By Eric Rich
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 16, 2006
Serious criminal charges once typically reserved for drug traffickers and organized-crime figures are increasingly being used to target businesses that employ illegal immigrants, a strategy highlighted last week when three Maryland restaurateurs pleaded guilty to federal offenses and agreed to forfeit more than $1 million in cash and property.
The little-publicized approach, which can include charging such employers with money laundering and seizing their assets, amounts to a strategic shift in the enforcement of immigration law in the workplace.
As a result, investigations into the employment of illegal immigrants, known as worksite enforcement, resulted in 127 criminal convictions in 2005 nationwide, up from 46 the previous year, according to figures from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE.
A single criminal investigation last year resulted in settlements and forfeitures of $15 million, an amount that surpassed the sum of administrative fines -- the traditional tool of workplace enforcement -- from the previous eight years.
Julie Myers, assistant secretary of ICE, called the approach "the future of worksite enforcement" and predicted that, because such investigations are often lengthy, results would be more evident later this year and next.
"People are doing this for money, not for any other reason," Myers said of those who employ illegal immigrants.
"They're doing it for pure greed, so we really need to go after them where it hurts. If you're blatantly violating our worksite enforcement laws, we'll go after your Mercedes and your mansion and your millions. We'll go after everything we can, and we'll charge you criminally."
The agency's strategy provides a backdrop to a roiling immigration debate that has divided lawmakers and spawned a surge in political activism among legal and illegal immigrants. Generally speaking, liberal and some business interests tend to oppose aggressive worksite enforcement while conservatives tend to support it.
The approach draws on long-standing legal authority and has occurred only recently because of the 2003 merger between the Customs Service, which developed vast financial expertise in targeting drug traffickers, and the Immigration and Naturalization Service. The INS traditionally relied on administrative fines and on the criminal charge of knowingly hiring an illegal immigrant, a misdemeanor.
On Friday, the co-owners of Kawasaki restaurants, a popular sushi chain in Baltimore, pleaded guilty to money laundering and harboring illegal immigrants, offenses that are punishable by 20 and 10 years in prison, respectively. The wife of one of the owners pleaded guilty to hiring an illegal immigrant.
The defendants admitted to harboring as many as 24 illegal immigrants, paying them less than minimum wage and using the profits to buy luxury cars and property. Some workers were housed above Kawasaki's elegant restaurant on Charles Street, where they lived in trash-strewed quarters and slept on bare mattresses.
The defendants agreed to forfeit $386,000 in cash, two properties and five cars, including two Lexuses.
Last week, an indictment unsealed in Ohio charged two temp agencies and nine people affiliated with them in a $5.3 million money laundering scheme involving the employment of illegal immigrants.
And in the largest worksite enforcement action in U.S. history, the Justice Department announced an $11 million settlement with Wal-Mart last year as a result of a criminal investigation by ICE into the alleged hiring of illegal immigrants by contactors providing cleaning services to the company's stores across the country.
Although the INS rarely if ever brought money laundering charges, it once initiated far more worksite enforcement investigations than ICE now does. ICE officials acknowledge that they have all but abandoned administrative fines in favor of criminal investigations. The General Accounting Office reported last year that the number of notices of intent to fine issued to employers for hiring unauthorized workers dropped from 417 in 1999 to three in 2004.
"If you've got 11 to 20 million here illegally, at least a fourth of those are working here illegally," U.S. Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.), the firebrand leader of the movement for tougher controls and sanctions, said yesterday. "It seems to me if you were serious about worksite enforcement, the numbers of people being arrested and or fined would be far more dramatic."
Yet some immigrant rights supporters said that aggressive worksite enforcement could deprive illegal immigrants of the ability to find work.
"I think they should go after employers who exploit workers and violate labor laws, but we should not be going after legitimate employers who are trying to maintain a business but cannot find workers otherwise," said Jaime Contreras, a labor leader and chairman of the National Capital Immigration Coalition, the umbrella group that coordinated last week's immigrant rights rally on the Mall. "The reality is that businesses like restaurants and hotels would not be able to survive without undocumented workers."
Although ICE is required to enforce worksite immigration laws regardless of whether a worker is being exploited, day laborer sites are unlikely targets for investigation, Myers said. "Our focus is really on corporate responsibility," she said.