More than half of the Carolinas’ estimated 330,000 illegal immigrants hold jobs—even though it’s against the law for employers to knowingly hire them.
So how many employers have been fined?
In the Carolinas, no employer has been fined in at least two years. And across the country, only three “notices of intent” to fine employers were filed by immigration officials in 2004—though an estimated 7 million undocumented workers take home regular paychecks.
“That’s ridiculous. They’ve absolutely failed in their mission to fine businesses,” says Hal Weatherman, chief of staff to U.S. Rep. Sue Myrick, a Charlotte Republican.
Last week Myrick called for raising fines from $250 to $10,000 per illegal worker, and giving local law agencies a cut as an incentive to crack down.
Immigrations and Customs Enforcement says it targets egregious violators as well as airports, chemical plants and other security risks.
Last week, for example, 40 undocumented immigrants who worked for contractors at the Camp Lejeune Marine base were arrested. Last month, 48 illegal immigrants employed by contractors at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in Goldsboro were detained. No employer sanctions have been announced.
“Let’s see, do we go check out the nuclear power plant or do we go check out the fast-food restaurant down the street?” says ICE spokesman Tim Counts. “We don’t use employer fines as a measure of success.”
But critics say enforcement is failing.
“ICE today is doing less work-site enforcement than even the Clinton administration did, and that is quite a dubious distinction,” Rep. John Hostettler, R-Ind., told a House immigration panel in June.
A 1986 federal law makes employers establish an employee’s identity and work authorization. For immigrants, that usually means a visa or so-called green card, a proof of legal residence. Though investigators say forged and counterfeit documents are common, employers are not expected to act as immigration officers. And some immigration lawyers say too many questions about an applicant’s nationality can get an employer slapped with a discrimination complaint.
“We are in very much of a Catch-22,” says Allen Gray, a human resource officer with Carolinas Associated General Contractors, a group that represents more than 3,000 contractors. “Federal regulations say you have to accept certain types of ID. . . No one wants to hire an illegal alien.”
Carolinas AGC President Stephen Gennett says, “The fallacy is the assumption that we know they’re illegal. . . (An employer) can’t tell when he’s been given forged documents. As far as we’re concerned, he’s put his best effort forth to make sure the man or the woman is properly in this country.”