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Employers leery about duties under new US immigration law. Some voice concern over possible litigation, others see `nuisance'

Employers across the country are gearing up for enforcement of the new United States immigration law with a mixture of caution, confusion, and consternation. George Murai operates a strawberry and tomato farm in Orange County, south of Los Angeles. He worries about the record-keeping that will be involved in screening new workers.

``It seems like the government is putting the proof of identity on the employer,'' frets the family farmer. ``I'm not sure we're qualified to do that.''

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Donald Clinton, who runs a restaurant chain in the Los Angeles area, believes the added paper work will be a ``nuisance,'' too. But he says many in the California restaurant industry, which relies heavily on Hispanic workers, already keeps some documentation on employees.

``It just requires us to be a little more careful than before,'' he says.

Many business people are concerned about possible discrimination suits by workers. They have to screen new employees while making sure they don't discriminate against US citizens and legal resident aliens. ``There is a very narrow line for employers to walk,'' says Virginia Lamp, a labor-relations lawyer with the US Chamber of Commerce. ``There are penalties for hiring. There are penalties for firing.''

Business stands at the heart of whether the new law, which prohibits the hiring of illegal aliens, will work. The measure is intended to help deter the flow of impoverished foreigners into the country by keeping illegal immigrants out of the US work force. It penalizes those who knowingly hire illegal aliens. It also grants legal status, or amnesty, to immigrants who can prove they have lived continuously in the US since before 1982.

Opinions vary widely on what impact the law will have on businesses. Some experts and employers expect it to have a major effect on industries that rely heavily on illegal workers. Those include restaurants, hotels, large-scale farmers, garment manufacturers, and construction firms. But others say they believe the sanctions will do little, since it will be difficult for the US Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) to enforce the law. Also, employers are not required to verify the authenticity of employee documents, which can be easily forged.

But they are required to examine documents establishing identity and work authorization for all people hired after Nov. 6, the date President Reagan signed the measure into law.

Employers will be subject to civil penalities ranging from $250 to $10,000 for each illegal alien hired, although the sanctions will not be imposed until May 1987.

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Many businesses are withholding a verdict on the law until the INS irons out the details. ``We don't know what kind of effect it is going to have,'' says Garth Ward, president of Fashion Sportwear Inc., a Los Angeles area garment contractor.

The blizzard of paper work that will be required is expected to have the most impact on small businesses, usually unaccustomed to keeping meticulous files, as well as on industries that rely heavily on aliens and have a high turnover.

``If you misplace a form, you are looking at a possible fine,'' says one immigration attorney.

There is also some nervousness in the business community about verifying documents. Although employers are not responsible for determining their authenticity, the law does state that documents must appear to be ``reasonably genuine.'' Until that is defined, some business people remain skittish.

Perhaps the most contentious issue, however, is the possibility of discrimination. The law calls for a special counsel to be set up to prosecute cases of discrimination based on citizenship or national origin. Employers are bracing for a flood of litigation on this score.

Despite the special protections, immigrant-rights advocates worry that many employers will try to avoid trouble by passing over job applicants who even look foreign. Moreover, there have been reports of businesses firing aliens, even though there is no need to do so, since employers cannot be punished for keeping on illegal aliens hired before Nov. 6.

``Discrimination impacts both the undocumented community and those who look foreign or speak with an accent,'' says Francisco Garcia Rodriquez, an attorney with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund in San Francisco.

How effective the sanctions will be in deterring businesses from hiring illegals will rest in part on INS vigilance in enforcing them. Agency officials have suggested as many as 1,500 people may be assigned to police the sanctions nationwide. But much of law's impact will depend on voluntary compliance. This fact, coupled with the ease with which workers can get forged documents, makes some experts skeptical that the measure will have much impact on businesses.

``I doubt many employers will change their hiring practices,'' says Kitty Calavita, a researcher at the Center for US-Mexican Studies at the University of California, San Diego. ``All the law requires is that the employers check for documents and keep them on file. Once they have checked, they're covered.'' -30-{et

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