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Conservative Inland Empire cities crack down on illegal workers

Temecula, Murrieta, Lake Elsinore, Menifee and Norco require businesses to check workers' immigration status in the federal government database E-Verify. Critics say that will push more workers underground.

February 14, 2011|By Phil Willon, Los Angeles Times
  • Gary Winder of Stage Ranch Farm Management says Temecula Valley's wineries will be particularly hard-hit by the city's new E-Verify requirement. He depends on a crew of skilled farm workers to bring in the harvest and process the grapes, and he says locals "just won't do" that kind of work.
Gary Winder of Stage Ranch Farm Management says Temecula Valley's… (Don Bartletti, Los Angeles…)

Out-of-work plumber Pablo Haro scoured the postings at a Murrieta jobs center for openings at local utilities, but he didn't expect any plumbing companies to be hiring.

The recession-ravaged Inland Empire is flooded with laid-off plumbers trying to scratch by, he said. That's why Haro is all for the rash of tough new laws cracking down on the hiring of illegal immigrants in this conservative, suburban valley.

"They're working for almost nothing; it's hard to compete with that," said Haro, who was born in Mexicali but became a U.S. citizen a decade ago. "Construction has crashed, so everyone is scrambling to get any job out there."

Stung by foreclosures and joblessness, politicians in Temecula, Murrieta, Lake Elsinore, Menifee and Norco have been railing against illegal immigrants for taking jobs away from desperate citizens. In December, unemployment ranged from 9.7% in Murietta to 14.2% in Lake Elsinore.

Using a strategy first adopted in Arizona, the cities in January began requiring all businesses to check the legal status of new workers through E-Verify, a free online database run by the federal government that allows employers to determine the immigration status of their workers. Employers that refuse risk having their business licenses revoked.

"The simple notion to why we did it is that we believe that American jobs should go to Americans," said Temecula City Councilman Jeff Comerchero. "Is what we did the cure for illegal immigration? Certainly not. It's a small step. Everyone needs to understand that cities don't have much power when it comes to illegal immigration."

In Lancaster, which last year became the first city in California to require all businesses to screen workers through E-Verify, Mayor R. Rex Parris says the program already has had a deterrent effect.

"That's exactly what we wanted," he said. "As soon as I pull the business license of a Wal-Mart or McDonald's, that's really going to change things around here. And that's what I fully intend to do if we find a flagrant violation."

But critics in the business community complain about E-Verify's reliability. A federally sponsored evaluation in 2009 found that the program often failed to detect cases in which workers used fraudulent Social Security and immigration documents, while another report in December from the Government Accountability Office noted that legal workers were sometimes wrongly identified. Those who are mistakenly red-flagged tend to be foreign-born, creating "the appearance of discrimination," according to the December report, and they can face bureaucratic nightmares to clear their record.

The crackdown in the Inland Empire comes in towns that, while hard hit by the recession, largely escaped the worst of the economic downturn that crushed the rest of Riverside and San Bernardino counties, leading local critics of E-Verify to credit the area's resilient "tea party" activism as one of the driving forces behind the new policies.

"E-Verify is just another way to scapegoat immigrants for all of our economic problems," said Jennaya Dunlap, an immigrant-rights activist from Romoland who has led the fight against the new policies. "It doesn't really address the broken immigration system, and all it's going to do is force more people to be paid under the table."

Temecula and Murrieta remain among the most affluent and the most Republican cities in the Inland Empire, with Latinos making up less than 22% of the population in each community. In Riverside and Ontario, by contrast, Latinos account for roughly half the population. Both of those cities refused to adopt similar E-Verify mandates.

"It's not whether or not a place has new immigrants coming in, or if it's overcrowded with illegal immigrants. Those factors don't matter," said UC Riverside professor Karthick Ramakrishnan, who researches the politics of immigration. "The ordinances are appearing in more Republican and more conservative areas … where people care greatly about the immigration issue."

A conservative priority

Ted Wegener, a property appraiser and tea party activist, rallied support for E-Verify in the five Inland Empire cities that made E-Verify mandatory for employers as well as similar efforts shot down in Riverside, Ontario and Yucaipa.

"It's so simple. People come over the border for jobs. If they can't get jobs, they aren't going to come over," said Wegener, who leads a local group called Conservative Activists. "E-Verify is not the cure-all, but it'll certainly improve the situation."

Wegener was inspired by the crackdown on illegal immigration in Arizona, which in 2009 became the first state to require all businesses to enroll in E-Verify. Begun as a national pilot program in 1997, E-Verify was initially voluntary for businesses, but many federal contractors are now required to participate. Since then, 14 states have made E-Verify checks mandatory for public employees or contractors. Mississippi and South Carolina now require all employers to use it.

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