Illegal Workers Booted—But What Of Their Bosses?

Illegal workers booted, but what of their bosses?

By Linda Chiem
MSNBC, September 14, 2008

Recent immigration raids in Hawaii have all ended the same way, with federal authorities quickly prosecuting and deporting workers who are working illegally.

But it isnt clear what happens to the companies that hired them.

Even as they highlight their efforts to find illegal workers, federal officials in Hawaii have refused to release any information on fines or penalties paid by Hawaii employers implicated in immigration raids.

U.S. Attorney Ed Kubo declined to answer questions about employer penalties. Representatives of several companies found to have hired illegal workers either declined to talk to PBN or issued statements saying they are committed to following federal employment laws.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the largest division within the federal Department of Homeland Security and which oversees enforcement of immigration laws, has moved aggressively in recent months in Hawaii and on the Mainland, targeting companies that are 'job magnets' for illegal workers.

Since last December, 120 illegal workers have been arrested in four Hawaii workplace raids of construction sites, restaurants and even a Waipahu apartment complex where farm workers lived.

I.C.E moves quickly to deport illegal workers and says it has brought down the average time to process deportations to 19 days.

But building cases against the companies that hired the workers can take years. Investigators say they have to prove that employers knew the workers they hired were in the country illegally and that they intentionally lied on the federal I-9 employment verification form.

In cases involving construction work, the developer points to the general contractor who then blames subcontractors, who in turn blame other subs or day-labor agencies that provide some of the workers. Whoever made the hire typically says they were duped by an illegal worker using forged or stolen identification papers.

Wayne Wills, special agent in charge of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcements Office of Investigations in Honolulu, acknowledged that investigations can take several years. But he said he believes that the fines and penalties are sufficient to discourage employers from hiring illegal workers.

'We havent seen all of our cases fully come to fruition and we may not be seeing all of those charges [yet],' he told PBN. 'So the deterrent effect is very hard to measure right now.'

In addition to fines levied by I.C.E., the U.S. Attorneys Office can pursue criminal charges against employers.

But neither Wills nor Kubo would say if any Hawaii companies had been criminally charged. They also declined to provide any Hawaii statistics on work site enforcement fines and penalties.

Advocates for illegal workers, as well as a construction industry trade group, say the authorities have to do more than arrest and deport illegal workers. They say some businesses are repeat offenders that have figured out its still cheaper to employ illegal workers, even if they have to pay the occasional fine.

'In my view, it is the workers who are being targeted in this enforcement effort and they are the ones paying the price for the United States haphazard approach to immigration management,' said John Robert Egan, chairman of the American Immigration Lawyers Associations Hawaii chapter and director of the Immigration Law Clinic. 'I have not heard of any employers being jailed, or having their families split up or having to pull their kids out of school.'

The spotlight on illegal workers has become an increasingly divisive issue in Hawaii, especially given the faltering economy, which has caused nearly 5,000 people to be thrown out of work since the start of the year.

The Pacific Resource Partnership, a consortium of the Hawaii Carpenters Union and some 200 unionized contractors across the state, has taken a particularly strong stance against contractors who hire undocumented workers by launching a public service campaign called Play Fair in Hawaii.

The goal is to encourage contractors and developers to comply with hiring laws so as not to sully the industry and take away jobs from Hawaii residents and deter what it calls the 'disturbing number of illegal immigrants being brought into Hawaii to work in the building trades.'

'We dont begrudge any individual who comes here trying to advance their life because we are a nation of immigrants,' said Kyle Chock, executive director of the Pacific Resource Partnership. 'We definitely have a problem with [employers] cutting corners, who knowingly exploit these individuals, especially when the economy starts to slow down and theres local guys sitting on the bench without work.'

Recent raids on the Mainland have drawn national attention, particularly in rural Postville, Iowa and Laurel, Miss., to more aggressive immigration enforcement efforts.

As of last month, more than 3,900 administrative arrests and more than 1,000 criminal arrests made in fiscal 2008 were tied to work site enforcement investigations nationwide, according to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement statistics.

Of the 1,022 people arrested and charged with felonies, 116 were owners, managers, supervisors or human resources employees who are facing charges of harboring or knowingly hiring illegal workers.

The agency said it has levied administrative fines against employers totaling more than $30 million in fiscal 2007.

By comparison, the number of 'intent to fine' notices sent to employers fell from 417 in 1999 to three in 2004, according to statistics in an August 2005 report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

'The increased law enforcement, thats misguided,' said Pat McManaman, executive director of Na Loio Immigrant Rights and Public Interest Legal Center in Honolulu, which is assisting some of the workers arrested in the Hawaii raids. 'Arresting pockets of undocumented immigrants will do nothing in the long run to cure the immigration ills that face our country.'

Companies say they try to comply with laws

Last month, 41 illegal workers were arrested at the construction site of the Maui luxury condominium project Honua Kai, which is being developed by Vancouver-based Intrawest ULC.

Ledcor – U.S. Pacific Construction Honolulu is the general contractor on the project and it recently issued letters to its subcontractors, who employed the arrested workers, warning them to comply with federal laws.

'Any further discoveries of undocumented workers in your employ will result in Ledcor taking every action available to us under the contract including the possibility of the termination of your contract and your immediate removal from the site,' said Jeff Thompson, project manager for Ledcor, in the letter.

In late July, 43 men were arrested at a Waipahu apartment complex for illegally using fake documents to get work. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials said the men were from Mexico and worked for The Farms Inc. in Central Oahu.

Dax Deason, an immigration attorney with the Houston law firm Alaniz & Schraeder who is representing The Farms Inc. owner Larry Jefts, told PBN that the company has not received notice of any civil fines or criminal violations.

'We feel we fully complied with the laws and should they decide to go further, were prepared to defend our practices,' Deason said.

In May, 22 illegal workers, mostly from Mexico, were arrested at three Maui restaurants Cheeseburger Island Style, Cheeseburger in Paradise and Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. in Lahaina.

Steve Moreau, director of communications for Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. Restaurants Inc. of San Clemente, Calif., declined to say whether the company had paid any fines. He issued a prepared statement to PBN:

'We have cooperated fully with the government officials. Our operations in Lahaina have returned to normal. We continue our commitment to preventing employment of unauthorized workers. Our guests and employees alike can expect us to continue to take the lead on guest service, food safety and employment practices.'