Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has asked the federal government to review its immigration enforcement priorities, warning that work-site raids on "non-exploitative" businesses could have "severe and lasting effects" on the local economy.
"I am concerned that ICE enforcement actions are creating an impression that this region is somehow less hospitable to these critical businesses than other regions," Villaraigosa wrote in a March 27 letter to Michael Chertoff, secretary of the Department of Homeland Security.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement has cracked down on businesses that hire undocumented workers in California and around the nation in recent years, arresting scores of workers and their employers. In fiscal 2007, ICE made more than 4,900 work-site arrests, a 45-fold increase over the number in 2001, authorities said.
In February, more than 130 undocumented workers were arrested at a Van Nuys manufacturing company during an ongoing investigation. Last week, more than 60 workers were arrested on immigration violations during routine federal inspections at South Bay area import warehouses. Other Los Angeles companies, including giant clothing manufacturer American Apparel, have reported that ICE recently inquired about its hiring procedures.
In his letter, Villaraigosa said ICE has targeted "established, responsible employers" in industries that have a "significant reliance on workforces that include undocumented immigrants."
"In these industries, including most areas of manufacturing, even the most scrupulous and responsible employers have no choice but to rely on workers whose documentation, while facially valid, may raise questions about their lawful presence," he wrote. He said ICE should spend its limited resources targeting employers who exploit wage and hour laws.
"At a time when we are facing an economic downturn and gang violence at epidemic levels, the federal government should focus its resources on deporting criminal gang members rather than targeting legitimate businesses," said Matt Szabo, the mayor's spokesman.
Chertoff has not responded to the mayor's letter.
But Homeland Security spokeswoman Laura Keehner said the department believes its priorities are correct. In its work-site investigations, she said, ICE's focus is on national security and public safety. The agency also investigates companies it believes may have committed visa fraud, money laundering, tax evasion or egregious violations of hiring laws.
"We believe that we are prioritizing appropriately," Keehner said. "This is not random. The types of arrests that are made are well thought out."
Szabo said the mayor and Los Angeles business leaders hope to discuss their concerns with Chertoff in person next week during an annual business trip to Washington, D.C.
Last year, Chertoff warned in an interview with The Times that a crackdown on employers would cause "unhappy consequences for the economy." But employers who knowingly hire illegal workers are breaking the law, he said.
Anti-illegal immigrant advocates praised ICE's actions in Los Angeles and elsewhere.
"Cutting off the magnet of jobs has to be the No. 1 priority if you want to get a handle on illegal immigration," said Ira Mehlman, spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which supports stricter border controls.
Years of lax enforcement is what led to so many illegal workers in Southern California in the first place, Mehlman said. ICE should keep the pressure on undocumented workers and should focus even more attention on their employers, he said.
In Los Angeles, he said, "you take away 100 illegal aliens from these guys and they could have 100 more before lunch. But you take the head of personnel, that's another matter."
Immigrant rights proponents said raids at businesses break up families, make workers more vulnerable and give unscrupulous employers a competitive advantage. Angelica Salas, executive director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, said the situation only underscores the need for comprehensive immigration reform.
"All of the Los Angeles economy [is paying] for the incompetence of our congressional representatives," she said. "They haven't done what they are supposed to do."
Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce President Gary L. Toebben agreed on the need for reform legislation.
Toebben also sent a letter to Chertoff saying that workplace raids are "devastating" to businesses that are trying to follow the law.
Even when employers ask for proof that new employees are eligible to work in the U.S., there is no guarantee that the documents are valid, he said. Businesses can use the Department of Homeland Security's E-Verify system to match employee's names and Social Security numbers with federal databases, but critics have said that it often inaccurately flags foreign-born U.S. citizens.
Toebben said workplace raids can slow production or bring it to a standstill. He said future enforcement could also discourage some companies from hiring people who appear to be foreign-born for fear of hiring undocumented workers and being targeted by ICE.
Toebben said he worries that if the arrests continue, Los Angeles companies could have "a very difficult challenge in meeting their workforce needs."