period.

Numbers plummet

Federal records show that in 2001, 141 companies across the country were hit with fines, 15 of them in California. By 2002, those numbers had dropped to 73 and one, respectively. In 2003, 15 companies in the United States were fined — none of which were in California. And as of May, just one company — in Maryland — was fined this year.

In Southern California, the numbers are even smaller. Thirteen companies received fines for violations of immigration laws in 2001 — and only two since.

In this region, not a single Riverside County company has been fined in the past decade. In San Diego County, just four companies have received fines since 1998 — one each in Chula Vista, San Diego, Santee and Vista.

A member of the recently formed Temecula-based Citizens Alliance for a Strong America said last week that when it comes to employer sanctions, the federal government’s performance is “disgraceful.”

“Somebody needs to get fired for that record,” said Freeman Sawyer.

With that kind of impunity, Sawyer said, many employers or would-be employers are taking advantage of the situation.

Almost every city in the region has at least one designated street corner where day laborers gather in the morning waiting for offers of work. Many of the workers who were interviewed for prior articles have admitted to being in the country illegally, saying they have come here to work so they can support their families back home.

“Since the possibility of being put in jail or fined is so remote, (the employers are) not worried about it,” he said.

“What are the incentives for obeying the law when it’s so profitable not to obey?” he asked, adding that employers who hire illegals pay rock-bottom wages and no benefits, and therefore realize larger profits.

Undersecretary Hutchinson could not be reached for comment last week. However, Russ Knocke, Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Washington spokesman, said Friday that workplace enforcement of immigration laws is ongoing.

The number of investigations the department has conducted of businesses nationwide has increased from 1,595 in 2001 to 2,194 in 2003, Knocke said.

He added that the low number of fines being issued is somewhat misleading, since those penalties are typically issued in only the most egregious cases. Many times, instead of issuing a fine, the government works with the employers, teaching them how to avoid hiring illegal immigrants, he said. In other cases, he added, government officials will negotiate the terms of the sanction with the company, and those deals are not made public.

Tough choices

Asked why the number of companies fined has dropped so dramatically in the past few years, Knocke cited limited resources and a shift in focus to protecting the country against terrorism since 9-11.

“I think (the numbers) show our reprioritization,” he said.

Busting employers who hire undocumented immigrants for jobs where national security is not at stake comes much further down the list of priorities, he added.

“Contrast a restaurant versus an airport,” said Knocke said. “We have limited resources to carry out our mandate — we have to make choices.”

He said the government’s focus on national security risks is paying significant dividends. In 2002, Homeland Security — Immigration and Customs is part of that agency — started Operation Tarmac to target employers and unauthorized workers at airports across the county.

Since then, more than 5,800 businesses at 196 airports have been audited, Knocke said. Those audits have resulted in the arrest of 1,058 unauthorized alien workers, and the government has obtained 775 criminal indictments.

With an estimated 8 million illegal immigrants living in the United States, the federal government has its hands full, Knocke said. He said his department doesn’t have agents exclusively dedicated to monitoring “traditional” workplaces such as hotels, restaurants or farms. Instead, agents are assigned to work where the needs are greatest. And, for now, Knocke said, the government’s No. 1 priority is monitoring sites such as airports, and energy and chemical plants.

Enforcement vacuum creates draw

The decline in arrests of employers of illegal immigrants, said Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Temecula, and host of the Aug. 13 town-hall meeting, is due to an almost complete abandonment of interior enforcement in the two decades following an amnesty in 1986.

In addition to resuming sweeps by the Border Patrol, Issa said Immigration Customs Enforcement officers must pursue employers who hire illegal immigrants. Prosecution should be relatively easy, he said, because many such employers already have committed a felony by paying workers in cash under the table — a violation of the Internal Revenue code.

And those in the business of smuggling illegal immigrants across the border — or “coyotes,” as they are sometimes commonly called — should be vigorously prosecuted, he said, though they frequently are not because they are not viewed as a danger to the community.

Issa pointed to a letter sent to Attorney General John Ashcroft on July 30 by 14 members of the California Republican delegation. In it, the delegation expressed concern over the lack of prosecution of alien smugglers and called for a zero-tolerance policy. The letter pointed to the case of the arrest by the Temecula Border Patrol of a suspected coyote with what it called a long, documented record that includes multiple deportation proceedings and numerous arrests. The Justice Department, according to the letter, declined to prosecute and the suspect was released.

“The one thing I know for sure is the Border Patrol proved it is effective in arresting people who are not in this country legally,” said Issa, “but we need to have effective employer enforcement, otherwise they create a draw” for illegal workers.

Professor blames middle class

A UC Riverside professor of ethnic studies said last week that he believes the federal government sits on its hands, turning a blind eye to those employers who hire illegal immigrants, because the country needs those workers.

“This country has an insatiable hunger for cheap labor,” he said.

If the government started really cracking down on companies that hire those workers, “it would result in higher prices and higher prices create bigger problems — it (would) open up an economic Pandora’s box,” said Professor Armando Navarro, who also serves as coordinator for the National Alliance for Human Rights, an immigrant advocacy group.

He blasted America’s middle class for being hypocritical and blamed the immigration problem on “those who have nice homes in Temecula and have their lawns cut by illegal immigrants and patronize restaurants where illegals are employed.”

Though Sawyer, with Citizens Alliance for a Strong America, is on the opposite end of the political spectrum from Navarro, he appears to agree that America’s middle class shares the blame. Referring to the 141 fines that Immigration and Customs Enforcement issued in 2001, he said: “I would bet there are more housewives than that in Temecula (with) illegal maids and nannies.”

Temecula at center of controversy

A firestorm of controversy over illegal immigration recently erupted after allegations surfaced that under pressure from top administrators, agents at the U.S. Border Patrol’s Temecula station had ended a series of sweeps in Inland cities stretching from Escondido to Ontario.

The sweeps of Latino communities began in early June and, in a few short weeks, agents had apprehended 492 people. Immigrant rights groups immediately began pressuring Washington legislators to end the operation. While federal officials have said there was no edict to stop the sweeps, several Border Patrol union officials have stated that the roving patrols were halted.

In response, local supporters of the Border Patrol’s efforts howled in protest. They held a series of rallies in support of the agents’ efforts in the following weeks, resulting in Undersecretary Hutchinson’s visit to last week’s town-hall meeting in Temecula.

Sawyer said that during the meeting — which drew more than 1,000 people — Hutchinson was peppered with questions about why the government was not coming down harder on employers of illegal immigrants.

“Asa talked to us about how they are improving, going to work sites and enforcing immigration laws,” Sawyer said. “He misspoke — the federal government is doing less rather than more.”

Bush’s performance

Sawyer said he blames President George Bush and his administration for the continuing flood of undocumented workers who cross the border.

A longtime Republican activist, Sawyer said his work for Republican presidential candidates dates back to the 1960s and the Barry Goldwater campaign.

“But I’ll be damned if I am going to work for the Bush campaign until he changes his current immigration policies and starts enforcing immigration law,” Freeman said.

An expert in immigration at USC defended Bush’s record.

“To his credit, Bush has tried to open the door to reform, whether through a ‘Bracero’ program or amnesty,” said Professor Pierrette Hondagneu-Sotelo. “His efforts haven’t gone anywhere with Democrats or Republicans largely because this is seen as too politically volatile on both sides.”