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The Nation

Garment Laborers Say Bush Guest-Worker Plan an Ill Fit

With scant fear of being deported, illegal immigrants at one L.A. plant see little to gain in the proposal -- and much to lose.

February 08, 2004|Alan Zarembo | Times Staff Writer

Here, in the basement of the U.S. economy, two women sit face to face five days a week, sometimes talking, more often surrendering conversation to the hum of their sewing machines and the Mexican ballads playing on their Walkmans.

Both clear about $200 a week at the factory on Los Angeles' Eastside.

Both churn out the same products: dresses, shirts and pants that are shipped off into a retail world so vast that they have never seen their work in a store. Both pay taxes.

Both have the same education: sixth grade.

Juana Torres is a legal U.S. resident. Her sister-in-law, Abiud Martinez, is an illegal immigrant.

Their similarities point to a potentially serious weakness in the plan that President Bush announced last month to establish a new guest-worker program: It might not be much of a draw for many of the illegal immigrants it is designed to attract.

In making his announcement, the president said his plan would bring illegal workers, people like Martinez, "out of the shadows."

But in interviews at the factory where Martinez works -- and other Southern California businesses staffed by undocumented people -- employees gave little sense of being in the shadows.

Many illegal immigrants lead lives similar to those of poor friends, neighbors and relatives who are here legally, and few said Bush's plan offered much for them.

Before she arrived, "I thought that everybody would have to hide from the immigration police," said Martinez, 23. After a few months here, "I realized that I didn't have to be afraid."

Last year the U.S. Border Patrol apprehended 905,065 people trying to enter the country from Mexico. But once the people are beyond the border, the chances of being caught and sent home are tiny.

From 8 million to 11 million illegal immigrants live in the United States, according to immigration officials. Last year 48,120 -- far fewer than 1% -- were deported. The majority of them had been caught, not in workplace investigations, but after being picked up on suspicion of crimes.

"There is no immigration enforcement," said the owner of the garment factory where Martinez and Torres work. He nonetheless spoke on condition that neither he nor his business be identified.

Immigration raids were more common when he arrived in the United States -- illegally -- in 1972, he said. Indeed, in the last five years, the number of businesses fined by immigration authorities for employing illegal immigrants has fallen nationwide -- from 535 in 1998 to 15 last year.

Under Bush's plan, illegal immigrants and foreign workers could apply to work in the United States for three years with the possibility of at least one extension.

Guest workers would gain several protections: coverage by U.S. minimum wage and workplace safety rules, retirement benefits, the ability to open bank accounts and freedom to travel between the U.S. and their home countries. But when they joined the program, they would be registered with the government and subject to deportation after their enrollments expired. They could apply for green cards, but would not get priority or special advantage over other applicants.

As part of the plan, Bush has said his administration would step up enforcement of laws barring companies from hiring illegal workers. That would be a major reversal.

Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, immigration authorities away from the border have focused their efforts on airports, power plants and other infrastructure related to national security -- not restaurants, retail stores and sweatshops.

One measure of how thoroughly illegal immigrants are integrated into the U.S. workforce is that the Internal Revenue Service collected an estimated $7 billion in Social Security taxes last year -- about 1% of Social Security's overall revenue -- from 7.5 million people and their contributing employers whose Social Security numbers did not match valid accounts. Clerical errors account for some of the mismatches, but many are believed to represent illegal immigrants using counterfeit cards.

The ranks of illegal immigrants have grown steadily over the last decade, data indicate. In 1993, the government collected $1.9 billion from such workers in Social Security taxes

Federal officials could use the unmatched numbers to try tracking down illegal immigrants, but they don't. The IRS does not routinely share the names of offending employers with the Department of Homeland Security, which is in charge of enforcing immigration laws, because of laws protecting taxpayer privacy.

The legal consequences of using an invalid number are minimal. Workers receive a "no-match letter," informing them that their numbers were not valid. One worker at the Eastside factory said he and his friends simply throw the letters in the trash.

Companies with significant numbers of "no-match" workers also receive letters -- 126,000 went out last year -- as well as a $50 fine for each unmatched employee. The fine, however, is waived for employers duped by fake documents.

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