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ELECTIONS '94: IMPACT ON BUSINESS : Though Not Aimed at Jobs, Prop. 187 Is Affecting Workplace : Immigration: More companies have started checking job candidates' papers, and employees talk of rising tensions.

November 10, 1994|STUART SILVERSTEIN and NANCY RIVERA BROOKS | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

For all its toughness in eliminating many public services for illegal immigrants, Proposition 187 says absolutely nothing about taking away their jobs.

Yet at workplaces around Southern California, signs were already emerging Wednesday that the code of conduct in a labor market that has long welcomed low-paid undocumented workers is changing--at least in some quarters.

Some employers who once freely hired workers without regard to immigration status have started checking job candidates' papers. Workers talk of rising tensions among colleagues with conflicting views on such issues as immigration and diversity in the workplace.

Down the road, immigrants' rights advocates fear that job discrimination against both legal and illegal immigrants will be intensified.

But even before the proposition attacking illegal immigration won overwhelming approval from California voters Tuesday, the measure--and the mood it reflects--hit home with Chico Trana, a native of Nicaragua.

Since entering the United States illegally two years ago, Trana had worked as a painter for a Woodland Hills contractor. But that ended the week before last, when he and two other undocumented workers on the contractor's 12-man construction crew were fired.

The contractor, Trana explained, was concerned about Proposition 187, and "he didn't want problems with the authorities. He said he was against the law, but he was also worried about what would happen if it passed."

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Employing illegal immigrants was outlawed by Congress in the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, and employers began requiring job applicants to produce proof of their legal status. But Proposition 187 does nothing to stiffen penalties for firms that hire undocumented workers.

Indeed, if jobs are available, many experts and working people alike say, the proposition will do little to discourage illegal immigrants from entering the state.

That is especially true for undocumented immigrants who make little use of public services they will be denied under Proposition 187, experts add. For instance, many illegal immigrants working as nannies or house cleaners left their children behind in their home countries, and they have little to lose from the provision barring undocumented children from public schools.

Even so, in parts of the informal and formal labor market, practices seem to be changing.

Some of the immigrant day laborers who gather daily along Villa Avenue in Pasadena said more and more of those who cruise the strip looking for gardening and construction help seem to be demanding proof of citizenship or permanent residency.

"Sometimes they ask for papers," fretted Victor Manuel Peneda, a 45-year-old illegal immigrant from Honduras whose day jobs have included moving furniture and painting houses. "It's already hard to find work here."

The concerns were also evident to catering truck driver Monica Llauger, who said she found herself explaining the provisions of the law to many of her worried customers--both legal and illegal immigrants--at morning stops around Downtown Los Angeles.

"It was the talk of everybody. People are concerned," Llauger said. "They even tell me, 'They'll ship me back now.' " Even some with more secure jobs say the atmosphere at work has darkened.

Southern California Gas Co. crew worker Salvador Peterson, 49, said he got into an argument about the proposition with a co-worker a few days ago. "There is going to be more tension," said Peterson, who emigrated from Mexico in 1954. "Everybody is going to be divided."

Illegal immigrants are found across a vast spectrum of industries and workplaces in California. The best estimates on this elusive segment of the labor market are based on a 1989 Immigration and Naturalization Service survey of illegal immigrants who applied for legal residency under the federal amnesty program.

Figures extrapolated from the survey suggest that more than 800,000 undocumented immigrants who applied for amnesty were working in California in the late 1980s, scattered throughout dozens of industries. The figure excludes those undocumented immigrants, presumably including many agricultural workers, who did not apply for amnesty.

Many employers say they have followed immigration law scrupulously all along and that passage of Proposition 187 won't change their employment practices.

"What am I going to do, hire a bunch of white guys?" asked Fabian Duarte, manager of a Santa Ana car wash who mainly hires Latino immigrants for $5 an hour. "I tried that before, and none of them were willing to work for what I could pay them."

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Yet even if Proposition 187 has little impact on hiring practices, many people reason that the measure will drive away undocumented workers because their lives will become less pleasant here.

As a result, some native-born Americans and legal immigrants believe the passage of the proposition could open up job possibilities for them.

Count Julio Smirigilio among that group. The native of Argentina said he supported Proposition 187.

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