Friday, December 12, 2008

Bush Unveils New Rules for Guest Worker Hiring

Published: December 11, 2008

LOS ANGELES — The Bush administration announced new rules on Thursday that it said would lessen the bureaucratic burden on employers seeking to hire foreign farm workers. Advocates for the workers, however, contended the changes would depress wages and working conditions.

The Labor Department released the changes in a document of more than 500 pages, the culmination of reviewing 11,000 comments since it proposed new regulations in February.

The changes apply to a guest worker program known as H-2A, after the visa that allows farmers to hire foreign workers on a temporary basis for field jobs they cannot fill with Americans.

Most farmers ignore the program because of red tape and delays that could cost them precious harvesting time. In California, the 5,000 H-2A workers are a fraction of the peak agriculture work force of 450,000, according to the California Farm Bureau.

But, after Congress failed to revamp immigration laws and come up with a new guest worker program in 2007, the administration, seeking to attract more farmers to the program, moved forward with revisions not requiring Congressional approval.

The changes, the first major ones in 20 years, include eliminating duplication among state and federal agencies in processing applications, putting in place a new wage formula the department said would be fairer to workers, and increasing fines for willfully displacing United States workers with foreign ones.

An assistant secretary of labor, Leon R. Sequeira, said in an interview that while the changes would make the program “more predictable and timely, the program is still far from simple and easy to comply with.”

Growers agreed, and suggested the new rules would fall prey to litigation and perhaps reversals by the new administration.

“This is a program everybody acknowledges needs an overhaul,” said Craig J. Regelbrugge, co-chairman of the Agriculture Coalition for Immigration Reform, a trade group. “Even if regulatory reform were wildly successful and carried on to the next administration, it can’t even begin to solve the agricultural labor crisis. The bottom line is Congress is still on the hook.”

Farmer and worker groups have backed long-stalled legislation that would make more sweeping changes.

Anthony Coley, a spokesman for Senator Edward M. Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts, a major proponent of that legislation, denounced the revisions and said the senator “feels strongly that they should be withdrawn.”

Worker advocates said the Bush administration was seeking to put its stamp on the guest worker program instead of more rationally waiting for the next president. The regulations will be published next Thursday in The Federal Register and would take effect on Jan. 18, two days before President-elect Barack Obama is inaugurated.

Bruce Goldstein, executive director of Farmworker Justice, an advocacy group based in Washington, said of the changes, “The intent is a massive expansion of the guest worker program by enticing employers into a program with low wages and poor working conditions.”

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Cleaning Firm Used Illegal Workers at Chertoff Home

By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 11, 2008; A01

Every few weeks for nearly four years, the Secret Service screened the IDs of employees for a Maryland cleaning company before they entered the house of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, the nation's top immigration official.

The company's owner says the workers sailed through the checks -- although some of them turned out to be illegal immigrants.

Now, owner James D. Reid finds himself in a predicament that he considers especially confounding. In October, he was fined $22,880 after U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement investigators said he failed to check identification and work documents and fill out required I-9 verification forms for employees, five of whom he said were part of crews sent to Chertoff's home and whom ICE told him to fire because they were undocumented.

"Our people need to know," said the Montgomery County businessman. "Our Homeland Security can't police their own home. How can they police our borders?"

Reid admits he made mistakes but called the fine so excessive that it may put him out of business. Several of his workers moved after ICE agents showed up at their homes, he said.

Raising a common objection among employers as ICE cracks down on illegal hirings across the country, Reid said it is unreasonable to expect businesspeople to distinguish between fake and real driver's licenses and Social Security cards.

Immigration laws are unevenly enforced, he added, allowing big companies to stay in business while crushing small-business owners and workers. He said the rules punish "scapegoats" such as him while inviting people at every level -- customers, subcontractors and contractors -- to look the other way while benefiting economically from cheaper labor.

"No one wants to put the blame on the head; they'd rather put the blame on the business owner," said Reid, who owns Consistent Cleaning Services. "Damned if I should be fined for employees that I took over to their house."

Chertoff declined to comment. "We're very constrained in what we can say about anybody who has any kind of issue with the department," he said.

The Secret Service uses workers' ID information to conduct security checks, not immigration checks, much like most police departments do when they pull over people for traffic stops.

