Who's illegal? Crackdown targets employers of undocumented
By Sheena McFarland
The Salt Lake Tribune (Salt Lake City), May 12, 2009
The Department of Homeland Security is redirecting its immigration branch to focus on cracking down on the employers who knowingly hire undocumented workers instead of simply deporting the employees.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, former Arizona governor, said cracking down on employers will better get to the root of the problem.
'Active enforcement of our immigration laws must address not just the illegal workers themselves, but also the employers who hire illegal labor and fuel the phenomenon of illegal immigration into the United States,' she said in prepared testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee on May 6, adding that last year, of 6,000 work-site arrests, only 135 were employers.
That approach is already the practice here in Utah, said Melodie Rydalch, spokeswoman for U.S. Attorney for Utah Brett Tolman.
'We have charged company officials, employers, and the company itself in cases where we believed violations of federal law occurred and a federal criminal prosecution was an appropriate step to take,' she said.
In 2008, 50 workers were arrested during a raid at a Lindon metal factory. The U.S. Department of Justice charged the company, Universal Industrial Sales Inc., with 10 counts of harboring illegal aliens, and its human resource manager with two counts of encouraging or inducing undocumented workers to stay in the country illegally. No undocumented employees were criminally charged.
'This is a message to businesses. We're going after the ones actively participating in illegal hiring,' said U.S. Attorney for Utah Brett Tolman after the charges were unsealed in 2008.
That case was handled much differently from the nationwide Swift & Co. meat packing plant raid, in which 1,300 undocumented workers were arrested, and many were charged with criminal identity fraud.
Many in Utah are applauding Homeland Security's shift to put more emphasis on employers who knowingly violate the law.
The Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce is one of the supporters.
'All businesses really want is a level playing field between them and their competitors,' said spokesman Marty Carpenter. 'It's disadvantageous for a business to compete against another who hires employees for a lower amount because they are breaking the law.'
Utah's new immigration law, SB81, which takes effect July 1, does not have provisions for private companies having to hire documented workers. However, it does require that any contractor with a public entity must hire only workers authorized to work in the country.
Latino community activist Tony Yapias recognizes that the new federal policy still focuses on deporting undocumented workers, but he hopes it stops employers who hire only undocumented workers with the intent to exploit them.
'They make everyone look bad in terms of what they are doing,' he said. 'They make people work for a week or two, don't pay the workers and then threaten to turn them into immigration. Those are the types that are really exploiting it and only benefitting themselves.'
It's an area where advocates on both side of the illegal immigration debate appear to agree.
Bill Barton, of the anti-illegal immigration group Save Utah, lauded the employer-focused strategy.
'We shouldn't put all the blame on illegals. They are here for a better life, and if we employ them, then they stay,' Barton said. 'If the employers are forced to abide by the law, we wouldn't have as big a problem with people coming across from other countries to work here.'