For two years, immigration officials bargained with the trainers at the Del Mar Race Track, asking them to help get rid of as many as 1,500 illegal alien workers. For two years, the trainers talked. And the illegal aliens stayed.
Twice, the immigration officials offered not to raid the track if the trainers would cooperate. Twice, the trainers agreed, then backed out. Finally, after repeated threats, the Border Patrol raided last week. By then, most of the workers had fled.
"I spent 25 years in the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), and I don't recall anything like it," Neil H. Baxley, a San Diego immigration lawyer, said this week. "If someone is robbing a bank, a policeman doesn't come in and say, 'Quit it! Quit it! Quit it!' "
In theory, the deal the INS offered the trainers is available to any business suspected of employing illegal aliens. But in practice, INS officials say they haven't the manpower to use it universally. So they end up promoting it in some cases, and not in others.
Some officials said they offer it to "notorious employers"--those with many illegal workers so that raids are especially disruptive and difficult to execute. Others promote it to big-name operations--those shy of publicity and interested in preserving their good name.
They insist they're not discriminating against some employers in favor of others.
"This is like any service. Say you're a cleaning establishment: You can only take so many customers," said Allen Whurman, assistant district director for investigations for the San Diego office of the INS.
"It's not a selective kind of deal," said Harold Ezell, western regional commissioner for the INS. "You must understand that with limited resources, you've got to target those employers that are repeaters of the offense."
Even when the deal is offered, officials say many employers are unwilling to go along.
Some 387 employers participate in all of California, Arizona, Nevada, Hawaii and Guam, according to informal INS figures. Officials count 188 cooperating companies in Los Angeles, Orange and Kern counties, and nine in San Diego and Imperial counties.
"There's not much motivation if they realize we have limited resources," said Ezell, noting that companies know the INS cannot afford to raid them regularly. "They play the law of averages, I guess. That's why there has to be immigration law reform."
"Operation Cooperation" has existed for years, INS officials say, and immigration lawyers agree. In some areas, it has been available since the late 1970s, though Whurman said the San Diego office has used it primarily in the past two years.
Under the program, the INS abandons surprise raids if the employer allows the INS to come in and systematically check employees' documentation. From then on, the company checks any newly hired aliens with the INS. In questionable cases, INS officials interview the employee.
The INS does not forgo raids. But it agrees to warn the company of its periodic "surveys." Any illegal aliens turned up face deportation. Companies are asked not to rehire anyone who fails to show up for work on the day of the check.
"It's done quickly, without any running, with everyone aware of what's going on," said Whurman, explaining the advantages to the employer. "Everyone is notified in advance, there's no reason for fear. It's a quiet, low-key operation."
There are advantages for the INS, as well.
"Where you have truly large numbers, for the Border Patrol to mount an operation you're talking about a major logistical problem," said Peter N. Larrabee, a San Diego immigration lawyer. "Obviously, with the attendant publicity and in some cases the black eye they get from doing it, they would much prefer to accomplish their goals with some favorable publicity and without everything coming to a boil."
Unfortunately, the program is labor intensive.
INS officials must go to the employer for the original survey, in large enough numbers to complete it swiftly. They must be available to check documentation when employers are hiring, and to return to the plant for scheduled surveys.
So Whurman and others said they offer Operation Cooperation when a raid would be especially difficult or disruptive, and where the INS has leverage over an employer. Because it involves a kind of honor system, they say they offer it to employers likely to act in good faith.
For example, it is difficult to raid sprawling high-technology firms, said Robert Moschorak , an associate regional INS commissioner. Raids in large office buildings and hotels are time-consuming and disruptive because of the manpower needed to find employees.
By contrast, raiding a strawberry field is simple because the workers are outside and in view. Ezell said many growers seem less eager than other employers to avoid a raid, perhaps because it is easier for them to replace deported workers.