SANTA ANA — Immigration officials raided the Clothes Connection on Thursday, detaining 42 suspected illegal immigrant workers and dealing another blow to a garment manufacturer already charged with labor and safety violations.
The workers were taken to Immigration and Naturalization Service offices in Westminster and Los Angeles for questioning and deportation, said Los Angeles INS District Director Richard K. Rogers.
"At this time, they appear to be undocumented," Rogers said. Officials were reviewing records to determine whether the workers "presented counterfeit documents to the employer."
The raid was a follow-up to an investigation begun last March, when agents discovered "hundreds and hundreds" of illegal immigrants on the payroll, Rogers said. The company was told that it would be fined only if those same people were kept on the payroll, or if the company did not make every effort to review workers' documents.
"If these are all new hires and they all had counterfeit documents, then there's a possibility there wouldn't be a fine," Rogers said. "If the employer did all the diligent action to ensure that these individuals were entitled to work here legally, then the employer did what they were supposed to."
Clothes Connection manufactures women's clothes that are sold to discount retailers, including Kmart and Wal-Mart. The company had 1,400 employees last spring, but Rogers said the payroll had shrunk to 750 by September. Clothes Connection has been operating in its two-story building on Dyer Road since 1993 and is a contractor to California Connection, a sister company in Los Angeles.
According to people familiar with the company, Clothes Connection fired about 300 workers last March after the INS first launched its investigation.
In May, the state's deputy labor commissioner said state and federal investigators were preparing to fine the company "several hundred thousand dollars" for overtime wage violations and for charging workers more than $100 a month for the tools required to do their jobs, violations he called "egregious."
The workers, who are paid $4.25 an hour, were required to pay cash for certain items, including aluminum bobbins, sewing needles, folders and bobbin cases, according to state records.
Earlier in the year, Cal/OSHA fined the company more than $13,000 for 17 occupational health and safety violations, including failing to report serious workplace accidents and exposing workers to blood-borne disease transmitted by workers sharing tagging guns, which attach the plastic tag commonly found on garments.
The company is contesting all the allegations and will appear in front of an administrative law judge in late November.
"Everything is still an ongoing investigation," said an attorney for the company, Cynthia A. Woodruff of Beverly Hills.
Company officials contend that vindictive union organizers are to blame for the company's trouble, Woodruff said.
"We do believe the company has been singled out," she said. "We believe it stems from a union organizing event that began virtually simultaneously with the INS coming to the company."
Rogers described the search warrant served Thursday as routine, but he said the investigation was given a special priority because the agency was notified of possible immigration violations by the state agencies investigating Clothes Connection.
Woodruff said the company has been cooperating with the INS.
"We've been working together and cooperating and trying to make sure our document verification process is accurate," she said. "The company has gone through an overhaul of the verification system since the investigation began."
The garment industry has drawn closer scrutiny of its troubled labor practices since Thai workers were discovered in near-slave conditions at an El Monte facility earlier this year.
Work-site enforcement by the INS "is a continued effort" at all types of businesses, Rogers said, "but when we get heavy-duty leads into the garment industry we try to pursue them as quickly as we can, oftentimes because of the conditions of employment."
Rogers said the INS is working with the state Department of Labor and Cal/OSHA on the investigation of the company.
"It is common practice for us to work with them, but if we get leads from them we pursue them more readily than we would a complaint from a general citizen," he said.