Stillmore, Ga.—Trailer parks lie abandoned. The poultry plant is scrambling to replace more than half its workforce. Business has dried up at stores where Mexican laborers once lined up to buy food, beer and cigarettes just weeks ago.
This Georgia community of about 1,000 people has become little more than a ghost town since Sept. 1, when federal agents began rounding up illegal immigrants.
The sweep has had the unintended effect of underscoring just how vital the illegal immigrants were to the local economy.
More than 120 illegal immigrants have been loaded onto buses bound for immigration courts in Atlanta, 189 miles away. Hundreds more fled Emanuel County. Residents say many scattered into the woods, camping out for days. They worry some are still hiding without food.
At least one child, born a U.S. citizen, was left behind by his Mexican parents: 2-year-old Victor Perez-Lopez. The toddler’s mother, Rosa Lopez, left her son with Julie Rodas when the raids began and fled the state. The boy’s father was deported to Mexico.
“When his momma brought this baby here and left him, tears rolled down her face and mine too,” Rodas said. “She said, ‘Julie, will you please take care of my son because I have no money, no way of paying rent?’“
For five years, Rodas has made a living watching the children of workers at the Crider Inc. poultry plant, where the vast majority of employees were Mexican immigrants. She learned Spanish, and considered many immigrants among her closest friends. She threw parties for their children’s birthdays and baptisms.
The only child in Rodas’ care now, besides her own son, is Victor. Her customers have disappeared.
Federal agents also swarmed into a trailer park operated by David Robinson. Illegal immigrants were handcuffed and taken away. Almost none have returned. Robinson bought an American flag and posted it by the pond out front—upside down, in protest.
“These people might not have American rights, but they’ve damn sure got human rights,” Robinson said. “There ain’t no reason to treat them like animals.”
The raids came during a fall election season in which immigration is a top issue.
Last month, the federal government reported that Georgia had the fastest-growing illegal immigrant population in the country. The number more than doubled from an estimated 220,000 in 2000 to 470,000 last year. This year, state lawmakers passed some of the nation’s toughest measures targeting illegal immigrants, and Republican Gov. Sonny Perdue last week vowed a statewide crackdown on document fraud.
Other than the Crider plant, there isn’t much in Stillmore. Four small stores, a coin laundry and a Baptist church share downtown with City Hall, the fire department and a post office. “We’re poor but proud,” Mayor Marilyn Slater said, as if that is the town motto.
The 2000 Census put Stillmore’s population at 730, but Slater said uncounted immigrants probably made it more than 1,000. Not anymore, with so many homes abandoned and the streets practically empty.
“This reminds me of what I read about Nazi Germany, the Gestapo coming in and yanking people up,” Slater said.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokesman Marc Raimondi would not discuss details of the raids. “We can’t lose sight of the fact that these people were here illegally,” Raimondi said.
At Sucursal Salina No. 2, a store stocked with Mexican fruit sodas and snacks, cashier Alberto Gonzalez said Wednesday that the owner may shutter the place. By midday, Gonzalez has had only six customers. Normally, he would see 100.
The B&S convenience store, owned by Keith and Regan Slater, the mayor’s son and grandson, has lost about 80 percent of its business.
“These people come over here to make a better way of life, not to blow us up,” complained Keith Slater, who keeps a portrait of Ronald Reagan on the wall. “I’m a die-hard Republican, but I think we missed the boat with this one.”
The arrests started at the plant Sept. 1. Over the Labor Day weekend, agents with guns and bulletproof vests converged on workers’ homes after getting the addresses from Crider’s files.
Federal immigration officials recently arrested 55 undocumented workers in a raid in Tallahassee. The workers from Mexico, Honduras and Guatemala, were employed by General Building Maintenance, which had a contract to clean state government buildings. They face deportation.
Federal officials declined to say how U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) found out about the illegal immigrants, or whether any company executives would face criminal charges.
Some South Florida labor and employment lawyers warn that such federal raids signal that companies here must take serious steps to ensure that they are not employing undocumented workers—either directly or through subcontractors. That could have a major impact on Florida’s economy, which quietly has depended on illegal workers.
Many employers in the state’s large agricultural, tourism and construction industries are nervous. And so are immigrant workers.
Congress has hit an impasse in its debate over whether and how to crack down on illegal immigration. But ICE and its parent agency, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, have decided not to wait for new legislation. Relying on existing law, ICE has engaged in high-profile raids of worksites employing undocumented workers.
ICE also has proposed a plan to take action against employers based on their failure to respond to letters notifying them that their employees’ Social Security numbers don’t match information in government data bases.
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff has asked Congress for greater leeway in accessing and using evidence against employers. Under current law, ICE does not have access to information possessed by the Social Security Administration. Chertoff wants to allow data sharing so immigration agents can use nonmatching Social Security information as a lead to find illegals—not just as evidence once illegals are found.
Unlike in the past, ICE isn’t just seeking to assess civil monetary fines against companies found to have employed illegal aliens. It’s also seeking criminal sanctions against executives for failing to follow a 1986 federal law making it illegal to hire undocumented workers.
These moves have caused many South Florida employers to change business practices, experts say. Employment lawyers say they’re working closely with employers to set up more rigorous vetting of employees to ensure that there are no illegals on the payroll.
Attorney Sarah Tobocman, the Miami-based immigration practice chair for Gunster Yoakley & Stewart, said that in the past, the worst penalty an employer could expect for hiring an illegal immigrant was a civil monetary fine. Many companies built such fines into the cost of doing business. But the prospect of criminal charges against executives will cause companies to take serious precautions, she said.
