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Contractors Often Play a Key Role in the Hiring of Illegal Immigrants

April 15, 2006|Anna Gorman | Times Staff Writer

When federal authorities catch illegal immigrants on the job, some U.S. employers have a ready explanation for how they came to be hired: It wasn't us. It was a contractor.

Although these middlemen, including recruiters and temporary agencies, do not figure prominently in the current debate over illegal immigration, they are playing an increasingly significant role in hiring and managing the nation's workforce. Especially in California, an untold number of contractors employ immigrants -- legal and illegal -- in such industries as construction, janitorial service, hospitality and agriculture.

For now, work site raids and prosecution are infrequent, except where immigration authorities perceive a national security risk. But even as pressure builds in Congress to crack down on the hiring of undocumented workers, the involvement of contractors and subcontractors could make enforcement nearly impossible, labor experts, government officials and immigration policy critics say.

Under current federal law, companies face criminal or civil sanctions only if they knowingly employ undocumented workers.

"An easy defense ... would be to say that they used this subcontractor who they assumed was checking the documents," said Jennifer Silliman, assistant special agent in charge with Immigration and Customs Enforcement in San Diego. "It gives a level of deniability."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday April 23, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 98 words Type of Material: Correction
Illegal immigrants: An article in the April 15 California section on the role of contractors in hiring illegal immigrants stated that Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents had arrested 17 undocumented workers in November at the Navy base on North Island in San Diego and that Golden State Fence was the contractor that hired the workers. In fact, only some of those arrested were employed by the company, which said that none of its employees had been assigned to work at North Island. Also, the arrests were made not at the base but at homes and other work sites.

Whether employers invoke the use of contractors as a defense or not, immigration authorities often don't go after the employer when a contractor is involved.

For instance, Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents arrested 17 undocumented workers in November at the U.S. Navy base on North Island in San Diego. But the agency is not taking aim at the Navy, saying there is no evidence that it knew the workers were undocumented. Instead, the agency is investigating Golden State Fence, the contractor that hired the workers.

The contractors are "ultimately responsible for complying with all the hiring regulations," said Scott Sutherland, deputy public affairs officer for the Navy Region Southwest.

Golden State Fence Vice President Gary Hansen said the company did what it was required to do by law -- check for documents and complete the required paperwork -- but that "something went wrong." The Riverside-based company now participates in a voluntary employee verification program run by the government. "It takes the doubt out," Hansen said.

Boston's Logan International Airport did not face fines or criminal charges after federal agents arrested 14 illegal immigrant janitors there last year, though Immigration spokeswoman Paula Grenier said the investigation into the "illegal worker scheme" is ongoing.

Airport officials said they didn't know the workers were undocumented. They blamed the subcontractor, Hurley of America, which hired the workers and issued them security badges.

"We entrusted our confidence that they were hiring the right people and doing the right thing," Danny Levy, spokeswoman for the Massachusetts Port Authority, said in a recent interview. "There was a breakdown."

Since the arrests at Logan, however, the Port Authority, which manages the airport, has taken over screening applicants and issuing security badges.

"It is our responsibility ultimately," Levy said. "It's our airport."

Blaming contractors is not a sure-fire defense, but it has proved successful for some corporations. In one of the most prominent cases, a federal jury in 2003 acquitted Tyson Foods of bringing in illegal immigrants from Mexico and Central America to work at its processing plants as part of a strategy to maintain production without raising pay.

The government argued that Tyson officials knew the workers were illegal. Tyson's attorneys said a placement agency was responsible for checking the paperwork. The jury sided with Tyson.

Of course, employers use contractors for a number of reasons unrelated to getting around immigration laws: to cut labor costs, ease paperwork burdens or avoid having to pay benefits and workers' compensation.

Contracting "affects a much larger share of workers than ever before," said Princeton University professor Douglas Massey. "This has become the norm in any industry where there are a lot of immigrants."

But contractors' involvement can provide a convenient layer of protection. "It's don't ask, don't tell," said Tamar Jacoby, an immigration expert at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank.

The dramatic rise in the use of contractors and subcontractors began after Congress passed a 1986 law establishing sanctions against employers who hire illegal immigrants, said Massey, who directs the Mexican Migration Project, which studies migration patterns on both sides of the border.

He said the jump had been seen in numerous industries, including agriculture, construction, janitorial service, hospitality and landscaping.

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