Decrying what he called the federal government's "overboard meat-ax approach," California Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez joined executives of American Apparel Inc. on Tuesday to condemn escalating raids on businesses to look for undocumented workers.
Outside the company's pink factory in downtown Los Angeles, where a large "Legalize LA" sign hung on one building, Nunez said stepped-up work site investigations by Immigration and Customs Enforcement were hurting the economy.
"The last thing we need is to bring the type of disruption to our economy that could ultimately lead us into a downward spiral into a recession," Nunez (D-Los Angeles) said.
Nunez said the ICE raids had shut down some companies' operations for a full day as entire staffs were detained. Many raids, he said, seemed to be based on "individualized suspicion, often strictly based on a person's appearance."
American Apparel has pushed for years for an overhaul of immigration laws and has an ongoing advertising campaign on the issue.
Peter Schey, an attorney for American Apparel, said the company's employees, 4,000 of whom work downtown, were all legal to the best of his knowledge, although he said immigration authorities had asked the company to provide documentation on its workers.
If American Apparel's facilities are raided because of the company's support for legalizing the workforce, Schey said repeatedly that the company would "come down like a ton of bricks" on ICE and use "the courts and other devices if possible." He did not elaborate.
ICE spokeswoman Virginia Kice wouldn't comment on whether the agency was investigating American Apparel, but said audits often revealed that companies were in compliance with immigration and employment laws and didn't result in raids.
But in recent years the agency has increasingly cracked down on employers that hire undocumented workers, making more than 4,900 work site arrests in fiscal 2007. In 2002, 510 arrests were made.
Too many employers exploit undocumented workers and use their cheap labor to "gain an unfair economic advantage over other businesses and take jobs away from U.S. residents and citizens," Kice said.
And as companies employ more sophisticated means to scrutinize documents, Kice said undocumented workers were abandoning counterfeit paperwork in favor of outright identity theft.
"The prospect of gaining employment is one of the key factors fueling illegal immigration -- it's the prime magnet," Kice said. "These workers often use false identification and misrepresent who they are, and that's a security risk."
This month, more than 60 workers were arrested at South Bay warehouses during routine federal inspections; more than 130 were arrested in February at a Van Nuys manufacturing company.
But Schey said between drops in revenue from stalled production and the dangers of suddenly losing a stable workforce, the raids could cause tens of millions of dollars of economic damage.
In March, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa sent a letter to Michael Chertoff, secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, complaining that raids on "nonexploitative" companies could push businesses out of California and asking that federal immigration enforcement policies be reworked.
Although Nunez said companies should not endorse hiring illegal immigrants, he said workers who were employed should be left alone.