Eight years after a sweeping immigration law made it a crime for business owners to knowingly hire illegal immigrants, federal authorities have filed the first felony charge against an employer in Southern California.
Thursday, federal prosecutors indicted a former manager of a Los Angeles medical clinic on charges of repeatedly accepting fake documents when hiring workers. The difficulty of proving such accusations, as well as political and economic factors, have hindered the filing of criminal charges before now, immigration experts say.
"This is the first time the INS gave us information that we think we can prove in court," said Assistant U.S. Atty. Brent Whittlesey, who is prosecuting the case.
Sanctions against employers for hiring illegal immigrants were a cornerstone of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, which contained provisions to stop the flow of illegal immigration into the United States. But criminal charges have proven difficult to enforce.
Just as the debate on immigration is reaching a crescendo among many California politicians and voters, the eight-year gap underscores the seemingly impossible task of controlling the illegal tide of immigrants into the state. It also highlights the failure of the 1986 law to solve the problem, immigration advocates say.
"In the larger context, this is yet another example of how enforcement has been unsuccessful in stopping undocumented immigration," said Charles Wheeler, an attorney with the National Immigration Law Center.
Although numerous employers have been fined for hiring illegal immigrants, the absence of criminal charges before last week is especially puzzling given Southern California's prominence as a destination point for workers who enter the state illegally.
Under the 1986 law, employers are required to ask workers for documents such as a Social Security card or work permit, which are often counterfeited and easily obtained by illegal immigrants. Showing that a business has engaged in a pattern of knowingly hiring illegal workers is difficult to prove.
But immigration experts say the recent public outcry over illegal immigration is a primary reason that charges are being filed.
The heightened sentiment against illegal immigration has emboldened the government to go after employers in this more public fashion, said Roberto Lovato, executive director of Central American Resource Center, an immigrant advocacy organization.
"The fact is the immigration debate and enforcement has been one-sided. If you don't look at the employer part of it, you don't see the economic magnet that draws people to L.A. and California," Lovato said.
In addition, the lack of previous criminal charges may reflect the government's reluctance to crack down on California businesses in the midst of a recession, experts said.
Business owners "really like having cheap labor with limited rights," said Ira Mehlman, spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform and an outspoken proponent of the 1986 law's provisions. Mehlman said immigrant rights advocates also have formed a powerful constituency against employer sanctions.
But Jack Kyser, a chief economist for the nonprofit Economic Development Corp., said business is not to blame.
"I think that's an unfair characterization because businesses want to comply with the law," Kyser said. "Most businesses I have dealt with realize that they cannot compete by relying on cheap labor."
Since the law was enacted, federal authorities have imposed numerous civil penalties totaling hundreds of thousands of dollars against Southern California businesses for hiring illegal workers.
Random checks of businesses by Immigration and Naturalization Service agents have shown that those penalties are deterring employers from hiring illegal workers, said John Brechtel, assistant district director for investigations.
"The provisions work well," he said. "We're not seeing repeat violations."
He said the felony case against the former medical clinic manager is far more serious than most other employer-sanction cases because the woman allegedly knew that the workers were using fake documents.
In the indictment delivered last week federal prosecutors allege that Leticia Ruiz de la Cruz, 40, knowingly accepted fake Social Security, alien registration and temporary resident cards to hire illegal workers while serving as the manager of Clinica Medica Familiar, which operates several medical clinics in the Los Angeles area. The indictment also alleges that Ruiz encouraged people who she knew were here illegally to remain in the country. She is also charged with using a fake Social Security number to compute payroll taxes.
Ruiz's attorney, Tom Mesereau, said Monday that she is innocent. "We categorically and emphatically deny any guilt and look forward to vigorously defending this case," he said.