Firms targeted on immigration
1 day after raids, feds vow charges for illegal hiring
JIM MORRILL AND DANICA COTO
A day after agents arrested nearly 1,200 illegal immigrants around the country -- including 44 in Charlotte -- federal officials announced they will pursue criminal charges against employers who hire undocumented workers.
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff pledged to "come down as hard as possible" on violators who "knowingly and recklessly" hire illegal immigrants. Up to now such employers have faced only administrative fines.
In Charlotte, employers and workers reacted warily. Spanish radio stations received calls from Latino workers who said their managers told them to stay home because they feared being investigated, said Raquel Lynch, a Latin American Coalition director.
"It seems everyone's in panic mode," she said. "Some wonder whether their loved ones should be at work."
Charlotte immigration lawyer Miguel Manna said about six companies called him Thursday morning requesting audits of I-9 forms, which employers must fill out for new hires.
The companies told him Wednesday's nationwide raid scared them because executives were not only fined but arrested, he said.
Agents arrested seven current and former executives of Texas-based IFCO Systems, the nation's largest pallet company. They were charged with conspiracy to transport and harbor illegal immigrants, charges that carry penalties of up to 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine for each undocumented worker.
Authorities also arrested 1,187 IFCO employees in raids at 40 plants in 26 states.
Officials said the 44 arrested at the company's west Charlotte site are immigrants from Mexico and Guatemala. Most were released and told to appear before immigration authorities in Atlanta.
All were in the U.S. illegally, according to agent Jeff Jordan of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Charlotte office. Two of the 44 had prior deportation orders. They are in custody and will be deported, he said.
Wayne Cooper, the state's honorary Mexican consul, said he met Thursday with several of those arrested and their families. Most are men in their 30s.
He said he was surprised that most workers were released, unlike most of the 66 illegal immigrants arrested in 2002 after authorities raided Charlotte/Douglas International Airport.
With immigration legislation -- including a proposed guest-worker program -- stalled in Congress, the subject has emerged as one of Americans' top concerns.
A Gallup Poll released Thursday showed 19 percent of Americans call it the most important issue facing the country. Only the war in Iraq was named as the top concern by more people.
And a new poll by the Raleigh-based Civitas Institute, a conservative think tank, found that 74 percent of N.C. voters support tougher penalties for employers.
Uphill battle expected
Despite Thursday's announcement, workplace enforcement will continue to be a challenge.According to congressional testimony, immigration officials devoted 9 percent of their staff to work-site enforcement in 1999. Four years later it was 4 percent.
President Bush's proposed budget calls for 171 new agents spread across the country. That's against an estimated 7 million undocumented workers who take home regular paychecks.
Nearly half the Carolinas' estimated 390,000 illegal immigrants hold jobs. But fines have been rare. Across the country, immigration officials filed only three "notices of intent" to fine employers in 2004.
A fine line for employers
Employers say they do the best they can. They must fill out I-9 forms for every worker hired, regardless of nationality. New hires -- immigrants or not -- must show proof of identity and work authorization. The latter could include a Social Security card or a U.S. birth certificate.
Employers have to inspect the documents and vouch that they "appear to be genuine."
But fake documents are being bought and sold across the nation. "And a lot of them look pretty good," says immigration attorney Steve Garfinkel of Charlotte.
Employers risk discrimination lawsuits if they question documents too aggressively, especially if they target one type of worker, such as those who don't speak English.
Robert Hambright, CEO of Centex Construction in Charlotte, said the certification role belongs with government, not employers. He'd like to see a guest-worker program.
"(Immigrant workers) are dependable, reliable people," he said. "They show up ahead of time, work hard and are drug-free. You can't say that about their counterparts."
Several of the Charlotte area's largest companies go beyond the standard I-9 process and ensure that the Social Security numbers of prospective employees are valid. They include Duke Energy, Wachovia, Sonic Automotive, Family Dollar, Compass Group, Goodrich and Bank of America.
Lowe's is among the most thorough, sending a list of its employees' Social Security numbers each year to the Social Security Administration for verification.
Does the current system work?
No, says immigration lawyer Manna.
"The government asks the companies to do something that's not their job. They're not document experts and can't spot fake documents," Manna says.
Victor Cerda, former acting director of Homeland Security's Detention and Removal Office, now a Washington attorney, said he believes the employer crackdown can work even with tight resources.
"You will see stronger enforcement. Are you going to see the ability to go to every employer out there and knock on their door and inspect their work force? There are way too many employers for that."
-- staff writers STELLA HOPKINS, LISA HAMMERSLY MUNN, Peter st. onge and Mitch Weiss contributed.
Jim Morrill: (704) 358-5059
Employers can verify the authenticity of a Social Security number in several ways.
Private firms offer background checks. And free federal databases also can help. One, a joint effort of Social Security and the Department of Homeland Security, taps both agencies' records.
An online program from Social Security can verify up to 250,000 numbers. A phone-in program can verify up to five at a time. Call (800) 772-6270 from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. weekdays.
Or you can verify up to 50 numbers by taking a list to the closest Social Security office.
None can be used to pre-screen applicants, only to verify documents for employees. Critics say the databases can be cumbersome and inaccurate.
-- Sources: Social Security Administration, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services-- STELLA HOPKINS.