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Wal-Mart Case's Challenge

October 30, 2003

What message have federal authorities sent with their highly publicized immigration crackdown on Wal-Mart Stores, the nation's largest retailer? Listen to the outlines of the case and it seems symbolic and impressive: After a five-year probe, federal authorities raided 61 Wal-Mart stores in 21 states and arrested 250 cleaning crew workers suspected of being in the U.S. illegally.

Now comes the hard part. To implicate Wal-Mart, the government must prove in the courts what it has intimated in the media -- that senior company officials or their subcontractors knowingly hired illegal immigrants. Ever since the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act made it illegal for employers to knowingly hire undocumented workers, the feds have raided workplaces nationwide. In each instance, hundreds, sometimes thousands, of illegal workers have been arrested. Lesser executives in small businesses have been indicted. But the immigration agency never has proved in court that executives in big business conspired to employ undocumented workers or were knowingly involved in such efforts.

A court case resulting from a highly publicized immigration raid two years ago against another large corporation, Tyson Foods, does not bode well for the Wal-Mart probe. A federal jury acquitted Tyson and three of its managers this year on charges of conspiring to bring illegal immigrants from Mexico and Central America to work in the company's food processing plants.

What then has changed to make the Wal-Mart case worth watching? The old Immigration and Naturalization Service has become part of the Department of Homeland Security. The successor agency, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, is Homeland Security's largest investigative body. Agency officials say they're better equipped to move against even the big firms because they can employ immigration, customs and homeland security laws against them and they're eager to tackle egregious violators.

Let it be said that the grand jury has sealed the Wal-Mart investigation -- which began in 1998 when Pennsylvania and federal authorities launched a money-laundering probe. Details of the Wal-Mart case remain fuzzy and unproven. And, ultimately, the arrests of 250 European and Latin American janitors, suspected of working in the U.S. illegally, might seem a meager catch, especially given estimates that there are up to 8 million illegal workers in this country. But imposing sanctions against Wal-Mart would send an important message to all employers -- about not hiring illegal immigrants and, consequently, not exploiting cheap labor -- if the government indeed were to demonstrate that its case against the corporate giant is real, not just for show.

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