Illegal Workers Quietly Let Go

Lornet Turnbull, Seattle Times, November 23, 2009

A janitorial company owned by a local conservative talk-radio host is among the early targets of a new strategy by the Obama administration to thin the ranks of illegal immigrants by going after the companies that hire them.

Seattle Building Maintenance, owned by KVI talk-radio host Peter Weissbach and his wife, provides janitorial services in buildings throughout the Puget Sound region, including such Seattle landmarks as the Seattle Art Institute, Pacific Place, Metropolitan Park and the Dexter Horton and Westin buildings.

The subject of an ongoing immigration audit by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, ICE, the company has been clearing its books by firing some of its janitorial staff–about 100 people so far–believed to be working illegally.

The probe of Seattle Building Maintenance offers an early glimpse into ICE’s approach to worksite enforcement–stealthily targeting employers rather than workers.

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Now, workers are quietly let go by their employers, without the direct contact with immigration agents that might lead to deportation.

Immigrant advocates who initially lauded the shift in strategy as more humane are now seeing the impact it has on workers unable to find new jobs in a slow economy, while their employers appear to escape largely unscathed, much as they did under the old policy.

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Service Employees International Union Local 6, which represents about 280 of Seattle Building’s workers, said as many as 150 of them might be undocumented. The company has an estimated workforce of up to 300 people.

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Immigration audit

The agency’s new enforcement approach was showcased in Los Angeles last month when American Apparel fired 1,800 immigrant employees–more than a quarter of its workforce–after an immigration audit.

And a janitorial company in Minnesota quietly fired 1,200 workers around the same time after an investigation found they were working there illegally.

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Ira Mehlman, spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, said the cases in Minnesota and California suggest that employers are escaping penalty and that the administration’s new policy appears to deter neither employers nor the illegal-immigrant workers they hire.

“This does nothing to address the millions of people in the country illegally” who have an incentive to remain here as long as possible in the hopes of eventually winning amnesty, Mehlman said.

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