Immigration busts put employers in cross hairs
By Oscar Avila
Copyright © 2006, Chicago Tribune
Published December 22, 2006
WHITEWATER, Wis. -- Allen Petrie, the owner of Star Packaging, said he had to hire Mexican immigrants because no U.S.-born worker wanted to take items off assembly lines and place them in cardboard boxes.
Now that reliance on immigrant labor threatens to put one of this small town's most prominent businessmen in prison.
Petrie is charged with conspiring to commit identity theft, a felony, after local police took the unusual step of investigating illegal hiring. Police said much of his workforce allegedly used phony Social Security numbers to get their jobs. He has pleaded not guilty.
Star Packaging is among a host of companies across the nation now in the cross hairs. After years of inaction or wrist slaps, federal authorities have begun to round up illegal workers, impose million-dollar penalties and threaten executives with prison. Last week, agents arrested nearly 1,300 foreign-born workers at Swift & Co. meatpacking plants nationwide, the largest sweep in U.S. history.
The arrests give new weight to the Department of Homeland Security's stated mission to reduce illegal immigration by going after the job magnets that bring the workers into the U.S., a campaign that has gained momentum. The number of criminal charges stemming from federal workplace raids in fiscal 2006 topped 700, quadruple the previous year's total.
At the same time, more local governments are going after employers with local ordinances and state statutes. In Illinois, trustees in Carpentersville, for example, proposed a controversial ordinance to suspend the business licenses of employers that hire illegal immigrants, although local enforcement remains the exception.
Some labor advocates and lawmakers see the raids as more about politics than law enforcement. They said the crackdown is forcing companies to trample on labor rights as they seek to weed out illegal workers.
The Whitewater arrests happened much more quietly than the Swift raids, which were splashed on front pages across the country. But the shock waves rippling through this southeastern Wisconsin town are the same ones resonating in Grand Island, Neb., Marshalltown, Iowa, and other towns home to Swift plants.
"We need to face this reality, to be truthful," said Jorge Islas, a U.S. citizen from Mexico and president of Sigma America, a social service agency in Whitewater. "People don't want to accept that undocumented people are in our economy."
To get hired, workers must fill out a federal Homeland Security form, backed with documents that establish identity and work authorization. Some of the possible documents, such as Social Security cards and driver's licenses, are easy to forge.
When Congress passed an amnesty law in 1986, lawmakers were supposed to toughen penalties against employers. They didn't, and the undocumented workforce has hit 7 million, the Pew Hispanic Center says.
Now, with enforcement a top priority, immigration authorities pursued criminal charges against 718 employers and workers in fiscal 2006, up from 176 in the previous year and a tenfold jump from 2003. Agents arrested 3,667 immigrants at job sites for being in the country illegally, triple the previous year's total.
Officials said they are increasingly using wiretaps, paid informants and other sophisticated crime-fighting techniques. The Department of Homeland Security will increase funding for enforcement at job sites, a boost that will add manpower in Chicago too.
Indiana owner gets prison
Immigration officials in the Midwest have already completed some high-profile sweeps: arresting more than 1,000 employees of a pallet company called IFCO Systems, including 26 in Chicago. This month, the owner of an Indiana construction firm was sentenced to 18 months in prison and forfeited $1.5 million for employing illegal immigrants in seven states.
"And for every one of those we bring down, there is a multiplier effect with the rest of the companies that say, `I don't want to end up with our company's name in the headlines,'" said Tim O'Sullivan, assistant special-agent-in-charge of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's Chicago office.
Some employers are redoubling safeguards against hiring illegal immigrants.
Those who can prove they are complying with the law will soon be eligible for certification from the Department of Homeland Security. O'Sullivan said the certification will be good for businesses, much like a "Made in the U.S.A." label.
To get certification, businesses must let immigration authorities audit their employment records, train managers in spotting phony documents and sign up for an existing electronic system that instantly verifies the status of new hires. More than 10,000 firms have signed up.
When the Social Security Administration finds discrepancies between worker names and Social Security numbers, the agency sends letters to employers informing them.
n June, the Department of Homeland Security proposed a regulation that could hold employers liable unless they immediately rectify the "no-match letters." The department hasn't approved the regulation, and the law currently requires companies only to notify their employees about the mismatch.
But lawyers said employers are in a bind: ignoring the no-match letters might leave them more susceptible to federal charges while aggressive responses might result in discrimination complaints.
The UNITE-HERE labor union and other Chicago activists recently held a "tour of shame" against Cintas, the nation's largest uniform supplier, and other local companies that are threatening to fire workers who can't prove their legal status, even though the stricter, new regulation has not been adopted. Cintas said it is merely trying to follow the law.
Social Security warning
In Whitewater, police cited the Social Security no-match letters in pursuing criminal charges, saying the company had evidence that workers were using false identities to keep their jobs. Police said they discovered no-match letters in Star Packaging's files when they executed a search warrant.
Frank Lettenberger, Petrie's attorney, said Petrie did not knowingly hire illegal immigrants and did not urge or assist their use of false Social Security cards. Lettenberger also said Whitewater police unfairly targeted a businessman whose practices are not unusual.
The Whitewater bust was different because it was triggered by local police, not immigration agents. Police said they had a right to get involved because Petrie is charged with conspiracy to commit identity theft, which falls under their jurisdiction.
The arrests continue to resonate in the town of 14,000, where Main Street's antiques shops and cafes share the avenue with two Mexican general stores.
In an industrial park on a recent frigid night, several Mexican residents strung colored lights and tinsel on a flatbed truck, part of a float for the town Christmas parade. Guadalupe Nateras, one of the arrested Star Packaging employees, said they were trying to reaffirm their place in the community.
Nateras, 44, said she bought a Social Security card for $600 and is not looking for pity.
"We know we violated the law. We don't contest that," she said. "But if you go to any factory, to any business, in the United States, there are people just like us."