Cheese It The Boss!

To help deter the flow of more than 300,000 illegal entrants into the U.S. each year, Washington is scrambling to find solutions. Stepped-up enforcement at the borders is the biggest job. But increasingly, the feds are also pressing employers into partnership with the U.S. border patrol. Under a 1986 law, employers are required to help weed out undocumented immigrants who slip into the U.S. workplace. The aim of this "interior strategy": Weaken the job magnet that attracts illegals here.

The Immigration & Naturalization Service is revving up employer policing after a decade of relative disuse. The INS wants to add 600 agents next year to help enforce the law, which imposes fines on employers who knowingly hire illegals. Senator Alan K. Simpson (R-Wyo.) proposes raising penalties to as much as $25,000 per illegal worker. Currently, even companies that unwittingly violate the law can be fined for failing to keep immigration records on workers.

CATCH-22. But business owners feel mostly beleaguered in their role as immigration cop. They say they're caught between the government's competing demands--fined if they inadvertently hire illegals bearing counterfeit documents, yet risking a Justice Dept. lawsuit for ethnic discrimination if they question workers with suspicious papers too closely. "The government gets you for trying too hard or not hard enough," gripes Kay P. Norton, general counsel of Monfort Inc. in Greeley, Colo. The beefpacking company was slapped with both violations in 1992. After the INS removed 300 illegals--15% of the workforce--from a Nebraska plant, Monfort started its own immigration inspections at other facilities and was fined $45,576 for asking workers overly intrusive questions.

Even the feds realize the gambit hasn't worked and want to fix it. "We have been spinning our wheels," admits Paul E. Christensen, an INS assistant director in Omaha, who says jobs left vacant by INS raids are often filled by more illegals. Employers are unable to stanch the flow because they don't know how to detect forged documents, or they don't even try because they enjoy the cheap labor that undocumented workers provide. So the INS is trying to help companies spot counterfeit papers and find legal workers to replace those caught by the feds.

On Oct. 31, the agency kicked off a one-year pilot project in Southern California, where 223 employers can check workers' papers with the INS via computer. Previously, they were left to their own devices to screen up to 29 different valid types of identification. "This takes a huge burden off our backs," says Craig E. Gosselin, general counsel of Orange (Calif.)-based Vans Inc., which makes casual shoes.

The INS is also cutting some slack for businesses that participate in Operation Jobs, a hire-American program started in the Midwest a year ago, with plans to expand nationwide. Under the initiative, the INS notifies companies of upcoming raids and refers them to social service agencies to find legal workers. "We're an enforcement agency, but we're also like an employment service," says Neil Jacobs, the INS assistant director in Dallas who started the program. So far, it has removed 5,500 undocumented workers and replaced most with legals.

In areas of low unemployment, Operation Jobs may have the side effect of increasing wages to attract U.S. workers for otherwise unappealing jobs. "If the consumer has to pay a half-cent more per pound of hamburger, it's worth it because we don't want these illegals here," says the INS's Christensen.

General Aluminum Corp., which makes windows and doors in Carrollton, Tex., for example, raised wages this year from $4.50 to $5 an hour after a 1994 INS audit found a third of its workers undocumented. It has since hired 200 inner-city youth, prisoners in rehabilitation programs, and refugees with the help of the Dallas police, state prison officials, and other groups.

Despite all these efforts to improve employer policing, some executives say the only way to make business a full partner in enforcement is with foolproof worker identification. Yet a national system that enters all citizens into a Social Security and INS database is encountering heavy opposition from those who fear encroachment on civil liberties. Indeed, U.S. citizens are likely to resent mandatory identity checks. Until Congress finds a better way, businesses will remain reluctant deputies in the federal fight against illegal immigration.

Helping Employers On Patrol

The latest efforts by the Immigration & Naturalization Service to bolster enforcement in the workplace:


Bosses must verify work eligibility documents of all prospective employees. Two hundred California businesses are now getting help from an INS database to sift out fake papers.


Businesses don't like surprise raids that leave them in the lurch when the INS hauls off their workers. Some are now coordinating raids with the feds so they can start hiring replacements. Cooperation also helps avoid fines.


Trying to solve two social problems in one stroke, the INS now refers employers to social service agencies to find disadvantaged U.S. workers for jobs left by those deported.


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