Just in California agriculture, UC Davis professor Philip Martin estimates that contractors account for nearly half of employment on farms around the state -- and between 60% and 80% of employment in seasonal harvesting.
Contractors are paid to hire and manage employees for larger companies. For example, a supermarket chain may hire a janitorial contractor, who in turn hires the workers to clean the stores. Or a garment company might hire small businesses to sew their clothes. The contractors might also hire out the labor to subcontractors.
"You can have layer upon layer," said UCLA law professor Gary Blasi. "The main point of it is to offload all the liability for any illegal action ... to the people at the bottom."
Without specific legislation to address it, Jacoby said, the problem would probably continue.
"If there is no provision to deal with contractors, that would be a huge loophole" in any immigration bill, she said. "It's hard to see how the law would be effective without that."
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.
As it stands, a House immigration bill passed in December would require all employers, including employment placement agencies and day labor centers, to check the legal status of their workers. The bill would also create a tamper-proof identification card and increase sanctions for hiring illegal laborers. Last week, before beginning its spring recess, the Senate was also considering a proposal to create a mandatory employee verification system as part of broader immigration reform.
Still, one provision of the House bill, which must be reconciled with the Senate version, would offer specific protection to contractors who hire subcontractors. Contractors would not be liable for subcontractors' hiring of undocumented immigrants if they did not know the workers were here illegally.
For the most part, Immigration and Customs Enforcement has not treated all employers equally. The agency has focused its efforts on possible security risks such as airports, power plants and military bases. The agency says employers who use contractors may not know the background, or true identity, of their workers, who may have access to sensitive areas or information.
But other employers are not entirely immune from civil and criminal sanctions, even if they use contractors, immigration officials said.
Wal-Mart agreed to pay $11 million to the federal government last year after a raid resulted in the arrest of 245 undocumented janitors. Wal-Mart officials said they believed the subcontractors employed only legal workers, but investigators originally said executives knew about the undocumented employees.
Legislators in Washington also are feeling some pressure from anti-illegal immigration groups, which say contractors are displacing American workers and reducing unions' presence by hiring undocumented workers for less pay -- often through informal hiring networks and day labor sites.
"That underscores the need to have an effective system that assures all employers are competing on an even playing field," said Jack Martin, special projects director for the Federation for American Immigration Reform. "It would affix responsibility on employers, so that they could no longer hide behind the pretext that they did not know that their employee was not entitled to work in the United States."
Alex Teague, senior vice president with Ventura County agriculture company Limoneira Co., said he isn't trying to avoid liability or reduce costs. He simply needs workers -- and contractors can deliver them.
Limoneira, which farms more than 7,000 acres, employs about 300 full-time workers and an additional 600 contract workers in peak season. Teague said he can offer the pickers only seasonal work, so contractors are essential to keep the laborers employed throughout the year.
"You try to do all the reasonable things you can to make sure everybody here is legal," he said. "But I don't think anybody with a straight face can say that everything is checked out thoroughly."