SOUTH GATE, CALIF. -- Clothing manufacturer Ricardo Arciniega thought he was going to have a great year. Big buyers of his women's skirts and slacks were promising to look for U.S. suppliers this year, instead of going to cheaper, riskier operations abroad.
When his usual supply of immigrant workers did not respond to his recent advertisements in the Latino community, he faced a severe labor shortage. Such a shortage was just what the framers of a new, tighter immigration law and new duties on foreign textiles had hoped would open new jobs for America's unemployed.
So where is Arciniega looking for new workers?
In the Philippines.
With the help of the Philippine consulate, Arciniega has applied to hire 100 unemployed Filipinos in Manila who are experienced in sewing under a longstanding U.S. law that allows employers to seek immigrant workers as long as officials certify that American workers will not be displaced.
Assuming that the U.S. Labor Department approves the paper work, as many as 3,000 Philippine workers may be on their way to Los Angeles before the end of the summer, according to the estimate of Philippine government labor attache Virginia Son.
The new law's chief provisions make illegal immigrants eligible for legal status if they have lived in the United States since before Jan. 1, 1982. The cutoff date was aimed at stemming the flow of illegal immigrants across the border.
Arciniega, now lacking 30 percent of the workers he needs, said his efforts to find U.S. residents interested in and capable of cutting and sewing clothing have failed. The few who applied "are looking for learn-as-you-work situations, which we just cannot do," he said.
Richard Estrada, director of research and publications for the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), said the garment industry has not tried hard enough or been willing to pay enough to attract U.S. workers. He said "they simply do not want to face the prospect of dealing with citizen labor," workers who expect better wages and conditions than foreigners do.
Estrada charged that using the federal certification provision -- the H2 program -- to bring garment workers from abroad is part of a scheme by American employers to create a new pipeline for hundreds of thousands of foreign laborers.
Michael Dougherty, a Labor Department official in Washington who specializes in the certification program, said the government last year certified about 33,000 foreign workers for jobs in the United States, about 5,000 of them under the sort of temporary labor contracts sought by garment makers here.
Although this year's volume of applications is running behind last year's, Dougherty said, he expects about a 20 percent increase in temporary labor certifications by year's end.
At a time when most American garment manufacturing centers seem to be enjoying a mild boom, Los Angeles contractors are complaining of impending disaster. Unlike New York, Philadelphia and other manufacturing centers, Los Angeles had relied heavily on undocumented Mexican immigrants who could sew and cut.
The new immigration law allows those who arrived here before 1982 to seek legal status, but nonagricultural workers who arrived more recently are ineligible. And under the law, employers can be fined or imprisoned if they knowingly hire workers without proof of legal residency.
Arciniega, first vice president of the Garment Contractors Association of Southern California Inc., said he and other contractors provide clean shops and piece-rate wages that can earn the average worker about $4.50 an hour. But Americans, he said, have a bias against garment work. He said a few years ago he heard an instructor at a local trade school advise students to stay away from it.
As required by the H2 program, Arciniega placed help-wanted ads in local newspapers and posted notices with the state unemployment offices. A special appeal through the state employment development department netted eight applicants, of whom three appeared for work. Arciniega said none of them had experience and that none could do the intricate stitching his contracts require.
A certification specialist in the Labor Department's regional office in San Francisco said employers who apply for foreign workers do not have to promise training to American applicants if they do not train the foreigners they hire. Son, the Philippine labor attache, said a garment-industry slump in Manila means she can provide as many as 10,000 workers with at least two years experience in sewing.
Ruth Heguzy, coordinator for the Garment Contractors Association, said the group planned to meet to discuss other ways to ease the labor shortage.
Arciniega said foreign labor contractors "are literally coming out of the woodwork" with offers to locate workers experienced in sewing abroad. He said he and three other local companies have requested a total of 800 workers from the Philippines. They are seeking two-year certifications, which under the law could be renewed. One Labor Department official said the maximum initial certification is usually for one year. If a temporary worker's skills remained in demand, a Labor Department official said, the worker could qualify for permanent resident status.
At Tery/Anne of California Inc., Arciniega's company in this southeastern Los Angeles suburb, the labor shortage will this year cost up to $500,000 in lost contracts, he said. He estimates that the certification process, including transportation to the United States, will cost him $300 to $500 per worker.
Heguzy said Los Angeles contractors have been particularly distressed by their inability to bid for new contracts put out by firms such as Frederick Atkins Inc. of New York.
Bernard Olsoff, president of Atkins, which provides apparel to several large department stores, said "difficulties in importing" brought on by tariffs and other developments "have led us to be more aggressive" in seeking American contractors. He said the company received excellent response from most places, except Los Angeles, to a trade publication ad seeking new suppliers.
Estrada's organization, FAIR, has supported the new immigration law and called for strong enforcement of its employer sanctions. He said the Los Angeles garment industry's poor reputation among American workers "is well-deserved."
Estrada said American employers who insist on relying on cheap foreign labor, rather than improving the efficiency of American labor with better equipment, are delaying the modernization of the American economy. If they keep it up, he said, "somebody, somewhere is going to have to bite the bullet."