Businesses Cite a Catch-22 After Miss. Immigration Raid

Agents raided the Howard Industries plant in Laurel, Miss., even though the company had joined the federal work eligibility system, called E-Verify.
Agents raided the Howard Industries plant in Laurel, Miss., even though the company had joined the federal work eligibility system, called E-Verify. (By Matt Bush -- Associated Press)
By Spencer S. Hsu, Alejandro Lazo and Darryl Fears
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, August 28, 2008

The arrests this week of nearly 600 immigrant workers at a manufacturing plant in Laurel, Miss., are fueling a national debate over a federal system to check new hires' work documents, a program whose expansion the Bush administration has made a cornerstone of its fight against illegal immigration.

In what they called the largest immigration sweep at a single site in U.S. history, federal agents raided a Howard Industries electrical transformer plant Monday despite the fact that the company last year joined the work eligibility system, called E-Verify.

The White House has called the program a key weapon against illegal hiring, proposing to expand it to nearly 200,000 government contractors this fall, covering about 4 million U.S. workers. Thirteen state legislatures have enacted similar legislation, and Congress is debating whether to extend E-Verify this fall.

Major U.S. employers assailed the expanding crackdown, saying it creates a Catch-22. If businesses fail to enroll in E-Verify, they run the risk of a raid by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, business groups led by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce said. But if they sign up, they face added costs, labor disruptions and discrimination complaints -- as well as the risk that flaws in the program won't stop all illegal hiring or prevent government raids, they said.

"I think it's a mistake on the part of a company to think that simply because they [enroll] that they are going to be protected from any kind of government audit or raid," said Myles Gladstone, vice president of Miller & Long, of Bethesda, a major construction firm based in the Washington area.

At issue is a program that is supposed to help employers abide by laws that bar the hiring of illegal immigrants. E-Verify allows companies to check federal Social Security and immigration databases to determine whether an employee is authorized to work.

However, a key weakness in E-Verify is that while it can determine whether a Social Security number presented by a worker is valid, it often cannot determine whether the number belongs to the applicant. Many workers try to evade detection by using another person's identification.

That was allegedly the case Monday, when dozens of U.S. agents sealed entrances to Howard Industries' Mississippi plant, stopping production while they executed a criminal search warrant for evidence related to aggravated identity theft, fraudulent use of Social Security documents and other crimes. A civil search warrant for illegal immigrants was also executed, turning up suspect workers from Mexico, Guatemala, Germany, Peru, Brazil, El Salvador, Honduras and Panama, the government alleged.

About 475 workers were sent to a detention center in Jena, La., for deportation; 106 were released for humanitarian reasons to tend to a child or a medical condition pending court appearances; nine were juveniles transferred to a refugee resettlement agency, and eight face charges of criminal identity theft.

A spokeswoman for ICE noted the investigation began two years ago, before Howard joined E-Verify.

In its only comment on the raid, Howard Industries released a statement saying: "Howard Industries runs every check allowed to ascertain the immigration status of all applicants for jobs. It is company policy that it hires only U.S. citizens and legal immigrants."

The circumstances echoed a December 2006 raid on six plants operated by meat processor Swift & Co., now JBS Swift & Co., after which the company reported $53 million in losses, even though it was a longtime participant in the record-checking system.

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