Eric Zahren, a spokesman for the service, which is part of Chertoff's department, declined to discuss specific screening practices. But he said agents protecting the secretary "would have run the appropriate checks, screened and escorted people as appropriate in order to maintain the security of the residence and our protectee's security."

Department of Homeland Security spokesman Russ Knocke said that in this type of investigation, ICE focuses on the employers, not where employees are dispatched. He said that contractors have the responsibility of ensuring that their workers are legal, and that the Chertoffs were assured by Reid that workers sent to their home were legal. Upon learning that Reid might have hired illegal immigrants, the Chertoffs fired him, and the secretary recused himself from the department's subsequent enforcement actions, Knocke said.

"This matter illustrates the need for comprehensive immigration reform and the importance of effective tools for companies to determine the lawful status of their workforce," he said.

The Bush administration has pushed to expand employers' use of E-Verify, for instance, an electronic system that can confirm new hires' work documents against federal databases.

In addition to the Chertoffs' house, Reid said, his service once cleaned the Washington home of former president Bill Clinton and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), now secretary of state-designee, as well as homes of another Bush Cabinet member and Clinton Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright. In those cases, he said, his company worked as a subcontractor and billing was done by a larger contractor firm.

ICE investigated Reid's company under a 1986 federal law barring employers from knowingly hiring illegal immigrants. It provides for civil and criminal penalties against employers who do not examine workers' documents and keep completed I-9 forms.

In February, ICE agents singled out Reid's company, and they subpoenaed two years of payroll and I-9 records this summer, a U.S. official said. Reid was fined $2,750 for hiring violations and $20,130 for not completing paperwork.

His offenses included failing to ask for IDs from or fill out I-9 forms for several workers who turned out to be in the country illegally. Reid said he also did not verify the eligibility of people he knew were native-born U.S. citizens, including himself, his stepbrother, his sister and his sister's friend.

ICE policy states that companies are not randomly selected for scrutiny and that all investigations are based on tips or intelligence. ICE spokeswoman Kelly Nantel said Reid was targeted under a year-old initiative called Project Safe Harbor, in which field offices pursue employers in the service, agriculture and fast-food industries.

Nantel declined to say when the Chertoffs learned of the investigation. She likened the couple to restaurant or hotel customers who take the owner's word that its workers are legal.

Reid said he was referred to the Chertoffs in 2005 and worked mainly with the secretary's wife, Meryl J. Chertoff, an adjunct professor and director of the Sandra Day O'Connor Project on the State of the Judiciary at Georgetown Law School. Reid's calendar shows that the Chertoffs paid $185 per visit for his company to clean their suburban Maryland home.

Reid said he routinely asked workers to give personal information to Secret Service agents and assumed the workers were authorized because they were cleared.

Chertoff's situation appeared to be different from a case announced last week in which federal prosecutors arrested Lorraine Henderson, the Boston port director for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, another part of Chertoff's department, on charges that she repeatedly hired illegal immigrants to clean her condominium.

Staff researcher Julie Tate and research editor Alice Crites contributed to this report.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Going Home to Guatemala - Aftermath to the Postville ICE Raid

The aftermath of an immigration raid.
By Eliza Barclay
Posted Thursday, Dec. 4, 2008, at 10:27 AM ET

SAN MIGUEL DUEÑAS, Guatemala—One year ago, Freddy Granados said goodbye to his wife, Hilda Gil, and their two small children here in a shack tucked between volcanoes and coffee plantations. With job prospects in Dueñas grim even for Granados, a skilled baker, he departed on the standard illegal-border-crossing odyssey of poor Latin Americans chasing el sueño Americano.

Five months later, on May 12, 2008, Granados rose early and left the small apartment he shared with five other Guatemalan men to report for work on the cow-skinning line at the Agriprocessors kosher meatpacking plant in Postville, Iowa. That day, he and the 389 other illegal immigrants who arrived for the early shift fell prey to an expansive immigration crackdown, called "military-style" by a local priest. To make arrests at a plant with around 800 employees, the U.S. government dispatched 900 immigration agents and two helicopters. It was the second-largest workplace immigration raid in U.S. history, and it cost taxpayers $5.2 million, according to an October report by the Des Moines Register.

