"You're talking to a 'criminal' facing a 10-year prison term," said the young man, dimples punctuating a wry smile. Then, suddenly turning serious, the 19-year-old added: "They wouldn't really put me away, would they?"
Raul Godinez has worked since he was 8 years old, first on his father's small fishing boat off the coast of their Mexican fishing village and for the past year--illegally--at a chicken processing plant in the City of Commerce.
Godinez and four co-workers, arrested in an INS raid last month, each face a maximum 10-year prison term and $500,000 fine. Their crime: allegedly using bogus immigration documents and Social Security cards to gain employment.
"Why us?" said Godinez, noting that tens of thousands of his countrymen and other illegal immigrants commonly use false documents to get jobs. "Are we being used as an example to scare the rest?"
Face Stiffer Penalties
Up to now, aliens caught working illegally in the United States were ordinarily returned to their country of origin. But, under the new immigration law, stiffer criminal penalties are set for those who use fraudulent documents to gain employment.
The law requires that employers now keep proof of newly hired employees' legal immigration status on record. And, based on INS checks of more than 100 employers in the Los Angeles district over the past few months, the use of fraudulent documents in the workplace is on the rise, according to William Carroll, Los Angeles INS assistant district director.
"When we came upon these people we said, 'OK, we're going to have to start prosecuting these cases now,' " he said. Carroll added that INS "will probably be doing a lot more of this."
But, a group of immigrants' rights advocates, who have established a legal defense fund for the workers, charge that the agency is not being evenhanded: While employers who are prohibited from hiring illegal workers are merely receiving warnings when caught violating the law, workers face fines and prison.
One of the workers' court-appointed attorneys, William S. Harris, contends that "in the large scheme of things this is a nickle-and-dime kind of offense" and that prosecuting it is "a waste of taxpayers' money."
Another of the defendants Dalia Rivera Banuelos, 21, the only woman among the five workers arrested, is frightened. Rivera talked about feeling "depressed . . . afraid . . . tense and nervous" during the 20 days she spent in jail following her arrest. Rivera said she was thrown together with persons accused of more serious crimes--"some of them had killed . . . I feared for my safety."
Rivera and Godinez are the only two, among the five arrested workers, who have been able to meet bail and been released from federal custody, pending their trials.
In one of the immigration law's ironic twists, four of Godinez' brothers and sisters stand to gain legal status under its amnesty provisions. His siblings try to reassure their youngest brother that his predicament cannot be as bad as it seems--"It's not as if you murdered someone," they tell him.
Nine Immigrants Charged
Over the past two months, a total of nine illegal immigrants here have been charged with allegedly using fraudulent documents in the workplace, according to the Los Angeles U.S. Attorney's office. The only one judged, so far, after entering a guilty plea, was sentenced to time served and turned over to immigration authorities for deportation, officials said.
Despite the relatively light sentence in that case, a coalition of immigrants' rights advocates and the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, Local 770, that represent Godinez and his four co-workers is preparing for the worst.
Contending that the immigrants' "only crime is pursuing the basic human right to work and to provide for their families," Father Gregory Boyle of Dolores Mission Church called the prosecutions "a grave injustice."
"The INS has singled out workers unfairly," he said, pointing out that employers who violate the law have been given ample time to learn about the new law and are receiving a series of warning citations, with only a handful of fines levied nationwide.
No Warning Period
INS officials point out that the law itself calls for an educational period for employers, before criminal penalties are meted out for knowingly hiring illegal workers. By contrast, the provision that deals with the use of fraudulent documents is clearly "a criminal statute," said Carroll. "And historically, when a criminal law is passed there is no warning period."
Godinez said he did not know about the consequences of using fraudulent documents when he was asked by his employer to fill out a new form that required him to provide immigration documents. "I figured the worst that could happen was that I would be deported," said Godinez.
In the meantime, Godinez, who has a wife and infant son to support, is doing his best to make end meets, although he is barred from working. On a recent morning, Godinez and his wife busied themselves sorting piles of second-hand clothes, collected from friends and relatives, and hanging them out on a fence in front of their East Hollywood home for a yard sale.