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58 More Workers Suspected by INS in Eatery Raids

Immigration: The agency is investigating whether a phony ID ring was operated from the upscale O.C. restaurants.

September 11, 1997|E. SCOTT RECKARD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

COSTA MESA — Federal agents who arrested 22 food workers at the South Coast Plaza said Wednesday that they suspect 58 additional illegal workers had used forged documents to work at two trendy eateries in the mall.

The investigation is also focusing on whether anyone at Wolfgang Puck Cafe or Birraporetti's was involved in a phony identification ring, said John Brechtel, acting head of the Immigration and Naturalization Service's Santa Ana office.

About 44% of the workers' papers at Wolfgang Puck's appeared to be forged, he said. At Birraporetti's, 39% didn't check out.

"When you see the numbers running that high, there's often a problem" with an employer permitting or encouraging illegal workers, Brechtel said.

At Birraporetti's, an Italian restaurant where 12 busboys, dishwashers and waitresses were arrested Tuesday, 33 more workers had given Social Security and green card numbers that didn't appear to be legitimate, Brechtel said.

At Wolfgang Puck's, an additional 25 workers had apparently used phony Social Security and green cards in addition to the 10 arrested Tuesday, Brechtel said.

Both restaurants were ordered to fire any employee who cannot produce legitimate work papers. But Wolfgang Puck Food Co. Chief Executive Frank Guidara said none of the 35 on the INS suspect list had returned to work.

He said the chain is rechecking the credentials of all 1,700 of its workers and has found only "a few" at other restaurants who are unauthorized. "At other locations, it doesn't appear to be as prevalent as at South Coast," he said.

The Puck cafe reopened for lunch Wednesday, using workers from the chain's other Southern California restaurants. Guidara said the "very expensive" decision was made in part because Macy's, where the cafe is located, was having its biggest sale of the year. "We can't afford to let them down," he said.

Birraporetti's said it was restaffing and would not reopen until dinner Friday. A posted apology to diners cited "circumstances beyond our control"--a change from Tuesday, when a notice blamed "severe equipment failure" for closing.

In a prepared statement, Birraporetti's President Shawn Morrison said he was out of the country at the time of the raid "and our staff used an old sign to advise our guests that we were closed."

Operators of both restaurants maintain they followed INS procedures and were duped by sophisticated forged documents.

"I don't think we're any different than any other restaurant in California," Wolfgang Puck Cafe manager Greg Dodge said in an interview. "We feel as deceived as the government."

"Birraporetti's was a victim," Morrison's statement said. "Unfortunately, we were not aware of the extent of the falsification of such documentation."

Some customers expressed skepticism that so many workers could have been illegal without the restaurants' knowledge.

"That tells me somebody is looking the other way," said Steve Payton of Garden Grove, an electrical systems designer waiting for one of Wolfgang Puck's colorfully tiled tables Wednesday.

Payton's wife, Karen, a Wells Fargo Bank branch manager, said she had been trained to carefully scrutinize documents supporting the INS form I-9s she fills out to show that workers are authorized.

"You have to wonder who's doing the I-9s here," she said.

Brechtel, the INS official, said all 22 of the arrested employees were from Mexico. He said the agency has interviewed all of them, but wouldn't disclose what they had revealed. He said 13 workers had agreed to immediate deportation but nine had opted for hearings before an immigration judge.

Brechtel said forged papers are often good enough to fool the average eye, but added that the INS can train businesses to spot fakes.

Business operators who knowingly hire or continue to employ known undocumented workers can be fined $2,000 per illegal employee or even prosecuted criminally if a pattern of violations can be proved.

A less severe option is to issue warnings, Brechtel said. That was the outcome of INS raids on four Orange County McDonald's restaurants earlier this year in which 89 of 129 workers were found to have used forged work documents.

Brechtel said employers can schedule training sessions to learn how to screen workers by calling (714) 479-0235.

But a group that backed Proposition 187, the successful voter initiative to ban most state services for illegal immigrants, urged the INS to do more by setting up an 800 number for citizens to report violations.

Ron Prince, chairman of Save Our State, said his group handles numerous such calls. Noting that the number of INS agents has risen sharply this year as its budget was doubled, he said the agency should be doing more to take those calls.

"It would certainly take the heat off of us," Prince said.

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