Nearly every day, immigrants newly arrived from Mexico pick up job applications at Car Wash on Sunset.
Owner George Garcia insists that they provide proof, such as Social Security or green cards, that they are authorized to work. What he does not do is pick up the phone to see if the documents are phony.
"I run a business," he said. "Why is it my job to kick people out? It is not my responsibility to figure out who is legal and who is not legal. It's their job to stop them at the border."
Garcia doesn't worry about being fined or arrested by immigration authorities. Even if federal agents did raid his Los Angeles carwash and arrest his undocumented workers, it wouldn't take long to replace them.
"If I lost 20 guys," he said, "within a couple of days I'd have new guys."
The escalating debate over illegal immigration focuses primarily on those who sneak across the border, not on the jobs that lure them here or the people who hire them. When authorities do crack down on employers, it often is to stem terrorism, human smuggling or large-scale criminal operations.
In fact, the owners of hotels, farms, restaurants and retail stores who hire illegal workers -- never widely sanctioned to begin with -- now face a negligible risk of being penalized.
From 1993 to 2003, the number of arrests at work sites nationwide went from 7,630 to 445. The number of fines dropped from 944 in 1993 to 124 in 2003.
About 7 million illegal immigrants worked in the U.S. last year, said the Pew Hispanic Center, a research organization.
"I don't think any average restaurant owner or farmer is shaking in their boots," said Carl Shusterman, a Los Angeles immigration attorney who used to work for the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
"We've seen an effective end to work-site enforcement," said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington. "To whatever degree there is enforcement, the only people on the receiving end of it are the illegals, because there are no fines of employers, practically none."
Even when a fine is levied, it often is settled for "cents on the dollar," said Kevin Jeffery, a deputy special agent in charge with Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Los Angeles.
The agency still has a work-site enforcement division, said Washington spokesman Manny Van Pelt, but the primary focus has shifted to protecting national security at potential terrorist targets such as airports, power plants and naval shipyards.
In the last year, agents have arrested unauthorized workers -- not employers -- at a Florida nuclear plant, a Louisiana oil refinery, a Boeing military helicopter plant in Arizona and, this month, a Texas company that provides contract workers to power plants and petrochemical refineries.
The immigration agency also targets businesses suspected of involvement in smuggling or exploiting workers, Van Pelt said. For example, five Chinese restaurant owners in New Mexico pleaded guilty in March after being accused of money laundering and hiring and harboring illegal immigrants to work for substandard wages.
"Do we go down to the rib shack on the corner and arrest the people working [there]?" Van Pelt asked. "Or do we go after the criminal enterprise and system vulnerabilities that essentially bring these people here?"
In the Los Angeles area, there are about 400 ICE agents to investigate cases involving narcotics, gangs, port security, criminal immigrants, computer crimes, smuggling and customs violations. They cover seven Southern California counties and part of Nevada.
The last time an employer targeted by the work-site division faced criminal charges here was in 2002, authorities said, when a Pasadena dress shop owner received probation after luring, then imprisoning, an illegal immigrant worker.
"How thin can you stretch roughly 400 employees with all our responsibilities?" Jeffery asked. "Everything is done on a priority basis. That's why the focus may not be the dry cleaners, but rather the power plants."
Any tips that do not involve critical infrastructure, he added, are "put in a file cabinet and filed."
Meanwhile, employers are hiring illegal immigrants with impunity, said T.J. Bonner, president of the National Border Patrol Council, a union that represents rank-and-file agents. He argues that a get-tough policy against employers would not only help with the crackdown on terrorism and smuggling, but also reduce the overall flow of illegal immigrants across the border.
"If no one will hire you when you get here," Bonner said, "you are not going to waste your time making the journey."
Work is what spurred Jose Lopez to pay a "coyote" $1,500 to bring him across the border three years ago. Later, he bought fake documents for $50 and took them to Garcia at the carwash. Each week, he sends money home to his wife and two children in Mexico City.