ATLANTA — No, Ana Figueroa told the young seamstress, who was posing as a recent immigrant from Mexico. Without papers, she couldn't work at the plant.
A beat passed. Then Ms. Figueroa, who screened employees at Michael Bianco Inc. (MBI), told her to see "Felix" on the factory floor. He would get her papers for $60.
"Usted no oyó eso de mí," she added. ("You didn't hear that from me.") A few days later, the seamstress, who happened to be an undercover informant wearing a microphone, found herself at a sewing machine, stitching survival vests for the US military.
That chain of events, described in a federal affidavit, led to a high-profile immigration-enforcement raid in New Bedford, Mass., two weeks ago. While media accounts focused on the firm's immigrant workers, many of them mothers with young children, the company's owner and three other officials, including Figueroa, were also arrested and now face federal charges with prison terms up to 10 years. (Figueroa's attorney, Ray O'Hara, says she was an hourly employee, not a manager: "She was told what to do, and that was it.")
The raid is part of a growing crackdown on employers who knowingly hire illegal immigrants. Historically, such charges have been all but impossible to prove because managers could always say they were unaware that workers carried false documents. Now, the federal government is playing hardball with tactics reminiscent of the war on drugs: undercover agents, hidden recording equipment, and seizures of property connected with the crime.
The goal is to go after employers in industries that draw large numbers of illegal immigrants, such as meatpacking, construction, and apparel. The raids also have a potential political payoff. By showing a willingness to crack down on illegal immigrants and their employers, the Bush administration may be hoping to convince immigration hard-liners to support a guest-worker program, political observers say.
"It's a sea change in enforcement strategy," says Jennifer Chacón, an immigration expert at the University of California at Davis.
For example: The old Immigration and Naturalization Service fined employers who knowingly hired illegal immigrants. Its successor organization, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), an arm of the Department of Homeland Security, is arresting them. That's why the number of workplace fines dropped from 417 in fiscal year 1999 to three in FY 2004, while criminal arrests – of which a sizable number involve company executives or managers – are up dramatically. In FY 2005, there were 176 arrests; a year later, there were 718. In the first three months of FY 2007, which began in October, there have been 395 criminal arrests.
Seizures of property are also on the rise. In drug busts, for example, the federal government can take property related to a crime, requiring the property owner to prove in a hearing that it's not part of a crime. Such seizures often end up with owners forfeiting the property. Now the ICE is using the tactic. In FY 2005, it got $15 million from a single forfeiture case – more money than the total the government collected in immigration-related workplace fines in the previous eight years.
The result: a rising tide of criminal convictions. In FY 2005 (the latest numbers available), there were 127, up from 46 in 2004. In a recent case, the owner of a Baltimore sushi chain pleaded guilty to money-laundering and harboring illegal workers and agreed to settle for $1 million.
ICE officials say agents are, in effect, carrying out the enforcement measures promised but never delivered after the 1986 amnesty of some 4 million illegal workers. A nearly $100 million boost in its budget last year has allowed ICE to hire 67 new agents and add nearly 2,000 detention beds, laying the groundwork for the crackdown, officials say.
"We're doing a lot of sophisticated targeting," says ICE spokeswoman Pat Reilly. "It's one thing to remove people, but the magnet [for illegals] is getting a job. If you can make that a little more risky both for the employer and the person who takes the job, then hopefully it stems the flow somewhat."
Tipped off by a company insider, ICE sent an undercover informant to an IFCO Systems plant in Guilderland, N.Y. Pretending to look for work, the informant showed an executive a green card with someone else's name and face on it. "This will probably work – it looks like you to me," the executive replied, according to a federal indictment. When the informant later came back with a batch of fake green cards, forged by ICE's own documents lab, the management asked for more and thanked him for his service to the company, the indictment says.
A follow-up ICE investigation found that managers at IFCO, a large Houston-based manufacturer of pallets and containers, recruited illegal workers in Texas and brought them to facilities across the country. The company put them up in company-owned houses and drove them to and from work. Last April, ICE conducted a multistate raid, netting more than 1,000 illegal workers at IFCO and seven current and former managers.
Last month, five of them pleaded guilty in Albany, N.Y., to federal charges of conspiracy to hire illegal workers, with each facing up to two years in prison and $250,000 in fines.
In another big case, three principals of RCI, a multimillion-dollar cleaning firm, were charged last month for tax evasion and harboring illegal aliens.
The workers were recruited at Hispanic fairs and through Spanish newspapers and were never required to fill out W-4 tax-withholding documents or I-9 employee-verification forms, according to the federal indictment. All wages were paid in cash through a variety of shell companies, prosecutors say.
The use of illegal workers "pervades many industries throughout the United States," writes John Vandevelde, a lawyer representing one of the RCI executives, in an e-mail. His client "expects to resolve this matter to everyone's satisfaction."
Spokesmen for the poultry, meat, and construction industries say that such outright scams are not the norm. Most such industries support collaborative efforts by ICE, such as the Basic Pilot program, which helps businesses double-check IDs with a Social Security database, and a new "best practices" framework, IMAGE, which provides a set of guidelines that companies can follow to ensure they don't hire illegal workers.
Still, for many industries that employ low-wage laborers, obeying current federal regulations remains a "not too hot, not too cold" enterprise, says Janet Riley, a spokeswoman for the American Meat Institute, a Washington, D.C., trade group. "If you don't screen closely enough and [papers] are falsified, then you face immigration issues. If you scrutinize too close, you face [federal] civil rights issues."
So far, the recent arrests of plant managers and executives aren't affecting hiring practices of low-wage labor, says Richard Lobb, a spokesman for the Chicken Council in Washington.
Some observers say the targeted enforcement may be a short-lived and symbolic shot aimed straight at Congress.
Though everyone "from the dog catcher to the coroner" in theory supports tougher immigration enforcement, the workplace crackdown is more likely a "dress rehearsal" for another attempt at establishing a guest-worker program, says US Rep. Tom Tancredo (R) of Colorado, a candidate for president in 2008.
The upshot? "Increasing enforcement of businesses is going to really ratchet up the lobbying pressure on senators and congressmen who get a good chunk of their campaign cash from business interests," says John Booth, political scientist at the University of North Texas in Denton. "Those who stand to benefit from a normalization of a wider labor supply from abroad are going to put some real pressure on Congress to fix this before they get their executives put in jail."