Within eight days, about 300 of the workers, including Granados, were coerced into pleading guilty to charges of identity theft and misuse of Social Security numbers, according to a court interpreter, Erik Camayd-Freixas, who penned a searing account of the trials. Granados was then sent to federal prison in Louisiana, where he served a five-month sentence before being deported back to Guatemala.

In the last two years, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, a division of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, has begun to deploy the workplace raid with greater force. During that period, work-site enforcement arrests increased 41 percent from 3,667 to 5,173, while criminal arrests (mostly involving business owners, managers, or human-resource employees) increased 34 percent from 716 to 1,101.

But beginning with the Postville raid, ICE devised a way to use identity-theft laws to criminalize immigrants for working. Identity-theft laws are intended to prosecute people who steal identities to defraud others of money and property, not for people who use false papers to get a job. In the majority of the Postville cases, according to Camayd-Freixas, the immigrants were unaware that the Social Security number they were using belonged to a real person.

Entering the country outside the ports of entry and without proper documentation is certainly a crime, but a civil trial and quick deportation should be sufficient punishment. After months of lawyers, human-rights activists, and even some members of Congress kicking up a fuss over the application of identity-theft laws to immigrants, the Supreme Court recently agreed to hear a case on the issue.

"It's very unfair what they're doing," Granados told me over the phone recently, his voice squeezed by tears. "We're not criminals. We're workers." Granados was deported on Oct. 11, and he arrived home three days later. He says he is deeply pained by his experience and particularly by the treatment he received in the federal prison.

Granados said one of his lowest moments came when he spoke to his wife in July to tell her that he was in jail and would not be sending any more money. (According to Granados, federal prison officials did not let him communicate with his family for three months after the raid, nor did he ever receive his personal belongings from Postville.) Word of the raid had reached Dueñas, but Gil knew nothing of Granados' whereabouts and was gravely worried.

I met Gil in early October through her neighbor Mirna Jerez and a string of other women whose husbands and sons once worked in the Postville plant. In Dueñas, the summer brought a shared suffering for the women—the end of the remittances sent every 15 days from Postville. Most women had received about $265 a month from their husbands—enough to cover the electricity bill, keep an extended family nourished, and buy school supplies for the children. "These months have been very difficult," Gil, a timorous 32-year-old with a soft, round face, told me.

The women were perplexed by the charges; none of their husbands were troublemakers. They had gone to the United States for no other reason than to make life a little easier for their families in the shanties.

For the men, the process seemed even more opaque. "We didn't have any options," Granados recalled. "The only option was to plead guilty for stealing, when we never stole anything."

Prosecutors in the fast-tracked trials told the arrested workers that if they did not plead guilty, they could receive as much as a 10-year sentence. Such a possibility was inconceivable for Granados, with Gil and the small children at home in Dueñas depending on him.

By early October, Gil and the other women knew their men would be arriving home soon. But the prospect was a bittersweet one. Though Gil missed her husband, she knew he would be returning to a more difficult life in Guatemala than the one he left a year earlier. Fuel prices were up, and the price of a pound of beans had doubled from 40 cents to 80 cents. A global financial crisis would mean nothing good for a small, poor country like Guatemala.

Although it is little comfort to Granados, news that Agriprocessors had also suffered from the raid recently reached Dueñas. On Oct. 31, ICE arrested Agriprocessors CEO Aaron Rubashkin on allegations of harboring undocumented workers for financial gain and aiding and abetting workers in stealing identities. A few days later, Agriprocessors filed for bankruptcy, having lost half its work force and having suffered a massive PR disaster.

If President-elect Barack Obama manages to move swiftly on immigration reform, the Postville raid may go down in history as a low point in using enforcement to try to fix a broken immigration system. But ICE may not be finished with its large-scale raids. At least a few members of the U.S Congress, including Joe Baca, a Democrat from California, have called on President George Bush to put a stop to them.

"Enforcement alone, no matter how well formulated or funded, is doomed to fail," Baca wrote in a letter to Bush in October. "We cannot deport our way out of this problem."
Eliza Barclay is a writer based in Washington, D.C., who reports on Latin America and Africa.

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