Bosses in Middle of Immigration Law

Some employers feel the heat from a crackdown last week, but also fear suits from fired workers.

Last week’s announcement by federal authorities of an aggressive
crackdown on hiring illegal immigrants – after years of lax
enforcement – has left employers like Chris Walter perplexed.

Walter’s company, TriStar Drywall, depends heavily on Mexican
immigrants to install walls in homes around Denver. When hiring,
“we do check two forms of ID,” said Walter, TriStar’s vice

Then, if the Social Security Administration sends a letter
indicating an employee has submitted an invalid number, Walter
orders that worker to call the authorities and straighten it out.

That’s all the law requires of employers. But Walter still feels
“like the microscope is definitely out. We do try to go exactly by
the letter of the law, but we are concerned that the law doesn’t
seem to be very clear.”

Federal officials got employers’ attention Thursday when they
announced the roundup of nearly 1,200 workers for palletmaker IFCO
Systems in 26 states, including 38 at a Commerce City site, for
alleged immigration violations. Seven company managers were
arrested, accused of conspiring to harbor illegal immigrants, and
could face prison terms. And more raids could be coming. Federal
agents “have several things we are working on in the Denver
area,” said Jeff Copp, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement
special agent.

“Companies need to take a hard look at what they are doing. If
they are doing something illegal, they ought to reassess what they
are gaining,” he said. But only employers who “knowingly” hire
illegal immigrants are at fault, federal officials say.

And Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff’s declaration
Thursday that “the status quo has changed” probably won’t impede
most employers, said Angelo Amador, immigration policy director for
the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Washington. “It depends on how far
they go. Nobody is talking about going after the 12 million”
illegal immigrants, Amador said.

Behind the scenes in Congress, Amador and others opposed recent
efforts by some lawmakers to lower the legal standard so that
employers who “negligently” hire illegal workers could be

The promised federal crackdown “shows the laws that are already in
place are good enough to go after the people who are really trying
to circumvent the law,” Amador said.

But some are pressing for stricter laws, including creation of a
fraud-proof work ID and verification system so that employers can
be required to make sure workers they hire are in the country
legally. Border Patrol union president T.J. Bonner, representing
about 10,500 frontline federal agents, dismissed the crackdown as
political posturing intended to defuse reform.

Homeland Security officials “are trying to convince Congress the
existing laws are adequate,” Bonner said, adding that the
crackdown “is not going to have any kind of deterrent effect on
the hundreds of thousands of employers out there employing illegal

Construction and landscaping companies have been identified in
recent studies as relying heavily on illegal immigrant workers.
Trade group officials declined to comment on federal enforcement

“We absolutely advise our members to follow the law all the
time,” Colorado Association of Homebuilders spokeswoman Amy Mayhew
said. “We expect our members are out there being outstanding

An illegal worker can fool an employer without much trouble,
Associated Landscape Contractors director Kristen Fefes said.
“There are some very good documents out there that look completely
legitimate,” she said. And when Social Security officials send
letters notifying employers that a worker’s number is invalid,
employers also are warned not to dismiss them based on that

Often, Fefes said, letters arrive up to three years late and are
based on inaccurate information.

At TriStar Drywall, Walker voiced similar concerns. “I want to
comply, but you are exposing yourself to possible litigation. There
are guys out there who will file charges against you for

The whole system needs to be fixed, said Chris Thomas, a Denver
attorney who represents employers. “Employers find themselves in
this wild conundrum,” he said. “They worry, ‘If we don’t go far
enough, we’re going to find ourselves on the wrong side of Homeland
Security. If we go too far (in firing workers), we may find
ourselves on the wrong side of Social Security.”‘

Under the federal crackdown, agents will focus on employers showing
“total disregard for immigration law,” said Copp, the ICE special
agent. “But if we get workable information … on just about any
company in the city or in our four-state area, we’d be able to work
those cases, too.”