Some Florida employer groups, particularly agricultural growers and builders, are looking to expand their reliance on immigrant workers brought into the United States on guest worker visas. They would like Congress to increase the number of such visas and ease the federal requirements on wages and benefits.
With the tougher enforcement by ICE, employers increasingly find themselves facing a Catch-22 situation. That’s because while ICE is enforcing immigration laws, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is enforcing anti-discrimination laws. Employers cannot discriminate in hiring based on the possibility that an applicant is an illegal alien.
Legal experts say the situation is dicey. In Florida, tourism, agriculture and construction—three of the biggest industries—all use lots of immigrant labor. Some employers in these industries long have employed workers without looking too carefully at their legal status. It’s estimated that hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants are working in this state, including for large companies.
TEPID PUBLIC SUPPORT
On the other hand, there’s tepid public support in this state, particularly in South Florida, for a federal crackdown. Even many Florida Republican leaders favor a moderate approach, including a path toward legal residency for illegal immigrants currently living in the United States.
A recent Zogby International poll for the Miami Herald found that 65 percent of South Florida Republicans surveyed favor establishing a path to legalization for immigrants currently living illegally in the United States. The survey found that 77 percent of South Florida Democrats supported that approach.
Despite Floridians’ relatively lenient views on immigration, some lawyers warn that South Florida employers soon may have to give up using undocumented workers.
Keil Hackley, the former deputy chief counsel of the Immigration and Naturalization Service and now a Weston-based immigration attorney with Hackley Serrone, said it’s just a matter of time before Florida employers are targeted for stricter enforcement. ICE and DHS “are putting their warnings out there,” Hackley said. “They are absolutely going after employers who are profiting from illegal aliens.”
Others, however, dispute that the Bush administration’s current efforts are sincere or will last for long. Gregory Schell, a Lake Worth employment attorney with the farmworker rights group Florida Legal Services, argued that the recent raids and enforcement actions are driven by the White House’s election-year efforts to appease conservative, anti-immigration Republican voters. He said all will be forgotten after Nov. 8—election day.
Indeed, federal officials so far have gone easy in South Florida, considering the large population of illegal immigrants here. The state’s citrus groves and tomato fields would be a rich harvest for ICE agents if the agency chose to conduct raids there.
Schell estimated that more than 95 percent of workers on citrus groves in Florida are undocumented. Ray Gilmer, of the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association, a growers’ trade group, said the industry did not have any estimates on the number of illegal workers employed by the industry.
So far there have been no reported raids on the growers. “It would be an easy target,” said Anis Nouhad Saleh of Saleh & Associates in Miami, who serves as president of the South Florida chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.
Barbara Gonzalez, a Miami-based ICE spokeswoman, said she could not discuss how companies are chosen for raids because that’s “law enforcement-sensitive information.”
Bruce Nissen, director of research at the Center for Labor Research and Statistics at Florida International University, said the national immigration debate has created a strong feeling of insecurity among immigrant workers.
Gilmer said even the rumor of an immigration raid will cause immigrant workers, both legal and illegal, to scatter and not go to work. This leads to major worker shortages for growers.
Homeland Security officials said they did not know when the agency would issue a final regulation.
“One thing [ICE and the DHS] could do is sit on it until after the Nov. 7 election and then rule,” he said. “Then [they can] water it down or come down hard. But people’s ballots have already been cast.”
In the past, employers often were advised by their attorneys not to worry about receiving a no-match letter, because there are many reasons a no-match can occur.
But now, South Florida employment attorneys say local employers are taking no-match letters more seriously.
Hackley said she advises employers that receive no-match letters to determine the true immigration status of the employee while at the same time not jumping to any conclusion.
When the no-match letters first started going out in 2002, she said, thousands of workers resigned or were fired because employers were unsure of their employees’ immigration status. If ICE steps up enforcement based on no-match letters, she cautioned, that problem could be major in South Florida because of its large population of immigrant workers.
“This use of the no-match letter is premature and a potentially dangerous enforcement tool,” Hackley said. The Social Security Administration database is “notoriously error-prone and will undoubtedly result in wrongful terminations.”
In addition, some employment lawyers complain that the 63-day time frame proposed in the new ICE regulation for resolving discrepancies in Social Security information is unreasonable. Tobocman said that would leave employers little choice but to fire the worker.
Tobocman said she is working with clients to set up internal training programs for the proper completion of employment verification forms and for detecting fraudulent green cards, work permits and Social Security cards.
“Now more than ever, it’s essential that employers have written policies in place” for when they receive a no-match letter, she said. She advises her clients that they also should have policies in place for employee compliance and what to do in case of a government audit or document request.
Employment and immigration experts are split on whether the Bush administration’s recent moves signal that employers need to seriously change how they do business.
That uncertainty arises because the country is split on how to handle the immigration issue.
Miami pollster Sergio Bendixen of Bendixen & Associates wrote in March that “an overwhelming majority of legal immigrants think that the undocumented ‘take jobs that legal residents and citizens do not want to do.’ These legal immigrants also feel that the undocumented have a positive impact on the quality of life of Americans and ‘help the economy by providing low-cost labor.’ “
FIU’s Nissen said that if federal officials were serious about cracking down on South Florida employers and their illegal workers, “it would have a massive and very serious impact.” But he predicted that the administration will engage in “a selective, showy, sporadic set of arrests to create fear, but not to the point of harming farming or industry.”
Sarah Tobocman disagrees. It’s no secret that South Florida businesses have a high percentage of undocumented workers, she said. Businesses should expect to see greater federal enforcement of immigration laws. “Employers need to be prepared for a change,” she warned.