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Illegal Hiring Is Rarely Penalized

Ben Salazar, a longtime activist, says that
Ben Salazar, a longtime activist, says that "immigrants know they're needed" in jobs many Americans will not fill, "so they will take their chances." (By Kari Lydersen -- The Washington Post)

Henry Davis, chief executive of Greater Omaha Packing Company and a third-generation meatpacker, fumes that the INS singled out Nebraska's beef industry. Davis said there is a symbiosis between his company and its workers. His business, which slaughters 2,400 cattle a day, offers free English and citizenship classes, paid vacations, health fairs and citizenship ceremonies to workers, he said.

Lourdes Gouveia, a sociologist at the University of Nebraska at Omaha who has studied the meatpacking industry for two decades, said Operation Vanguard's lessons have gone unlearned. Rather than leave the country after the crackdown, workers just changed jobs.

Meatpackers "need workers, and white Americans are not going to apply for these jobs," said Ben Salazar, a longtime activist and publisher of the newspaper Nuestro Mundo. "Immigrants know they're needed, so they will take their chances."

In an interview, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff acknowledged the administration's record but said a combination of carrots and sticks for business can work.

"It would be hard to sustain political support for vigorous work-site enforcement if you don't give employers an avenue to hire their workers in a way that is legal, because you're basically saying, 'You've got to go out of business,' " Chertoff said.

On the other hand, he said, "businesses need to understand if you don't . . . play by the rules, we're really going to come down on you. . . . That's a very powerful place to stand in resisting people who are going to push back."

Company officials who knowingly employ illegal workers can be fined and, if they continue, face jail time. Housing or harboring illegal workers or laundering money can carry long prison sentences. But the easy availability of fraudulent documents frustrates investigators, as does a law that protects businesses as long as a worker's document "appears on its face to be genuine."

Statistics show that the numbers of fines and convictions dropped sharply after 1999, with fines all but phased out except for occasional small cases. After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, a 2003 memorandum issued by ICE required field offices to request approval before opening work-site cases not related to protecting "critical infrastructure," such as nuclear plants. Agents focused on removing unauthorized workers, not punishing employers.

ICE also faced a $500 million budget shortfall, and resources were shifted from traditional enforcement to investigations related to national security. Farms, restaurants and the nation's food supply chain "did not make the cut," Reed said. "We were pushed away from doing enforcement."

Lydersen reported from Omaha.

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