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Employers risk little in hiring illegal labor

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"The law has been so difficult to enforce that the number of cases brought against employers is about half what it was a decade ago even though the number of unauthorized workers has roughly doubled in that time," a Pew Research Center report concluded last month.

One local businessman, who wishes to remain anonymous, knows firsthand the weaknesses in the enforcement regime. He owned a large landscape business for more than two decades in which he employed up to 300 people at a time, most of whom were Latino immigrants.

His human resource department checked the documents of prospective employees and filled out the IRCA-required I-9 forms. "The quality of the documents varied quite a bit from being very, very good in terms of forgeries to the point of some pretty strange looking things, like misspelled names on social security cards," says the businessman. "The problem is where do you draw the line? And to what extent do we [employers] need to become experts in counterfeiting?"

He says the then Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) audited his business three times during the 1990s. Each time, he lost more than half his workforce, but never received a fine because "we did a good job of filling out all the paperwork."

"It became almost humorous that every time they came in, we knew we'd lose a bunch of people, but gradually we'd hire other ones, and that was just the way of doing business," he says.

The INS is now the US Citizenship and Immigration Services.

"Everyone knew" some workers were illegal immigrants, says a young man who has supervised wait staffs at three Phoenix-area establishments. One had a bunkhouse where "no fewer than 10 illegal immigrants lived at a time."

So when the INS raided that establishment in the mid-1990s, "we lost over half the workers that night and had to close early," he says. "But within a week, they hired a whole new staff of illegals." There was no fine.

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