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Wilson Attacks INS Over Sweatshop Probe : Politics: Presidential hopeful charges Clinton Administration with indifference by failing to raid site years ago. However, Bush was in office when investigation was aborted.

August 25, 1995|PATRICK J. McDONNELL and PAUL FELDMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Gov. Pete Wilson on Thursday reignited the smoldering dispute about federal actions in the controversial El Monte sweatshop case, calling on Atty. Gen. Janet Reno to investigate the "apparent indifference" of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service and the U.S. attorney's office in Los Angeles.

In a strongly worded letter, the governor--and presidential hopeful--condemned as "unspeakable" the "inaction" of INS officials and federal prosecutors who initially learned in 1992 that Thai workers were possibly being held against their will at a bootleg garment factory in El Monte.

"The nation has a right to know why the Clinton Administration allowed slavery to exist for years in the United States and ignored it," Wilson wrote.

In fact, the initial aborted INS investigation of the sweatshop took place in 1992--when the George Bush Administration was in the White House and a Bush appointee headed the U.S. attorney's office in Los Angeles.

Wilson, until now conspicuously silent on the high-profile El Monte case despite his championing of the immigration issue, has entered the contentious fray a few days before Monday's scheduled kickoff of his presidential campaign near the Statue of Liberty in New York--a city where, ironically, Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, also a Republican, has publicly embraced all immigrants, legal and illegal.

Joining Wilson was Rep. Elton Gallegly (R-Simi Valley), who heads the congressional task force on immigration reform and who demanded an overall investigation of the INS.

Reno, whose Justice Department includes the INS and the U.S. attorney's offices, said through a spokeswoman that she is reviewing the requests.

"The circumstances of this case are of deep concern to the attorney general," said spokeswoman Ana Cobian, adding that the nine alleged sweatshop operators "will be prosecuted to the fullest extent possible." The nine defendants are charged with harboring and transporting illegal immigrants.

The timing of Wilson's broadsides prompted analysts to suggest a political motivation.

The governor's attack appears to be an attempt "to control the terms and dynamics of the debate," said Sherry Bebitch Jeffe of the Center for Politics and Economics at Claremont Graduate School. But she cautioned that such a strategy could backfire, particularly because questions may arise about how such an operation could thrive in California.

"[Wilson] has let himself and his Administration open to some scrutiny too, and it will come," she said.

Moreover, Bebitch added, "the question becomes in political terms: Will he look like he's being opportunistic yet again."

The governor has no standing to chide others about sweatshops, said a garment workers union official, because Wilson has cut labor inspection budgets and vetoed legislation that would have afforded some additional protection to exploited workers.

"If anyone should be hiding their face in shame today, it's Wilson--because sweatshops are a magnet for immigration and he's been soft on sweatshops," said Steven T. Nutter, regional director of UNITE, the Union of Needletrades, Industrial & Textile Employees.

Federal authorities have defended their actions in the El Monte case, asserting that the initial INS investigation of the site in 1992 did not provide sufficient evidence to seek a search warrant in U.S. District Court.

The case was then closed until a tip from an escapee prompted the INS to reopen its inquiry in May.

State labor authorities launched a concurrent investigation soon thereafter. State and INS investigators worked together on the case until Aug. 1, when federal prosecutors determined that there was still insufficient evidence to seek a warrant. The next day, a state-led task force armed with a Municipal Court warrant raided the site, discovering the illegal garment factory and liberating more than 70 Thai workers.

On Wednesday, the INS and U.S. Department of Labor investigators--this time having secured a federal warrant--swooped down on three suspected Los Angeles sweatshops, arresting 56 suspected illegal immigrants. Among them are 39 Thai workers, mostly women, who authorities say were working off their travel debts to professional smugglers.

On this occasion, the INS said it secured enough evidence to win a federal warrant just two weeks after initiating its inquiry.

But California Labor Commissioner Victoria Bradshaw, who has spearheaded public criticism of INS actions in the El Monte case, wondered about the contrast between the two cases. "I'm a little bit surprised they were able to get an administrative search warrant for this and not for our previous operation," Bradshaw said.

Meantime, immigrant advocates voiced fears that actions such as Wednesday's raids will serve to reduce complaints about wage and other workplace violations from apparel industry laborers who are terrified of being deported. The activists urged improved enforcement by labor inspectors--but without the INS.

"This could definitely have a chilling effect," said Julie Su, an attorney with the Asian Pacific American Legal Center. "All this is going to do is push labor law violations, including slave conditions, further underground."

At a time of growing hostility to illegal immigration, the controversy illuminates a systemic dilemma: How to enforce, simultaneously, laws that protect the rights of all workers and require the expulsion of those here illegally.

But federal and state labor officials describe Wednesday's raids as an exception, involving allegations of peonage, and say joint operations with the INS will remain the exception. "We're concerned that people working in this country receive the minimum wage, regardless of their legal status," said William C. Buhl of the U.S. Department of Labor.

Times staff writer Marc Lacey contributed to this story.

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