United States immigration authorities, policemen for the nation's borders, are now walking a new beat: the company executive suite. After a year-long grace period, the US Immigration and Naturalization Service is beginning to aggressively go after employers who hire illegal workers as part of its enforcement of the new immigration law.
``The honeymoon is over,'' Harold Ezell, INS Western regional commissioner, declared this week as he announced fines against several California companies. ``We intend to show that this law is not a paper tiger.''
The shift is a significant one in the evolution of the landmark reform measure passed in 1986. It will ultimately determine whether the law's main goal - slowing the flow of illegal aliens into the United States by taking away their principal reason for coming, jobs - will work.
Until now, the INS has largely been playing the role of educator rather than enforcer of the sanctions provision of the Immigration Reform and Control Act. It requires for the first time that employers be held liable for knowingly hiring illegal workers. Penalties can run from $250 per alien up to $10,000, and include jail terms.
In the past year, INS agents have visited some 960,000 companies to explain the sanctions and encourage voluntary compliance. During that time the agency was required to issue warnings to first offenders. Only the most egregious violators were fined, about 100 companies.
As of June 1, however, the INS began moving into serious enforcement. (The first phase of another key part of the law, amnesty for certain illegal aliens, ended May 4.) While the agency will continue to educate employers, it will also be giving out many more fines along with the friendly advice.
This week, for instance, the INS cited 23 employers in California, adding up to a total of $90,000 in fines.
``The primary goal now is enforcing the law,'' says the INS's Rick Kenney in Washington.
The new emphasis may be coming none too soon. In the first year after the law went into effect, apprehensions of illegal aliens along the US-Mexican border - usually a gauge of the number trying to come across - dropped dramatically, apparently the result of exaggerated rumors of mass deportations and firings north of the border.
Now, however, the numbers are ratcheting upward again. Arrests the first four months of 1988 were up 13 percent over the same period a year ago, though they were still well below 1986's record pace.
While the numbers don't mean the law isn't working, the impact of the employer sanctions on the influx of aliens into the country will be closely watched by critics and supporters alike.
``It will be about a year before we know if there is some effect,'' says a congressional aide who closely follows the issue.
The INS faces formidable obstacles in trying to police the nation's employers. One reason is manpower. True, the agency is beefing up the force that will investigate sanctions violations. Now 1,000 strong, it is expected to rise to about 1,700. Another 1,100 agents will be added to the patrol along the border.
Yet their beat will be huge - the nation's several million employers. In their education meetings with more than 900,000 businesses last year, the INS gave out only 2,200 warning citations.
The agency will also have to cope with bogus documents. Under the law, most businesses must now have an I-9 form for each worker hired after Nov. 6, 1986, showing that they checked employees' birth certificates or other records verifying their legal status to work.
Yet employers are not responsible for determining the authenticity of the papers. Thus fake documents are expected to proliferate. Early results of a survey of 400 immigrant workers at companies in southern California, conducted by researchers at the University of California at San Diego, show that one-quarter of the undocumented workers have already purchased bogus papers.
``Employers are complying with the letter of the law in terms of filling out I-9 forms,'' says Kitty Calavitta, one of the researchers. ``But in many cases, they said they thought they had illegal workers on staff.''
Given the size of the task, INS officials are approaching enforcement similar to the way the highway patrol approaches speeding. It can't pinch everyone who drives too fast, so officers cite the most flagrant violators and anyone else they can, which sends a message to others.
So far, there are conflicting reports of whether businesses are adhering to the law. INS studies show that most are, while a Labor Department survey found only 41 percent of the employers whose records they checked over a seven-month period in full compliance.
Many executives are anxiously waiting to see how big the INS's night stick will be. Trade groups such as the US Chamber of Commerce are urging the agency to continue its education campaign, since they contend that many employers still don't understand the law. They are also poised to file suit, though, if the INS is heavy handed in its enforcement tactics.
``We're going to be joining in litigation if we see they have stepped outside their bounds,'' says Virginia Lamp Thomas, a labor relations attorney with the US Chamber.
Immigrants-rights groups, meanwhile, are watching for discriminatory practices against Chicanos and other foreign-appearing workers by employers. With the sanctions kicking in, the temptation will increase for companies to fire or refuse to hire anyone who isn't obviously a citizen.