Employers of illegal aliens now are targeted. US moves under new law to stem tide

The nation's more than 8 million employers are on notice: After months of educating businesses about the new United States immigration law, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) has begun cracking down on employers who knowingly hire undocumented aliens.

A Los Angeles swimming pool chemical supply company was the first employer cited, receiving a warning Friday. At least three of nine illegal aliens arrested at the San Gabriel Valley firm had been hired in violation of the sanctions provision of the new law, an INS agent said.

The crackdown comes at a time when the flow of illegal entries along parts of the US-Mexico border, which the employer-sanctions provision is designed to stanch, is increasing. And enforcement has begun although many US businesses would like to see it delayed, since they contend they still do not understand all provisions of the immigration law.

The sanctions provision, a key part of the sweeping immigration reform measure enacted by Congress last fall, was originally set to go into effect June 1. But the INS put off citing employers for at least a month because it had not distributed all the forms needed to start enforcement and because many businesses remained confused about the law.

Now the agency is going ahead with enforcement of the provision, which threatens employers with hefty fines and possibly jail terms for knowingly hiring undocumented aliens.

``We've busted our biscuits to get the word out to employers and to educate them about the [immigration] reform act, and we'll bust biscuits to enforce the sanctions,'' Harold Ezell, INS Western regional commissioner, said at a press conference earlier this month.

But the crackdown is beginning with something of a velvet touch. The INS is in the midst of a yearlong education period that it considers crucial to making the sanctions work. So far, about 150,000 employers have been reached through seminars and door-to-door visits by INS investigators, who have been spending about half their time on the educational effort. That will continue through next June.

At the same time, the agency will hand out citations to employers who do not abide by the statute. On the first visit, INS investigators explain the law to employers. If they are later found to be hiring illegal aliens, the agency will issue a ``warning'' citation. A second infraction will bring up to a $2,000 fine per alien. Subsequent violations can bring a $5,000 or $10,000 fine and a six-month jail term.

Given the relatively small number of investigators, the agency will mainly focus on the most flagrant violators.

``We believe the majority of the employers will cooperate,'' says INS official Verne Jervis in Washington.

The sanctions begin amid signs that parts of the border are becoming more porous. In the San Diego sector, the nation's busiest border crossing, arrests of illegal aliens reached a new high in July. Some 63,000 aliens were apprehended, up 7 percent from July 1986. So far in August arrests have been running about on par with last year's record pace.

Although the sanctions have yet to be levied, some critics see the latest numbers as evidence that the new immigration law won't work in deterring illegals from entering the US. Yet overall arrests along the border are still down, which INS officials in Washington cite as evidence that it will. In the 10 months from October through July, arrests along the 1,900-mile border were off 30 percent from the year before.

Employers are gearing up for the sanctions with a mixture of apprehension and grudging acceptance. Many large businesses and trade associations have been conducting workshops to inform members about various aspects of the law, such as the types of documents they have to keep on file to show that employees are eligible to work in the US.

``The information has gotten out a little late, but most employers know what their responsibilities are,'' says Louis Custrini of the Merchants and Manufacturers Association of Southern California. Yet thousands of other firms, particularly small ones, are still only vaguely aware of the complex measure. Thus, some business lobbyists such as the US Chamber of Commerce are hoping the INS is lenient for now in enforcing the sanctions.

How the law will eventually affect employers, and the flow of illegals across the border, remains to be seen. A study under way by researchers at the University of California, San Diego, of the new law's impact on 85 immigrant-dependent businesses in southern California shows management is making no major changes yet. Only two companies have indicated they might move operations ``offshore'' because of a concern about labor shortages.

``There is mainly a wait-and-see attitude,'' says Kitty Calavita, a researcher with the university's Center for US-Mexican Studies.

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