A federal crackdown on employers who hire undocumented workers is changing the way some businesses hire their labor force.
After discovering that fines were ineffective in keeping employers from hiring illegal aliens, immigration authorities now rely on indictments and criminal convictions to punish companies that knowingly employ illegals.
In response, a number of companies that rely on seasonal labor pawn off hiring duties to contract firms, while others look to returning workers to fill out their workforce.
Bob Lauchland, president of the Lodi District Grape Growers Association, said his company has forsaken hiring its own workers.
"That's just something we can't withstand as a grower," Lauchland said.
Lauchland and his brother, who together run J.R. Lauchland and Sons, years ago began doing some vineyard work themselves and leaving the rest to farm labor contractors, Lauchland said.
Though more expensive, that move transfers the liability of determining employment eligibility, workers' compensation, housing and a host of other regulations from the farmer to the contractor who hires and trains the workers, Lauchland said.
To legally work in the United States potential employees must show federally issued documents such as passports, certificates of naturalization or citizenship, or a combination of documents from federal and state governments, such a driver's licenses and ID cards, Social Security cards, military ID and Native American tribal documents.
A provision of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 made it a crime for any employer to knowingly hire, recruit or refer any alien not authorized to work in the United States. Fines can reach up to $11,000 per illegal worker.
Until 2003, business cited for hiring undocumented workers would often pay the fine only to revert to willingly hiring illegals, said Lodi Haley, spokeswoman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
"They just saw it as the cost of doing business," she said.
|Documents that establish employment eligibility|
|List A||or List B||and List C|
|U.S. Passport||Driver's license or ID card||U.S. Social Security card|
|Certificate of U.S. citizenship or naturalization||ID card issued by federal, state or local government||Birth certificate|
|Unexpired foreign passport with employment authorization||School ID card with photo||U.S. citizen ID card|
|Alien registration receipt card with photo||Voter registration card||ID card for resident U.S. citizen|
|Employment authorization card||U.S. military card or draft record|
|Reentry permit||Native American tribal document|
|Refugee travel document|
Now ICE seeks criminal convictions against firms willingly hiring illegals.
Agents conducted 511 criminal investigations at worksites in fiscal year 2005, up from 465 the fiscal year before.
Earlier this month, ICE agents arrested several former and current managers of a Texas-based pallet firm for allegedly conspiring to transport, harbor and hire illegal aliens. Nearly 1,200 illegal aliens were arrested as result. If found guilty, the managers for IFCO Systems North America could face up to 10 years in prison and fines up to $250,000 for each illegal worker.
When ICE was formed under the Department of Homeland Security in 2003, the agency's focus shifted from general employers to those who employ workers at commercial airports, nuclear and chemical plants and other location labeled by ICE as "critical infrastructure," Haley said.
Still, critics say ICE does not do enough enforcement against immigration violations in the workplace, and counter with statistics that show a precipitous decline in sanctions against employers in the decade prior to 2003.
Lax enforcement, they say, is a problem that continues to this day.
"I think there is a pretty clear picture that the Clinton administration and the Bush administration have adopted a strategy of nonenforcement," said Steven Camarota, research director for the Center for Immigration Studies, an independent, non-partisan think tank that focuses solely on immigration issues. CIS advocates allowing fewer immigrants into the country.
According to CIS statistics, sanctions against employers totaled 1,461 in 1992, slowly sliding to 1,023 in 1998 before dropping to just three in 2004.
ICE's Haley, however, was unable to verify those figures.
In Lodi, cherry trees began blooming last month, and the annual hiring process at Lodi Export Group began shortly after.
As much as 80 percent of the packing shed's employees are returning from last season, which reduces the chances of the company hiring an illegal worker, said general manager Wolfgang Rochert.
The remaining employees must provide documentation necessary to establish employment eligibility, as they would with any other employer, Rochert said.
"If they appear to be reasonably correct, we can take them," Rochert said.
Winegrape grower Lauchland said he was not aware of any immigration agents visiting his farm recently, but said agents did visit years ago and found everything in order. His labor contractors have not reported any visits either, he said.
But as debate over immigration reform continues, farmers who are largely dependent on immigrant labor fear the effects of some proposals that have surfaced.
One bill introduced in Congress within the past year would have fined growers - and any other employer - $50,000 for hiring an illegal worker who provides false documents to establish eligibility.
"These types of fines can definitely put growers out of business," Lauchland said via e-mail.
Another proposal would make growers advertise job openings for two weeks to fill positions with American citizens, then hire immigrant workers to fill the remainder.
But, Lauchland said, timing is essential for farmers who have a relatively short window to make a profit.
Few workers are needed throughout most of the year. But labor needs can rapidly and unpredictably increase as vines mature and the harvest begins.
"We need those willing and able to work that day, on short notice to perform tasks throughout the year," Lauchland said.
First published: Saturday, April 29, 2006